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Real Life, In-Person Yoga

Things to consider and how your Practice may be affected...

In the last couple of weeks across England, Yoga Teachers and students have started to once again gather in person to teach and practice Yoga. Today it has really occurred to me how big this is, and in particular how our practice may be affected from simply being in the physical presence of others during class. What was once the norm, may feel a little alien to begin with as we navigate the coming weeks. There are of course lots of benefits to being with others when cracking out your down dog, or warrior 2 - otherwise we wouldn't have bothered before the pandemic! Yet there are also some aspects that might raise a challenge in us and require us to alter our approach as we re-learn to be together. I would like to suggest that in this re-learning there is a golden opportunity to re-connect with the less physical aspects of Yoga that might allow us to develop a deeper practice both on and off the mat...

  1. Feeling the Vibe

For some of us, other people's vibe may not affect us at all - but for an increasing amount of us another person's mood, demeanour, habits, etc can have an impact. As we return to our real life classes, we leave the comfort of own home where we had only the dog/cat and occasional child to manage whilst willing the WiFi to behave for our hour of Yoga. Now we start to enter village halls, studios and leisure centres filled with other bodies - bodies that have likely been under immense stress and pressure over the last year and may be feeling a little apprehensive. Of course, we ourselves may be bringing a certain energetic quality with us too, which may also have an affect on others. If this challenge presents itself to you, it could be a perfect opportunity to practice being grounded in your own body. In class when your teacher asks you to bring your awareness inside, perhaps to the feet, the ground, or the breath, you are flexing that inner awareness 'muscle'. This is the ability to shift focus and maintain that single pointed attention within the self. In doing so we can become more confident in knowing when a feeling, quality or 'vibe' is ours and when it is not - and ultimately come back within when another person is bringing something with them that we would rather not absorb.

2. Yoga Etiquette?

It seems to me that spending a whole year pretty much out of the socialising game has left my people skills somewhere else (perhaps under a pile of masks or alcohol gel?). The casual conversation before or after class with yoga buddies, the 'what to do' moment whilst waiting for folk to filter in, the rolling out of your mat and faffing about with your belongings, the awkward way in which we will be moving around our yoga spaces while 'rules' are present - all raise little social challenges that may test us in ways we have forgotten. The Yogic teachings of 'Ahimsa' and 'Saucha' work a treat here I think. Ahimsa, meaning non-harming, or kindness, asks us to cultivate kindness in word, thought and deed. This of course extends to ourselves, as much as it does to others. Some practical considerations in a yoga class could be arriving on time, leaving mobile phones and smart watches behind, making sure you don't come to class if unwell and moving around the space with consideration of others. It could also mean being kind to yourself on the mat - by making use of props if needed and not going beyond what your body would like to do. Saucha translates to mean purity, or cleanliness and asks us to live simply. In a yoga class, we could practice this by only bringing the necessary things with us so that we have as clear a space as possible, coming to class with clean bodies and mats, as well as arriving with enough time and being fully prepared for the session. All of this allows you and your fellow yogis to enjoy a calm start to the class and a physical and energetic space that feels clean and clear, ready to get your yoga on!

3. Butterflies, and then some...

Stress, worry and anxiety are quite possibly the biggest challenge of the modern day. So many illnesses are exacerbated and directly related to the effects of chronic stress. It is worth considering this then, as for many of us coming to practice yoga with other people in the flesh (and in the midst of a global pandemic too) can put us into a situation where anxiety levels rise. The thoughts of 'what if I can't do it?', 'what if someone looks at me?', or 'what if I sneeze/fart/have a coughing fit/fall on may face...', etc, can be predominant in the mind of a beginner, or anyone who is returning to yoga after the lockdown. This is really quite normal I think, but again it welcomes in an opportunity to practise the very best tool for anxiety - slow, conscious breathing. This is THE golden thread that weaves its way through the whole of Yoga and one that will develop within you the more you practice. Starting with breath awareness, over time the ability to come into conscious, slow breathing can become an automatic tool that you can use whenever the need arises. So if you arrive at class feeling a few butterflies, while everyone is filtering in take a few moments to take some slow conscious breaths so that you start the class from a more centred place.

4. Comparison-itis

Practicing Yoga in a group, rather than in your living room trying to fathom what on earth the teacher is doing on the little box of your iPad, poses another interesting challenge. Immediately there are so many other bodies with which to compare yourself to. Its a bit like an instagram scroll in real-life - seeing others doing things that we might perceive to be 'better than' what we can do, or have nicer leggings that we have, etc. This was probably the first and biggest lesson I learnt (and am still learning) from my Yoga teachers - Keep in your own body and on your own mat, stay within your boundaries and progress in your own time. If and when you do this, your yoga practice goes from a decent bit of movement, to a bespoke medicine designed only for you that leaves you feeling fluid and centred. One of the 8 limbs of Yoga, set out in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, is 'Pratyahara'. This limb asks us to practise withdrawing the external senses, so that we can become more 'inward focused' and I think it can be really useful here. When there is an opportunity in class to close the eyes, do it and allow yourself to become fully absorbed in the experience as it unfolds for you. With practise, it becomes second nature and the act of rolling out your mat and beginning your practice starts to become a signal for that inner focus. Pretty soon, you might hardly notice that bendy Wendy in the top corner of the room and simply enjoy your own personal Yoga island of you and your mat!

5. Its MY Spot!

Okay, so one final challenge I can see (and one which I personally have found tricky) is the habits that form when coming into class. The most obvious one is where you go and lay out your mat. As the weeks go by, you might notice yourself or others becoming a little precious over a certain place in the hall where you/they like to practise. This can then lead to us all having our 'spots' and rigidly sticking to them. While there is nothing wrong with this in the short term, and it would be fair to say that we might need this little anchor of stability for a period of time, it could be worth keeping an eye on how attached we are to our 'spot' and how reluctant we might be to go somewhere else. There is also the social dilemma here, because if we were to go rogue and set up somewhere completely different we might be offending others for disrupting the room layout! Oh the joys of practicing with others! Of course Yoga philosophy offers us some insight on how we might navigate this one... Action without attachment is a core teaching that invites us to continue to go about our lives, but to do so without attachment to the outcome. So yes, set up your mat in the spot that you choose, but do so without getting hooked on the idea that your experience of the class would not be right if you were elsewhere! Should a new student come, who causes a change to where people go, embrace the change and the opportunity to participate in the class with a new perspective!

Why it is worth it...

All this little challenges might make you question whether returning to in-person classes is worth the hassle at all. Well, in two words - it is. Let me explain why...

Firstly, from a really practical point of view your teacher can ensure that you are moving in a way that is not only safe for your body, but that is going to help you get the most out of the practice. We are all made a little differently, so these micro adjustments can make all the difference.

Secondly, all the above challenges allow us to help our practice move from just on the mat to off it as well. Consideration of others, kindness towards ourselves, cleanliness, dropping the comparison-itis, learning to breath well even when amongst others - these are all qualities that we might benefit from in our everyday lives as well.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all - connecting with others is what we were born for. Yes some of us prefer less/more social interaction than others, but humans were not designed for isolation - even the most introverted kind (and I am right up there on the introvert scale). There might be a few awkward social moments to find our way around, but when we move our bodies as a group, breathe together and share the experience of a class there is a quality that just cannot be replicated. Who knows, you may just make a life-long friend or two.

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