Hey hey readers! So glad to be back blog writing after my summer break. It was a wonderful summer too! Filled with family, friends, traveling, pool-ing, lake-ing, yoga-ing, and running. And speaking of running...I am actually back in training for another half marathon! Eeek! I am so excited. This will be my first half since I injured my knee in 2018. I am soooo enjoying being back in training. But, more on that in another blog or social post later! Let's get to this month's topic, which is a lot more personal than most of my other posts. In this month's post, I share how my yoga practice has evolved and changed through my years as a yogi.
You might wonder why I am interested in sharing this. My main motivation for this blog post is so that people can see that yoga changes and grows as the practitioner changes and grows. In my early yoga days, I used to keep yoga "in a box." By that I mean that I didn't deviate much in the structure of my practice when I first started practicing. As my practice grew over the years, I began to introduce more variability to how my actual practice would play out on my mat. I believe this is important for people to know - yoga does not have to be any one thing. Because that stands in the face of what yoga really is. And the truth is, there is no right or wrong way to practice yoga, as long as the practitioner is being true to him- or herself. And a person's yoga practice will, and probably should, vary day-to-day based on all the other factors of that person's day. So, I hope that this blog post sends the message that yoga does not need to be formulaic, recipe-like, or kept in a box. Rather, yoga should be free, flexible, and adaptable. Yoga should be what the practitioner needs it to be in that moment, and no one can say what that is but the student him- or herself.
So, how has my yoga practice evolved over the years? Well, first, let me begin at the beginning by sharing my history with yoga.
My Yoga Story
Every yoga student has a story about how they were introduced to yoga and how their practice proceeded from there. My story began in 2014 when I was in graduate school at UGA for my speech therapy Master's. I had a professor who used to do short little breathing and meditation exercises with my cohort before one of our classes. I felt the effects immediately. Then, in 2015, I graduated from UGA and began working as a speech therapist in a local middle school. I was stressed most of the time because I was a new clinician, and any therapist would agree - the first year out of graduate school is TOUGH! You feel like you don't know how to do anything, and you definitely do not feel ready to be in the real-world treating and diagnosing disorders. I spent a lot of my free time on Pinterest during this time to get ideas for my speech therapy patients, and while I would be searching around on Pinterest, I kept coming across photos of people doing yoga. The poses looked beautiful, graceful, yet strong and sturdy. My body started to crave what it must have felt like to be in those different shapes. And something in my mind knew on some intuitive level that yoga would help me manage my work stress.
So, I went to my local REI store to buy my first yoga mat. I brought it home, unrolled the mat, and started playing around. I had no idea what to do or where to go with my practice. So, I would look at a few pictures on Pinterest and try to imitate the poses. I read about yoga on the internet, and I also went to Barnes and Noble to buy a book about yoga. From here, I continued to practice at home, slowly incorporating more and more poses and movements into my practice. I was hooked instantly. Yoga did help me manage work stress, but beyond that, I felt calmer, more serene, and more grounded than ever before. I became so into yoga that I barely let a day slip by without me getting on my mat for some length of time.
But, eventually, I hit a roadblock with my personal practice at home. I didn't know how to progress what I had learned, so I decided to find a studio to learn more. I eventually joined Breath Yoga Atlanta (now known as MOVE+Breathe - link here), which is still my home studio. I took so many classes at this studio, and I fell in love with the community, teachers, and practice space. I eventually went on to do yoga teacher training and started teaching group classes and private sessions.
I still practice at home, almost every day. But, my practice doesn't look exactly the way it used to when I first began. There were a lot of elements to my practice that evolved over the years, and I will explain those below. Of course, though, while there were things that changed, I also found that there are some elements to my practice that have remained constant, and I will share those below too. Last, I will share how yoga itself became a way of life for me, and that is one of the biggest changes I noticed. I hope this information helps to show that your yoga practice does not need to be contained in some formula; your practice can evolve and change, just as you do, and you can incorporate your yoga into your daily life as much as you want and need.
In What Ways has My Practice Changed?
The primary way my practice has changed is that there is so much more variety to what my practice actually is on the mat. I used to follow a more set protocol when getting on my mat. This is mostly because I was newer in my practice, and so, I was more inexperienced. But with experience and continued practice, I began to learn new ways to embody my practice so that my practice was always just what I needed it to be. See, yoga is like a gift. There is a true magic to it, and only the practitioner him- or herself can discover and harness what that is. And the best way to access that magic is to let your practice be free to evolve. Below I discuss some of the ways my practice has changed.
Structure of my practice. I used to make my practice look like what a typical group class would look like - e.g. centering, warming, main sequence, cooling, resting. But, my practice doesn't always follow that structure anymore. There is more variability now to the way I begin or end my practice, and there is also more variety to the various things I do in the middle of my practice. For instance, I might start my practice with rolling (to read an earlier post from me about rolling, click here), sun salutations, cat-cow movements, seated meditation (often with breath work), or quiet time/space on my back. I might end with a long, supported, comfy savasana, or I might do a quicker, seated savasana. I might focus the middle of my practice on a body part, such as glutes or hips, a specific pose, such as half moon, or sometimes, I just get on my mat and flow, letting my practice and inner intuition guide the movements.
Duration of my practice. I used to think my time on my mat only counted as an official practice if I was on my mat for at least 45 minutes to an hour. But, now, I understand that any time connecting with myself and my breath counts as a practice, whether that be 5 minutes or 55 minutes.
Where, and who, I practiced around. I used to think my yoga practice had to occur in my home or at my studio, on my mat, either alone (if at home) or with other students (if at the studio). However, over the years, I starting seeing that I could practice yoga seated at my desk at work, in my car at a traffic light, or while waiting for my dinner to cook in the kitchen. I started bringing my mat to fun and new places, like a park, or to a family member's home. I also started to see that I did not have to put on yoga clothes to practice yoga either. I could stop while on a hike to do a little flow, pose, or breathwork. I could also stop for a quick little yoga snack while out with friends or my boyfriend, while wearing regular clothes. I also learned how to access that deep space within me when practicing around other people, like family, friends, or even strangers. Sometimes, I even stop to do a few yoga poses when hanging out with my boyfriend's daughter. This variety taught me how to more easily access that luminous, pure center in nearly any environment, which I believe is at least partially why yoga started becoming a way of life for me.
Gained a deeper understanding of poses. One of the coolest things about being so many years into my practice is to see how much deeper I can go into the various yoga poses. And by deeper, I don't only mean how the pose looks. I also mean that through the years, I have gained a much deeper insight into how, when, and why to use a certain pose. For instance, I LOVE hanging out in malasana after a long day sitting at my desk doing paperwork. My attention and awareness has also expanded and deepened so much, showing me there is an infinite well within each yoga pose itself to explore. Truly, there is no pinnacle or end-post to any yoga pose. The practitioner is always able to learn something new or different in the same pose. I also learned that it was okay to express more variety within each pose. I could move in and out of the pose, I could move within the pose itself, or I could hold the pose in stillness.
My strength, flexibility, balance, and breath support improved. Oh my, it is so cool to see how much stronger I am physically in each pose! There are some poses, like chatarunga or half moon, that used to be so much more difficult for me, but not so much anymore. And my muscles have gained so much more flexibility too. My body feels more open and loose. My balance is so much better too - so much so that when I began doing stand up paddleboarding a few years ago, it was super easy for me! And my breath support is so much deeper. In fact, when I go see a doctor and they tell me to take a deep breath, one breath now lasts so long for me that the doctor has to tell me breathe out, to which I reply something like, "hey doc, if you tell a yogi to take a deep breath, it's going to be a loooong, deep breath." My deeper breath has even translated into my running. I used to breathe in/out of my mouth a lot when I used to go running. Now, about 90% of my run is nasal-only breathing.
Understood when, how, and why to use props. Through the years as a yogi, I began to see that yoga props are a wonderful, if not essential, addition to a yoga practice (click here to read my earlier post about yoga props). When I first began practicing yoga, I didn't even know what yoga props were. Then, I began to learn about the different props, but I was still hesitant to use them because I didn't know how, and I (incorrectly) thought that they would make my practice too easy. But, the truth is, yoga props offer incredible variety into a pose. For instance, down dog with your hands elevated on blocks is a very different sensory experience for your body than traditional down dog. Yoga props can also help you go deeper into a pose than you might otherwise be able to go. For instance, doing a malasana on a block can help you go deeper into your hip flexors. I also began to learn that props like a bolster or sandbag can make savasana a million times more restful and yummy.
What are the Constants in My Yoga Practice?
Although my practice has evolved to include more variety than it used to, I have learned that there are certain elements that I personally believe are non-negotiable for my practice - they must be included. And these elements include - breath, rest, presence, and exploration. The breath is the centerpiece for yoga, and no matter what my practice looks like, where it occurs, what I'm wearing, or who I'm with, my breath is the foundation for my practice. Resting for some length of time is also an absolute must for me in my practice - even if it is just for a minute. Some type of quiet time, to allow my practice to settle into my tissues, is a necessity for me. Being present, or at least attempting to be present (because let's face it - some days are harder than others to practice presence) is another element that is always part of my practice. And of course it is, because practicing being more present and mindful is one of the hallmarks of yoga. And finally, exploration is another constant that I need in my practice - space and time to explore my thoughts, my emotions, my breath, and the physical sensations I feel in each pose. But also, exploring new ways to embody an asana, or pose, or new ways to get in/out of a pose.
How Yoga Became a Way of Life for Me
The other thing about my yoga practice that changed is that the yoga itself - that magical process of returning to your true nature - has become interfused in almost all things I do in life now. My yoga doesn't just stay on my mat anymore. I naturally try to embody all the yoga principles and moral codes (such as nonviolence, discipline, focus, non-greed, honesty, and gratitude) in my personal and professional endeavors. I have this book (Yoga Life by Judith Lassiter), and I ordered it years ago - early-ish into my practice. And I never really grasped what "yoga life" meant back then. But, all these years later, I can see how yoga became as constant to my life as eating or breathing. I didn't intentionally try to interfuse yoga into my daily life; rather, it just started happening naturally. The more I connected with my true, inner goodness, the easier it became for me to deal with stress, connect with other people, and spread love to others. Yoga truly changed my world, for the better.
Well, thank you so much for reading this personal post from me. The yoga "well" is infinite. You will never run out of what yoga gives and provides. There is no endpoint or final destination in a yoga practice. It's just a practice, and the practice changes because the practitioner changes. Yoga is really a process of self-discovery in each moment, and each moment is different, so the yoga itself can never really be the same. Your yoga is different than my yoga. My yoga today is different than what my yoga was yesterday. Yoga is unlike any other physical movement practice I have participated in. Yoga is not just stretching or sun salutations. Yoga is a process of learning that you are innately beautiful and good, and that there is an abundance of peace and love within you at any moment. And even though my practice has ebbed and flowed with me in life, there are also some things that I have learned are the "constants" of my practice. I think it's the combination of these "constants" along with the freedom to evolve that brings me back to my mat to practice time and time again. I cannot wait to see how, and where, my practice will evolve over the rest of my life.
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of human movement and yoga. If you have questions about yoga specific for you, please follow up with your physician, physical therapist, personal trainer, or yoga teacher. If you are interested in private yoga and/or personal training sessions with me, Jackie, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my monthly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES, NASM-CNC, NASM-SFC, NASM-WLS