How often should I practice yoga?

Many people often wonder how often they should be practicing yoga. When considering how often you should get on your mat, consider first what your goals are. Do you want to build strength? Encourage flexibility? Develop mindfulness? Your answers to these questions may alter the frequency with which you care to practice.

When you’re encouraging conditioning of the muscles, it’s best to have a consistent physical practice with periods of rest. For most people, that means practicing for 30-60 minutes three to five times a week. Though you’ll see some improvements with a once-a-week practice, the increased movement will help move you toward your goal and maintain progress.

There is a such thing as practicing too much. Always give yourself at least one day a week of rest from your yoga practice. If you practice a more vigorous style of yoga like Baptiste, power yoga, or Ashtanga, consider taking off more than one day, or using one of your practice days for restorative or yin yoga. This will help you avoid overuse of your muscles and give your body much needed rest.

Speaking of rest, if you’re sick or nursing an injury, give yourself more time to recuperate, or opt for a gentler practice.

Also remember that it’s important to give your body a well-rounded physical practice. That means incorporating some strength-building into your yoga routine, or into your physical regimen as a whole. Additionally, regularly including aerobic exercise like walking, running, biking, swimming, kickboxing, or dancing will help keep your heart as healthy as your mind-body connection.

If your goal is to develop mindfulness, yoga can be an excellent daily practice. The physical practice of yoga, asana, is only one of eight limbs of yoga [], so consider making your yoga practice about some of the other limbs, like attention to the breath or meditation.

As for me, I tend to practice asana four to six days week, and I always take at least a full day off to rest. Over the last few months, I’ve been incorporating more strength building for my arms, hips, and shoulders to help balance the stretching and motions common to yoga (I’ll share some of my favorite exercises in future posts).

I am trying to take a more conscious approach to yoga’s other limbs. This practice is isn’t as consistent as I would like, but I’m making progress. I could tell as much during the holidays when shopping and errands tweaked my sanity. I breathed, and breathed some more, and this helped me avoid yelling my way through December (mostly). This helped me realize I need as much meditation and breathwork as I do asana — if not more.

As you’re trying to find your sweet spot for practice days, remember that your needs may change. Be gentle with yourself and open to this change. Be as consistent as you can, for consistency will likely lead to growth.

When emotional pain becomes physical pain

In yoga we try to become more aware of the mind-body connection, and sometimes that connection means that emotional pain is manifested in a physical way.
I was reminded of this when my children’s great uncle passed away recently. One of my children fell onto their knee and proceeded to limp about for four days. A doctor’s examination and an X-ray revealed nothing more than a bruised knee. Yet, my child insisted that the pain was intense and the limping warranted. I’ve no doubt that my kiddo was in actual pain. But after some talking, we agreed that some of the pain was a bit misplaced: my child was in emotional pain over the loss of a beloved family member, and the knee provided a physical, observable manifestation of that pain. In other words, the heart was sad but the knee hurt. After the conversation, the limp almost immediately improved because the source of the deepest pain had been addressed.
For me, this experience emphasized the importance of addressing emotional pain. Failing to do so can result in a slew of physical woes like achiness, nausea, muscle tension, headaches and more. I should be clear that even when the source is emotional, the physical experiences are absolutely real. It’s just that addressing the physical pain may require a two-pronged approach — one prong addressing the emotional root and another addressing the physical experience. Studies suggest that addressing the physical pain may even help with treating the emotional cause.
If you’re experiencing physical pain or discomfort along with sadness, stress, or anxiety, remember this whole-body approach to recovery. Moderate to severe symptoms obviously necessitate a visit to a doctor or other medical professional, but milder symptoms may benefit from some or all of the practices listed below.

  1. Talk to someone. A trusted friend or therapist may be able to help you unpack your emotions. This in turn may allow you to work through whatever feelings may be the source of your pain.
  2. Meditate. Even a few moments a day of intentional quiet time could help you acknowledge the emotions you’ve been ignoring and maybe even identify the source of these emotions.
  3. Engage in a gentle yoga practice that helps you relax. Many people hold tension in their hips or in their shoulders and back. You may find that when you focus on your tightest areas emotions or memories bubble up to the surface — especially during long holds. It’s actually not unusual for people to cry unexpectedly or feel waves of intense emotions when focusing on these physical areas. The theory is that when we are in fight or flight situations, we tense our hips or shoulders. As we work to loosen the tension in these areas, we unleash the emotions so often suppressed during stressful moments.
  4. Engage in vigorous exercise. When I’m feeling anxious or approaching depression, I find that a vigorous practice helps counteract jitteriness and the sluggish malaise that accompanies depression. I respond particularly well to hot yoga, cardio, and weight lifting when I need a pick-me-up. Though yoga doesn’t fix all my problems, it has often helped me see a path out of mild depression.
  5. Go for a walk. Going for a walk can be a great way to clear the mind and allow new energy to flow through the body. Plus, when we walk, we are (hopefully) rarely multitasking. Use this uninterrupted time to quiet your mind and see what rises to the surface.
  6. Breathe. Focused breathing can help slow your heart rate and calm your mind. To experience these calming effects, try this in a quiet room: Be still and close your eyes. Breathe through your nose on a four count, holding your breath at the top of the inhalation. Then, breathe out of your nose on a four count. Repeat this inhalation-exhalation several times. With every inhalation, focus on stabilizing the belly while lengthening the spine and the crown of your head toward the ceiling. With every exhalation, focus on releasing the muscles in your face, chest, and shoulders.

Scared of success?

Yoga is a great practice for unearthing feelings and habits we’ve buried. I think that’s why some people cry during hip opening poses — not from pain, but from a rush of emotions. Or why in difficult poses, we can fall into old habits of saying bad words to ourselves or finding someone place blame or frustration, like the yoga teacher or that hot yogi next to us.
I can go months without such revelations, which makes each new one all the more surprising. Recently, I’ve noticed how much my fear of failure is second only to my fear of my own success. I’ll explain.
I’ve been working on handstands, leap frogs, and other inversions which bring my hips directly over my shoulders. It’s terrifying for me! At first, I thought this feeling stemmed from a fear of falling over and hurting myself. After that, I thought it was a more generalized fear of “failing” to execute the pose. Then, I’d catch these glimpses of myself. I would be in the pose,bring my hips high or enter a headstand, and hear two thoughts flash across my mind. First: “I’m doing it!” Immediately afterward, I’d feel panicky and think, “Oh no! I’m doing it!” When I become aware of these thoughts, it’s over. I fall out of the pose and the next attempt becomes shadowed by the possibility of the same realization.
This has caused me to wonder about my life off the mat. What decisions do I make to inoculate myself from flourishing? And, for goodness’ sakes, why in the world would flourishing terrify me?

I’d love for this to be a post in which I impart wisdom about how I figured this all out and learned to soar spectacularly. But I haven’t figured it out. I’m still working through my physical practice and attempting to return to the meditation practice I mostly abandoned in the spring.

But my hope is that this post allows you to take note of those little voices in your practice, and to not let them ripple through you unnoticed. Take their existence as an opportunity to explore and go deeper. I’m trying to do that now. For me, it’s the only way forward.

Help: embracing the four-letter word.

  We value people who seem to have it all together, who seem to win the Oscar, the Super Bowl, the job, the whatever with personal grit, natural talent, and perhaps the tiniest whiff of effort. 

It’s not surprising that same mentality shows up on the yoga mat. Even when a pose is too challenging, or even painful, we can be hesitant to pull back. Using a modification feels like failure and goodness forbid we reach for a block or a strap. We’d rather wobble unsteadily, avoid the pose altogether, or mentally curse the yoga teacher who called the pose highlighting our weakness.

I’ll admit I’m speaking from personal experience. When I first tried yoga, I was determined to make it through every pose in every class — even if I felt light-headed or my muscles cried uncle. When the teacher called poses like double pigeon, which still taxes my inflexible hips, I thought mean thoughts. Everyone could see my lack of flexibility (as if they cared) and I didn’t like that. If the teacher ever brought me a block to help me into a pose, I felt a raw mixture of humility and shame. It seems silly to feel that way because of a yoga class, but I find that the feelings that show up on the mat have been festering off the mat for a while. Sure enough, for years, I was terrified of admitting I didn’t have it all together and that sometimes, I needed help.

With a bit more wisdom, I’ve come to accept help a little more graciously. If someone offers to bring over dinner or watch the kids, I don’t force a smile and insist that I’m okay. Or when someone at work asks whether I need help, I try not to say “no” automatically. Instead, I do a quick inventory and do my best to answer honestly. 

In this week’s posts, I’ll focus on tools and poses that rely on a little help to enjoy a pose. Hopefully, these posts will serve as a reminder that accepting help can be a blessed thing.

Read: The Miracle of Mindfulness

“Every day and every hour, one should practice mindfulness. That’s easy to say, but to carry it out in practice is not.” – The Miracle of Mindfulness

 I’ve been chewing on Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness since November. It’s not the length of the book that has kept me occupied — at just 140 pages, the book is a quick read — but rather its content: mindfulness.

I know, I know, mindfulness is all the rage these days, like kale and quinoa and chia seeds (all of which I love, by the way, haha).

But I’ve been taken with the idea of enjoying each moment since realizing last year that I’m constantly thinking about the past and anticipating the future. When pressed, I could think only of a handful of moments — mostly my wedding and the births of my children — that I had truly taken the time to savor. 

“If you cannot find joy in these very moments of sitting, then the future itself will only flow by as a river flows by, you will not be able to hold it back, you will be incapable of living the future when it has become the present. Joy and peace are possible in this very hour of sitting. If you cannot find it here, you won’t find it anywhere. Don’t chase after your thoughts as a shadow following its object. Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment.” 

A shift happened for me when my yoga teacher training program challenged us participants to meditate daily. The focused time of mindfulness began to trickle into other moments of life. I began to really gaze into my children’s faces in a way I hadn’t since they were infants and I felt like there was all the time in the world. I began to notice the subtle expressions and words of my students. I slowed down when cooking dinner and walking through the house (these last two changes lessened my cut fingers and stubbed toes by, like, a million percent). I won’t pretend I’m some zen master absorbing every moment in all its glory. But whereas I used to be mindful maybe a few minutes out of the day, now I might be mindful a few minutes out of every hour or two on my best days.

Hanh is helping me go further. The Miracle of Mindfulness offers several practical mindfulness exercises — perfect for people like me who chase after their own thoughts. My favorite exercises involve paying attention to subtle movements in making tea, washing dishes, or washing clothes. “Follow each step in mindfulness,” he writes. “Washing the dishes is meditation.” He’s right. If I can’t stay present when doing something as simple as washing dishes, I’m probably not going to keep my cool in stressful situations. The small moments are practice for the big ones.

A life is made up of such moments, and I want to spend fewer of mine wishing I was somewhere else doing some other thing. Mindfulness, to me, is the idea that you pay attention to each of those life moments, even the mundane ones. Thanks to Hanh, I’m finally starting to get that.

3 poses to help you sit still in meditation

Three yoga poses to help you sit still in meditation? I know it sounds counterintuitive to use dynamic poses to prepare for a static posture, but conditioning my body proved incredibly helpful for daily meditation.

Sitting still for a longer than a few moments was quite uncomfortable for me when I first tried to meditate (so was stilling the mind — but more on that in Friday’s post). My hips weren’t flexible enough to maintain a seated position and my back and core muscles weren’t conditioned enough to hold me up. Of course, I could have just moved from the floor to a chair or bed, but those pieces of furniture reminded me of work or sleep –neither of which helped me drop into meditation. Furthermore, the seated position tells my body that something different is taking place, much like putting on pajamas helps me feel ready for bed and putting on fancy clothes makes me feel ready to party. When I “put on” my meditation stance – seated on the floor, legs folded, with or without my back against the wall – I tell my physical body that it’s time to be present to meditation.

After nearly a year of consistent meditation, staying seated isn’t nearly the struggle it used to be. For one thing, I’m a bit more used to the practice. Secondly, regular yoga practice has helped me develop the strength and flexibility I needed to sit comfortably for a reasonable period of time. 

If you’re looking for a bit more ease in seated meditation, check out the three poses below. Practice them individually, or as part of your regular yoga practice.

1. For a stronger back: Locust pose

Starting on your belly, engage your quadriceps and draw your shoulder blades together. Place your hands at the low spine and clasp your hands. Take a deep breath, straighten your arms, and extend your clasped hands toward your feet. On your next exhale, lift your chest, thighs, knees, and feet. Feel the muscles in your low and mid back engage as you keep your gaze focused on your mat. Hold the pose for three to five breaths, and repeat one to three more times.

2. Stronger core: Half boat pose.   Begin in a seated position, with bent knees pointing upward and the soles of your feet on the floor. Lift your heels, rocking back slightly to remain balanced; engage the low and mid belly as you straighten your back. Lift your shins higher, bringing them parallel to the floor. Use your abdominal muscles and hip flexors to pull your thighs and torso closer together. Extend your arms alongside your shins. Hold for five breaths and repeat four more times.

3. More flexible outer hips: Half lotus pose.   Begin in a seated position with your legs extended straight in front of you. Cross your left ankle over your right thigh. If possible, bring your left foot closer to your right hip. Using the muscles in your inner left thigh, work your left knee toward the ground.If your knee doesn’t reach the ground comfortably, place a block or book under your knee to stabilize. Remain here or fold forward over your right leg. Hold for five to fifteen breaths and repeat on the opposite side.

Becoming an early bird. Sort of.

  Anyone who knows me knows I am not a morning person. I prefer the inky black of night to the multicolored pastels of the morning sky, and, really, I don’t like to say words before 9 a.m.

But I’m an adult with a job that requires my presence at 7:30 in the morning and I have children whose internal clocks seem to be set at 6 a.m. Our days are chock full of school, work, practices, church, meetings, and by the time dinner has been cooked and eaten, I’m exhausted and ready for some quality time with the Netflix machine.

Trouble is, I have goals. I want to practice yoga six days a week. I want to meditate every day. I want to write more. I want to read more. I want to spend more time hanging out with my husband and kids. 
I spent years complaining about these seemingly unattainable goals. At some point, though, I had to accept the harsh truth: because I cannot create more time in the day, if I want to do all the things I want to do, I must wake up earlier. Like 5 a.m. early. This realization may or may not have come with a heavy sigh of defeat.

So, about a month ago, I started setting my clock for 4:45 or 5 a.m., and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the painlessness of my new routine. At 5 a.m., it’s still ink-black outside; the house is silent and I’m not quite awake enough to fret over the day’s tasks. I can wrap myself in a blanket and sit on my meditation cushion for several minutes. My thoughts haven’t quite picked up to their usual anxious pace, and so stilling them isn’t the Herculean task I’d grown used to in evening meditation. On the mornings I practice yoga, my move to the mat is slow and unhurried. My body is still shaking off the elixir of sleep, so my first few minutes of yoga are a bit creaky. Then I melt into a few sun salutations and, to my constant surprise, I awaken and move vigorously through a 45-minute or hourlong practice.

By 6 or 6:30, the mind-fog is mostly clear and I’m present enough to pack lunches and get the kiddos ready and out the door.

Though I’ve settled into this routine for several weeks, I’d say I’m a long ways off from being anything close to “a morning person.” But for the first time in many years, I finally feel like I have enough time in the day (on most days).

If you’re feeling hemmed in by the day, see if you can wake up just 15 minutes earlier. Use that time for unhurried thinking, a luxurious cup of tea, a walk around the block, a short devotional, or a handful of sun salutations. It’s amazing how an extra pocket of time in the morning can make the coming hours more manageable.

Let me know how it goes!