Guide Your Practice

The definition of yoga is “union.” This union might be breath and body; it might be body and spirit. Regardless of how we define it on a deeper level, this basic definition reminds us that yoga is more than just a movement practice. Yoga is a practice that transcends a typical workout: it’s whole body, including the subtle body (the breath and spirit) and the mental body (the mind).

When you attend a yoga class, you’ve probably noticed that your instructor offers an “intention” for the practice. Usually, an instructor talks about this intention at the beginning of the practice, throughout the practice, and then again at the end. Adding an intention to your movement practice gives it more depth and meaning. Sage and I have talked about this concept a few times on this blog already: here, she discusses how intention changes as we age. And here, I talk about the difference between intention and goals.

Once you’re clear on what an intention is, the next questions are more pragmatic: how do you find an appropriate intention? And how do you use it to guide your practice?

Finding an intention

Intentions can come from anywhere. I enjoy reading poetry, and when I find a poem that speaks to me, I set it aside to use in a practice later. If you enjoy poetry that has elements of spirituality, some authors to check out include Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Hafiz, and Rumi.

Yoga philosophy makes another great source for inspirational intentions. If you feel nervous about diving into ancient Sanksrit texts, have no fear: there are many good, modern translations. The most foundational is probably The Yoga Sutras, which provides short, clear instructions on living a yogic life. There are several excellent translations of the Sutras available, and it may even be a fun practice to read through them, using each one as an intention.

While philosophy and poetry have their place, your intentions don’t always have to be derived from a place so lofty, either. My favorite intentions are often focused on one word. If I arrive on my mat overwhelmed, the intention for the practice might be “peace.” If I’m exhausted, the intention might be “energize.” If I come to my practice mad at my husband (I’m sure you’ve never practiced yoga mad at your spouse!), my intention might be “calm” or “love” or “let go.” These simple intentions can be the easiest to grasp onto when you’re first adding them into your movement practice.

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Intentions might come from spiritual or yogic texts, books of poetry, or even Oprah.

Using an intention to guide your practice

Once you’ve determined an intention that is speaking to you, what does it look like for that intention to “guide your practice”? If the root of your intention is a poem or philosophical proverb, you might begin your practice by reading it again. From there you could lie down or sit quietly for several breaths, allowing your mind to focus on the themes that the intention brings up for you.

Sometimes, the intention will guide specific movements. If my intention is “balance,” inevitably I’m going to add in some poses that challenge and encourage balance, like Warrior III. If my intention is “trust” or “love,” I’m probably going to do poses that are heart-opening, back-bending poses, like camel pose. That’s not to say that all intentions will have a obvious pose association, but some might.

As you move in your practice, make space to return to your intention. You could rest in a pose like child’s pose and hear your word or intention in your mind as you breathe. You could take a longer break in a seated pose and re-read the sutra or poem that is guiding your practice. Make space as you move to return to the emotional, mental, and spiritual part of yoga by reconnecting to the idea you’ve chosen as your foundation.

Finally, return to your intention once more after a rest in savasana, perhaps in seated meditation. You might even decide that you want to come back to your intention later in the day (right before bed is a nice time) or later in your week. An intention isn’t so much a lesson as a flavor, and the best intentions continue to flavor your day as you move off the mat and into the world.

—Alexandra

Men and Yoga, Part 3: Starting a Yoga Practice

If you’re a guy and you’re thinking about beginning a yoga practice, it’s helpful to know the answers to a few key questions, so you can walk into a class feeling certain that you’re in the right place, doing the right thing. While we encourage a home practice, if you’re new to yoga, checking out a class might be the best place to begin. (And if you’re in the Triangle area in North Carolina, you can take classes with me and Sage at Carolina Yoga!)

Why should I do yoga?

Yoga is a form of movement, exercise, and meditation all in one. It’s generally low-impact and it’s easily adaptable to any injuries you may have. Having a regular yoga practice now means that you’ll still be playing sports with your kids (and grandkids) later. Yoga helps you build strength, flexibility, and stamina. It’s also abundantly helpful for less-physical but just as important things: stress relief, for instance. Research shows again and again that yoga helps with ailments like back pain and depression. Movement is powerful: having a regular movement practice keeps you fit, well, and happy.

What if I can’t do a pose?

The first time you do anything, there are parts you might skip, watch, or modify. Yoga is no different. If the instructor cues a pose that doesn’t work in your body, simply stand or rest seated on your mat. No one will stare at you or think it’s strange that you are opting out of a pose or movement: that’s part of the practice. In a smaller class, your instructor might come over and ask if you need modifications. You can choose to explain what’s going on or just say, “I’m good.”

A common concern I hear from guys is a fear that you’re not flexible enough for yoga. There’s no such thing: you’re there, in part, to get more flexible! Still, as you build flexibility, you might modify common poses to make them more accessible for you. If you have tight hamstrings, for instance, there may be certain poses you need to adapt to your body.  You can ask your instructor if you’re unsure what to do to make things work for you. Bottom line, though: if a pose doesn’t feel good or possible, don’t worry about it. Letting go of having to do everything (and letting go of your ego!) is a big part of the practice.

What if I don’t understand what’s going on?

If you’re in a class, you’re there to learn. Approach the practice with a beginner’s mindset, so when things occur that you don’t fully understand, you can access curiosity, not frustration. Depending on the class, the instructor might use Sanskrit words or chant. The instructor might touch you to offer assists. The instructor may burn incense or use essential oils. You can prepare yourself for what generally happens in a yoga class by reading blog posts (or purchasing our book, which offers a helpful overview) or calling the studio in advance to inquire about the type of class you’re attending. Regardless of preparation, you still might encounter new ways of moving, breathing, or being. Remember, that’s part of yoga: you get a chance to break out of what you’re used to and try things that may change you for the better. While it’s never easy to not know what’s going on, the experience of being new and a little confused won’t last long. After a class or two, you’ll have a good sense of how it all works. A few moments of psychic discomfort are worth years of physical health and comfort.

Men and yoga
Donnie B., 44, started practicing in 2012 as a way to complement his running and biking. This year, he became a certified yoga teacher. These days, men make up more than a quarter of all yoga practitioners—and male teachers are more and more common.

What do I wear? (And what else do I need?)

You can wear what you’d wear to any type of workout or outdoor activity. Sweatpants or gym shorts are fine, as are T-shirts. (Take a look at the guys from one of my recent yoga classes to see what’s typical.) If you have the inclination and the budget, you can get fancier with yoga-specific clothes for guys from an outfitter like PrAna.

In addition to comfortable clothes you can move in, you can bring a yoga mat if you have one. If you don’t, nearly every studio has mats available for use. You might choose to bring a water bottle, but you don’t need anything else.

And a bonus: many studios have “first class free” specials. Call ahead to check, but you may not even need your wallet!

What if I’m the only guy?

You probably won’t be. Even if you’re the only guy in a particular class, your female classmates won’t find your presence strange. These days, men make up more than a quarter of all yoga practitioners. Still, if this one concerns you, you could find a class specifically for men.

Keep in mind, though, that the ancient yogis were men, and the practice was largely male-dominated until the last hundred or so years. Yoga is by no means for one gender or the other.

One of my favorite guy yoga students told me that his biggest concern when he first started yoga was “being the dude that farted in yoga.” If this is a concern you share, rest assured that passing gas is common. (In fact, there’s even a pose called wind-relieving pose!) If it happens, it happens: no one is going to look horror-stricken, I promise, and it will probably be ignored. Certainly don’t let that hold you back from attending a class!

In my next post in my Men and Yoga series, we’ll look at some of the best poses for guys for long-term health.

—Alexandra

 

Men and Yoga, Part 1

My 70-year-old dad is my favorite yoga student. He is vocal about how good yoga makes him feel and he’s good about knowing his limits in a practice, resting when rest is appropriate. Whenever he’s in town, he comes to one of my weekly Yoga for Healthy Aging classes. He agreed to attend the first few classes with some trepidation—he was concerned he’d be the only guy on a mat. That has never been the case, of course, and in most of my classes at least half the students are guys about my dad’s age.

The demographics have changed since I first started teaching, and I see more and more men in class. The research agrees: according to Yoga Journal‘s recent study, men now make up 28% of all yoga students—and their numbers are growing. Considering that this same study tells us that 38% of all yoga practitioners are over 50, there’s a reason to celebrate: there is more gender and age diversity in yoga.

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Carl, Russell, Ray, Bob, Tom, and Tandy: all men in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s who regularly attend Yoga for Healthy Aging.

While yoga’s roots are male gurus and sages, in the West yoga has long been women’s territory. That’s changing, but what does it mean to be an active, aging man doing yoga today?

In my next few posts, I’ll be writing about considerations, modifications, and specific poses and sequences for men in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. If you’re an active, older guy with a yoga practice, I’d love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you have? Has yoga helped you physically or in a more esoteric way—or both? What resources do you consult for your home practice?

—Alexandra