Updated: May 10
"The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world" - Tao Te Ching
We live in a culture which prizes fast movement and productivity. Often people bring this mentality to yoga, imagining that a fast-paced, sweaty practice with an emphasis on extreme flexibility is somehow the superior form of yoga.
I'm not discounting this kind of practice - it works well for lots of people and I know from my own experience how good it can feel to move in this way. But I think that the perception that this is the ultimate goal of yoga can be a barrier to lots of people. I can't count the times that people have said to me, "I can't do yoga - I'm not flexible enough."
Learning to listen
For me, a strong and physically demanding practice was fun when I was younger. When I first started yoga I was naturally flexible and had some gymnastics experience from my school days. So I was already able to do some of the more 'advanced' poses such as wheel and headstand. This felt good because it seemed to me (and to others I hoped!) like I was naturally good at yoga. But, as I was soon to learn, while this might have been flattering to my ego, it's not what yoga is really all about.
As my practice progressed, I started to notice that the more challenging poses weren't making me feel so good. Reaching the end of a fairly strong yoga class, I might find myself feeling spaced out, disconnected and overstretched. I'd done what I thought I was meant to do and yet it wasn't really benefitting me.
Then after giving birth to my daughter, I started to experience more aches and pains in my body. First it was my lower back, then my knees, followed by my neck and shoulders. Forcing myself into certain poses was not helping. I needed to learn when to back off rather than push myself. I needed to let go of how I looked on the outside and pay attention to what was going on inside me. Rather than directing my yoga practice from my head, I needed to learn to respond to what was going on inside my body.
This realisation was emerging during the time I was training to be a yoga teacher. It felt really hard to step back from some of the more challenging poses and to counter the voice that said I was getting 'worse' at yoga. But looking back, that was the point when I started to learn what yoga is really about: not moulding yourself to external expectations, but turning inwards in order to discover and express your own truth.
Who is gentle yoga suited to?
By the time I qualified as a teacher, I knew I needed to teach a gentle style of yoga. It became clear to me that plenty of other people would benefit from this kind of practice too, especially:
Anyone who needs a calm and quiet space for themselves, away from the daily stresses and pressures - in which nothing is expected of them
Anyone who thinks they don't have the right kind of body or aren't flexible enough to do yoga
People who need to be attuned to the needs of their bodies - perhaps following injury or illness - or as they get a little older
Those who are accustomed to pushing themselves to their limits, who may be experiencing stress or anxiety and need to learn how to relax
People who want the chance to get to know themselves better. Who feel like there’s more to them and more to life and want to explore the potential they feel is buried inside them
A compassionate practice
Most of us put pressure on ourselves as we try to live up to some external measure of success. One of the greatest benefits of a gentle yoga practice, I have found, is the opportunity to develop greater self-compassion.
The messages we get from society and the images we see on social media play to our insecurities. We might be aware they are not real, but we can't help but judge ourselves against these apparent standards of perfection.
By practising yoga in a gentle way, we learn to work with ourselves as we are, not as we think we should be. We listen to the messages of our bodies rather than pushing them away. We start to treat ourselves with greater kindness both on and off the mat.
Many of us grew up with the belief that being kind to ourselves is equal to weakness but a whole raft of studies show it's quite the opposite. Those who practice self-compassion are likely to become more resilient, motivated, confident and happy. Even, surprisingly enough, more productive.
It seems that once we become more compassionate towards ourselves we free up the energy we've directed against ourselves and find we can use it in a positive and life-enhancing way.
Learning to work with ourselves, not against ourselves - this is the power of a gentle yoga practice. It may not have the wow factor of more vigorous forms of yoga but the rewards are felt deeply and can change the way we live.
If you're interested in trying a gentle yoga class and live near Reigate, you can come along to my class at Reigate Community Centre, 11-12. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or book via this website.
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