4 ways to love your body through yoga

For some, there seems to be a sense of shame in self-care. How I see this manifest in the yoga classes I teach, is that people want to really put their bodies through their paces; push themselves to the limit, send their already overloaded fight-or-flight setting into overdrive. This even can happen in the gentler practices I offer my students. I both admire and relate to determination and the desire to explore one's edge, but what if we entered the yoga studio as a different space, a space where we can turn up for ourselves, rather than for the benefit of others.

Breath

I talk a lot about breath both on here and in my classes. I cannot again say the cliche "without it you literally die!" as I know you guys are more intelligent than that, but what you may not know, is the ways in which you can use breath to enhance your way of living. There's a wealth of information on breath out there, and more specifically pranayama, but for now, let me share with you just one technique that I include in my daily self-care ritual:

Kapalbhati (skull purification breath)

Don't be alarmed by the unusual translation! Kapalbhati is a breathing technique for purification of the mind, in that by practicing this simple technique we increase the oxygen supply to the brain, but that's not all. Kapalbhati helps to improve respiration, tone the stomach muscles, improve digestion, improves the appearance of the complexion, aids weight-loss, wards of anxiety/panic attacks... as you can see it's a hugely beneficial practice! But how do I do it you ask:

  • Find a comfortable seated position, with palms facing down on knees or thighs

  • Inhale to your full lung capacity, then exhale everything out

  • Inhale to about 80% of your lung capacity

  • Begin to exhale with some force, by actively pulling in the naval, allowing the lower belly to be soft (active exhales, passive inhales - both through the nose)

  • Go for 60 counts of exhalation on your first round, gradually building up to 100

This technique is exceptionally good when practiced first thing, ideally before food

Self-massage!

Did you know that in many yoga asanas you are actually self-massaging? It's like being your own massage therapist, the concept alone I find lovely, but let's look at some practical ways you can do this. As always, it's good to get the body warm with some sun salutations or dynamic stretching/activated breath first, but you can practice these on their own if you only have a few minutes to spare.

Padahastasana (hands under feet)

  • Fold forward, from standing, bending knees as needed to get the hands to the ground

  • Carefully rock back on your heels and feed your palms underneath each foot, until toes reach the wrists (bend knees as generously as is needed!)

  • Allow your toes to gently massage your wrists, a great practice if you type too much (we all type too much)

Dhanurasana (bow)

  • Lie prone (on the belly) making a pillow with the hands for the forehead and allow your hips to move side to side to relax the lower back, glutes and hamstrings

  • Bend the knees and catch the ankles from the outside (keep feet active to protect the ankles)

  • Engage the glutes to lift the legs higher and open the shoulders to lift the torso

  • Rock back and forwards to massage the belly

There are many more poses like this, pretty much every yoga pose I take offers me something deeper than just physical movement, so have a go, be your own therapist!

Intention

When I used to go to the gym, for me it felt a lot more like punishment than self-love. I am in no way trying to undermine the enormous benefits the gym has for many, it can be a real sanctuary! It just wasn't that for me, it was tied in with unrealistic goals, competition and pain... which for some could be represented by yoga - it's entirely personal.

I remember the first time a yoga teacher invited me to set an intention for my practice, and that one option for that intention could be a person I love, or someone I knew who needed energy. The idea that I could be practicing selflessly, or dedicating my efforts to someone else was a real turning point. For one, it encouraged me, at the time very tough on myself and unforgiving, to really go for it 'or else', but with more healthy retrospection, the removal of ego from the equation, which is how I began to integrate my yoga practice into my life, until my life started to become my practice. Practicing with intention, or 'Bahkti' as it's traditionally known, teaches you to meet yourself each time anew on your mat, without expectation, and thus teaching you to be kind to yourself and then maybe as a nice bonus, surprised by what your body can do!

Community

It seems popular now to call yourself an introvert, I even catch myself doing it, and trust me, I am anything but. I think what people claim to be introverted against isn't socialising, it's social media. Don't get me wrong, social media has been and continues to be instrumental to the way in which I build my own small community of yogis and like-minded people, but it's important (for me, and you) to recognise when it stops being real, when the issues of comparison and dishonest representation overtake.

That's why as well as finding your 'tribe' online (and this could be any online community, not just yoga and wellness), it's good to have the opportunity to meet your people the old fashioned way too. Yoga classes, workshops and retreats provide the perfect space for that, and it provides an alternative to a bar or a pub, which needn't be the only spaces available for social interaction. Did you know that social integration v social isolation has significant effects on things like blood pressure and levels of inflammation in the body?

I hope you have enjoyed this guide, and I would love to hear of other acts of yogic self-love you have discovered in your own practice in the comments below.