Why I love yoga (alternate title: I survived Bikram yoga!)

Yoga essentials: a mat, a towel (if it's hot yoga) and water.

Yoga essentials: a mat, a towel (if it’s hot yoga) and water.

I’ve come to realise that yoga is one of the most misunderstood yet most beneficial types of exercise you can do, for both your body and your mind. Prior to starting my own yoga practice, I’m embarrassed to admit I had my tent firmly (and ignorantly) pitched in the camp called Yoga Is For People Who Don’t Actually Want To Work Out. Over the last year, I’ve realised how very wrong I was. Not only is yoga a fantastic way to sculpt your muscles, and make yourself stronger and more flexible, it is also a great way to both de-stress and stop the constant chatter of your mind.

Yoga is all about creating space, both mentally and physically. It is about gently pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and about learning to trust your body.

Yoga gives you a good insight into where your head and body are currently at. It meets you exactly where are. If you have had an scattered and messy day, your practice will feel scattered and messy. Conversely, if you are feeling pretty balanced and light, your practice will reflect that. It brings you back to the present moment and helps you to identify areas of your life where you are feeling unbalanced.

I realised very early on in my practice that the poses I resist the most (back bend, I’m looking at you) are the ones I really need to do. The back bend is one of the most vulnerable poses because your heart and throat are completely exposed. My natural instinct is to protect these parts of my body. I’ll often put my arms up over my chest unconsciously if I am feeling vulnerable or touch my throat if I am unsure that I am saying the right thing. To have my heart and throat so exposed makes me really uncomfortable. The first time I did a back bend, I had to fight the urge to break the position because a huge jolt of anxiety ran through me. Thankfully, it was right at that point that the instructor reminded us to just breath through any discomfort that we were experiencing and trust our bodies. The back bend is still very low on my list of favourite poses, but I have come to appreciate what it gives me: trust in my body and in my heart’s messages to me.

After having practised Ashtanga Vinyasa (a fast-flowing form of yoga where you move quickly through poses) for a few months, I decided last night that I was ready to take on a new challenge in the form of Bikram yoga. For anyone who has been living under a rock, Bikram is a style of yoga that Bikram Choudhury created in the ’70s and it is based on traditional hatha yoga techniques. It consists of 26 postures and two breathing exercise, and it is conducted in a room that is heated to a whopping 39 degrees. And boy is it tough. After only 10 minutes into the 90-minute class, I was battling my urge to run out of the room and never come back. I had to stop on a number of occasions, lie down and just breath. If the temperature alone wasn’t enough to make me feel like I was simultaneously going to vomit and pass out, the intense poses sure were.

It wasn’t all bad though. In fact, I actually got a lot out of it and learned that I can push my body a lot further than my mind thinks I can, which is sort of yoga is all about: learning more about yourself. I also neither vomited or passed out, so that’s nice.

The benefits of yoga are available to everyone. You can get as much or as little out of it as you want. For some, it is purely a physical release. For others, it is a tool for helping them to grow spiritually. Wherever you are at in life, I cannot recommend yoga highly enough! If you haven’t already done so, try it. I know you won’t regret it.

Laura

Stress: why it hurts your body and five tips to reduce it

Get back to nature to de-stress.

Get back to nature to de-stress.

Ah, stress. That pervasive and insidious feeling that we are all too familiar with. It is born from that pesky fight or flight response – a response to a stressful situation that is triggered by an increase in cortisol (cortisol is actually a steroid hormone!). What was once a fantastic every-now-and-then mechanism that was used to help us outrun a dirty great big Saber Tooth and, therefore, live longer, is now having the opposite effect on our life expectancy. This is because, instead of only experiencing stressful situations sporadically, most of us now have low-level ongoing stress in our lives, which causes us a whole host of issues. Pretty big bummer, right? But, as always, there are things we can do to help our body cope.

Meditation

Before you dismiss it as being a bit woo woo, meditation doesn’t have to be all crystals, spirit guides and chakras. It can be as simple as finding a peaceful spot to sit and focus on your breathing (rather than the incessant chatter in your mind) for 10 minutes. Your thoughts will try to intrude, so just gently pull your attention back to your breath any time that happens. You don’t have to commit to 20 minutes morning and night to reap the benefits of mediation. Just doing five minutes before you go to bed will do wonders for your stress levels (and it will help you go to sleep).

Get Grounded

Kick off your shoes and go for a walk along the beach. If, like me, you aren’t lucky enough to have a beach nearby, head to your local park or just sit in on the grass in your backyard. Studies have shown that being in direct contact with the ground (rather than through concrete and shoes) allows our bodies to absorb negative ions from the earth. This is great from an anti-inflammatory perspective and I find it helps me to reset mentally too. I don’t have a backyard so whenever I’m visiting my parents, I always take a book outside and sit on the grass to read. I can feel my stress levels drop almost immediately whenever I do this.

Take a Look at Your Food

When we are under mental stress, this can be further aggravated if we are also putting physical stress on our body through the food we eat. I know I’m not telling you anything new here but the more you can steer clear of processed food that was created in a plant, rather than coming from one, the better your body will function and the less stressed out your organs will be. Eating a clean diet also helps you think clearer, which means you can race through that to-do list faster. Ergo, you’ll be less stressed.

Yoga

Up until this year I was firmly in the yoga-isn’t-for-me camp. I thought it was a waste of time and secretly suspected that it wasn’t really a proper workout. How wrong was I? So wrong. After just one class, I was kicking myself for taking so long to try it. Yoga has this amazing way of getting you to focus on your balance, relaxing you and making your muscles burn all at once. That combination makes it impossible to listen to the never-ending chatter in your mind. Try it. I promise you won’t regret it. Most studios offer a deal where you pay $20 and can go as many times as you want in your first week, which means you can try it out without being locked into a near-unbreakable contract like you sometimes experience at gyms (Fitness First, I’m looking at you).

Hang out with a Child*

Children, especially young ones, have such a free-spirited, carefree energy that you can’t help but get sucked into their vortex of happiness when you are around them. It’s impossible to be stressed when you’re going down a slide with a child in your lap.

* Remember the golden rule, guys: if the child isn’t yours, ask permission before borrowing it… erm, I mean, him or her.

Laura