Yoga Knowledge Space

A Daily Yoga Practice

By Sarah Downs

Welcome to my first column for Focus Magazine.  My name is Sarah Downs and I am a Senior Yoga Teacher living in Smiths Lake and teaching at my yoga studio, Blueys Yoga.  I started yoga in the early 90’s and began an apprenticeship under a senior yoga teacher in 1999, as formal teacher training was almost unheard of back then.  I have been teaching for over 20 years in various styles, from dynamic to restorative and everywhere in between.  If I am to describe myself as a teacher, it’s probably done best with the feedback I get most from my students, which is that they enjoy the physical benefits of their yoga practice, but the philosophy and wisdom that has accompanied their journey has been life-changing.  Not only that, but the instruction I give most in class is to “listen and not force”.  Our practice should meet us where we are at, so if we are uncomfortable and can’t access the breath, then we need to go more gently.  Paradoxically, it is this gentle approach that builds strength.  As Banksy said, “If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit”.

A friend of mine worked for many years as a handyman in a nursing home, so when he went into people’s rooms to carry out repairs, he often found himself as a captive audience for the occupant of the room.  He told me that the over-riding message from these people, who were nudging the end of life, was that they didn’t know where their life went.  We’ve all heard the expression “Stop and smell the roses”, but there’s more wisdom in this simple platitude than you would have thought.  When we are hurtling through life, always thinking about the next thing, with our days jam-packed, we tend not to notice our moments.  And yet, it is the act of fully inhabiting our moments that gives us a sense of having actually been there for our lives.  The simple act of pausing, taking time and creating space in our day is a way to be present for the precious gift of life.

There are ways we can insert pauses throughout the day, even if there are challenges around finding time.  One way is to pause in that quiet gap between waking up and getting up – this time is sacred.  The mind probably hasn’t started jumping around yet and it is peaceful in those moments.  A daily yoga practice can also set us up to be more present in our lives, however it can feel like an insurmountable goal to instill in a busy life.  The good news is that the single most effective way of incorporating a yoga practice into your day, every day, is to start off really small … like 5 minutes.  You can’t talk yourself out of 5 minutes and if it grows from there, great.  But if 5 minutes is all you do in a day, then you’ve achieved your goal and it’s a win-win.

Even a 5 minute practice will result in some major benefits.  Firstly, you’ll take a moment to deepen the breath, replacing stale unexchanged air in the base of the lungs that weighs us down, with fresh air and all the energy that rides into the body on the breath.  Exercising the muscles associated with breathing increases our vitality and capacity to relax.  Secondly focussing on your breath draws you into your internal landscape, giving yourself the gift of your own attention.  It is quite a burden to have things going on internally if we never take a moment to listen.  And if we don’t pay attention, they often surface in magnified ways in our lives regardless.  And thirdly, we look after this precious vessel that works so hard to keep us healthy and balanced.  In a short time, we can move the body in the five major ways with flexion and extension of the spine, side-stretching, hip opening and spinal twists.  In this way we’re constantly butting up against our range of movement so it doesn’t close in on us and the body remains fluid and spacious.

In yoga we see our inner essence, some may call it a soul, like a light bulb.  There are layers over the lightbulb, like lampshades, that become denser as we get further away from the light.  So the innermost layer is the energetic lampshade, then over that is the emotional lampshade, then the mental and finally the physical body.  The lightbulb and lampshades are all connected.  So what happens in your physical body will affect all your layers including the way your light shines.  Similarly, if we have a thought that doesn’t serve us well, it will be to the detriment of all our “lampshades”, and so on.  By coming to a daily practice, we fine-tune all our layers so we can be luminous throughout the day.

When we take some time out, even 5 minutes, we are sending a message to ourselves that we are worthwhile, that our body is precious, that we are available to clearly see things as they are, including all the beauty that is omnipresent both inside and out.  It is a small practice, but one that we carry throughout our day, enriching our moments, and has a major impact.  This is one of the great joys of being a teacher:  it’s a wondrous thing to witness someone’s light shine more brightly because they had the courage to get on the mat.  Namaste.