Lessons in Yoga 10: Style over substance

I don't have an answer to this question: ‘What sort of yoga do you do?’

So I say: ‘Oh well, it's a kind of a mixture, you know. I don't really follow a particular school as such. I mix lots of different styles … it's hard to say exactly."

And the budding, enthusiastic, eager-to-tell-her-friends student says:

‘But what's it called?’

I flip desperately through my knowledge of different Zen-sounding yoga schools and guru-led five million-year-old yoga traditions and say:

‘Bits ‘n’ Bobs Yoga?’

Something about being part of a yoga 'school' or labelling my yoga reminds me of being in a club or gang at school. It feels comforting to know that you have a group who all like and agree on the same rules. But what about the other gangs? Don't their rules have to be wrong for my rules to be right?

I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that I don't think it's a good idea to follow just one yoga tradition. Not just for the gang warfare risks, but also for your body and your energy levels.

Sticking to one practice, sequence, or discipline can potentially make you unbalanced, bored or worst of all, burnt out.

Yoga is all about balance.

Which is something most of us struggle to find every day.

We swing from "wow I've got so much energy I'm going to sign up for Iron Man" to

"I think I might have chronic fatigue, I'm sooooooo tired today."

With balanced energy levels, you feel energetic but calm, and are able to do what you want, when you want, with focus.

Yoga is also especially good at stimulating your flow of energy. We have two main energy flows. Yang or Yin, male or female, up or down, hot or cold.

Think of your body as having hot and cold taps, but instead of water, energy flows from these taps.

Our hot energy is stimulated by activity, vigorous exercise, noise and stress.

Our cool energy is stimulated by stillness, introspection and quietness.

Turning on the hot tap too often exhausts our system, stresses our organs and nervous system. We literally get 'burnt out'.

But turning on the cold tap too much makes us introverted, sluggish and unmotivated.

The type of yoga we practise has a big influence on balancing these hot and cold energies.

Because yoga styles and ways of practising yoga are also either hot or cold.

A yoga practice that involves lots of moving sequences, standing postures and a hot environment will stimulate your hot energy.

A yoga practice that uses on-the-ground positions, long, still, holds and periods of meditation will stimulate your cool energy.

To be healthy, we want to be a nice warm temperature. We need to find a yoga style that balances and supports our system.

But unfortunately we don't naturally tend towards balance, most of us tend towards what we are used to, or what we are more comfortable with.

Linda lives in a city and has a fairly stressful job, she enjoys a busy social life and goes for a run a couple of times a week. She practises Bikram yoga because she likes a good workout and finds lying still for very long boring.

Margaret works from home in her quiet house in the country, she meditates and gets lots of rest, but has never found a type of exercise that suits her, except the restorative gentle yoga class she goes to once a week.

Both these women have chosen a yoga practice that matches rather than compliments their lifestyle.

Linda has a heating, stimulating and active lifestyle so is naturally drawn to hot yoga, but this heating yoga practice can further stress her system and lead to possible burn-out.

Margaret has a cooling, quiet and relaxing lifestyle so is naturally drawn to restorative yoga. But this cooling practice can slow down her system even more and lead to health problems related to under activity.

I generally try and offer a balance between these hot and cool energies, both in my classes and also in my own practice.

So for the following exercises I want you to stimulate your hot energy by moving and flowing in a standing sequence. Then you will settle into a couple of on-the-ground still positions that will stimulate your cool energy, calm, settle and relax you.

I will encourage you to observe how each practice feels to you and compare them to see if you can feel when you’re heating yourself up and cooling yourself down. Not just temperature-wise but in your thoughts, emotions and the overall feeling in your body.

Then, with this informed view on different energetic ways to practise yoga, you can pick and choose from all the wonderfully varied forms of yoga and start to make it your own.

For the flowing, heating bit, refer to articles 7 and 9 on the links below. First, flow from dog into the lunge and when your foot steps forward, rotate both feet out and follow the warrior positions in Article 9. Then step back to dog and repeat on the other side. Do this twice on each side, then come down onto the ground and lie on your back.

Rest for a few minutes to feel the hot energy flowing through your body and notice how similar this feeling is to stress. Again, stress is only a problem when it's out of balance. It's no harm for us to be stimulated and wound up as long as we notice it happening and respond by balancing the heating stress with some cooling and unwinding.

Now, try ‘plough’ pose, which is a forward bend that is naturally introspective and cooling, even though it’s a challenge. If you have a neck injury, or concerns, then leave this pose and practise child's pose instead.

Otherwise, roll your feet over your head until they come onto the ground behind you. You might need to rock back and forth a bit to do this, and give your hips a little push to get your feet there. If your hips don't lift, you just need to work a bit more on core strength and for now, roll over and come into child's pose instead.

Now, first have a stretch in this pose by pushing down into your toes, shoulders and hands. Then slowly bend your knees down towards your ears (not something that happens everyday!) and if you can try drawing your arms around to rest onto your legs so most of your weight is in your shoulders, head and neck. Stay here for a little while feeling the slowing down and relaxing of your system. When you have had enough, roll back slowly onto your back.

Now rest your left foot on your right knee. Lift your right knee off the floor and reach around your right knee to hold your thigh. This will give you a hip opening stretch on the left side. Keep your left ankle flexed so you don't twist your joint and slowly start to pull your right knee closer towards you. If you can try holding the outside of your knee this will make the stretch stronger.

Your head and shoulders should be comfortably resting on the ground. Draw your chin down, if your neck is arched up and you can't get your chin down, then let go of your right leg and do the stretch with your right foot on the ground.

Stay here for a few minutes, using the stretching sensation as an anchor for your mind. Relax your shoulders and try not to pull too hard. Notice that you can still get a strong relaxing stretch here without overworking.

Then release your legs and stretch them out before swapping sides.

The last position is Banana pose (because the side stretch is a bit like the shape of a banana).

Hold your elbows above your head and without bending your knees, move your legs as far over to the left as possible, keeping your hips on the ground. Then move your chest over to the left also. You should feel a gentle stretch down your right side. Lift your left foot and rest it on the outside of your right foot (the weight of the foot adds an extra bit of stretch to the right side.)

Now the great thing about this pose is that it only works if you stop trying!

To get the best relaxing and stretchy feeling here, you need to completely soften and let go into the ground. Watch your breath coming and going and feel a stillness settling in.

After a few minutes, swap sides. Observe how different this feels to the flowing strong stuff you just did and what a great alternative to the heat and stress we can so often feel.

If you find yourself thinking "right that's enough relaxing, I have jobs to do" just notice that urgency to be busy and the struggle we all have with slowing down.

And instead of jumping up, stay a while, knowing that you are balancing and settling your system.

* Jessica Hatchett teaches yoga in West Cork.

* For more information on her classes and events go to www.yogawestcork.com

* Her next event is a 'Finding Balance' yoga day on October 20th in Skibbereen.

* Photography by luluash.co.uk


Part 1: Confessions of a yoga teacher...

Part 2: Am I breathing?

Part 3: Find your edge

Part 4: Lessons of a Yoga Teacher 4: Loving my Downward Dog

Part 5: Lessons of a Yoga Teacher 5: Stress and a stretch

Part 6: Lessons of a Yoga Teacher 6: Lift yourself out of a bad mood

Part 7: Lessons in Yoga 7: Moving your body through the Sun Salute

Part 8: Lessons in Yoga 8: Am I stretching correctly and safely?

Part 9: Lessons in Yoga 9: Yoga at home? Or at home with Yoga?


Video: This chocolate facial is the perfect Easter-themed pampering

The Menu: Food news with Joe McNamee

Restaurant Review: Circa Restaurant, 90 Terenure Road North, Dublin 6w

Co-ops are good for our mental health and our community

More From The Irish Examiner