Published: 21 June 2021. Written by: Cheryl Freedman.
Whether you’re a total novice or a headstand pro, yoga is about the journey, not just the poses. This International Day of Yoga, body positive teacher Donna Noble talks us through yoga’s Indian roots, and how it can heal both mind and body.
It’s been a challenging 12 months, to say the least. So it’s no surprise that many of us have unrolled our yoga mats for some much-needed stress relief.
Yoga is consistently proven to offer not just physical benefits – greater flexibility, balance and strength – but mental ones, too. A study published earlier this year confirmed that yoga was an effective strategy for managing anxiety and depression during lockdown. Research also suggests regular yoga can ease joint pain, benefit heart health, and improve sleep.
For some of us, following a video in our lockdown lounge was our introduction to downward dogs (alongside our actual dogs), while more established yoga lovers breezed through endless sun salutations as part of their daily ritual.
However, many of us are still reluctant yogis – we assume we’re not bendy enough, or are intimidated by perfect poses online and feel we can’t possibly measure up.
We spoke to yoga teacher Donna Noble about why yoga is something for every body – and how there’s more to learn, whatever your level.
1. Yoga’s origins aren’t Western
Today, trendy yoga studios are a mainstay of Western cities, while we’ve all seen those images of people doing backbends on beaches – usually young, white and female. ‘These are the “yogi Barbies” who are very flexible. Often, all we see are the postures,’ says Noble.
In fact, yoga’s roots are in Northern India 5,000 years ago, with a focus on the mind as much as the body, Noble says. The philosophy is a combination of poses (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana) that promote physical and mental wellbeing. The word yoga itself comes from the Sanskrit word for union.
While yoga isn’t a religion, it has close ties with Hinduism and Buddhism. ‘People often don’t realise that yoga in India was traditionally done by men,’ adds Noble.
And she says people also don’t realise that yoga has ancient origins in parts of Africa. ‘The school of Kemetic yoga originated in Egypt. There are hieroglyphic images depicting it. So wherever you believe yoga originated, it was from Black or brown people.’
2. Yoga is for everyone
As a Black yoga teacher with a focus on body positivity through her CurveSome Yoga classes, Noble’s mission is bringing yoga to a diverse audience. ‘My motto is every body is a yoga body, regardless of age, gender, shape, size, your ethnicity, or if you’re disabled,’ says Noble.
Today, there’s greater visibility, partly thanks to YouTube channels featuring more Black and plus-size teachers. But Noble says: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see. Even now, I’ll sometimes go to a yoga studio and I’m the only person of colour. It’s changing, but we have a long way to go.’
And while the world’s finally waking up to the fact that yoga is for every size, being self-conscious can still stop larger people attending. Noble says students told her they’d previously felt either stared at or ignored. ‘That’s how CurveSome Yoga came about – to create a safe judgement-free space for everyone to enjoy yoga.’
Practising yoga naturally promotes self-acceptance, adds Noble. ‘You’ll inhabit your body with more ease and comfort.’
3. It helps you live a calmer, more authentic life
‘I always say yoga is a work-in, not a workout,’ says Noble. ‘The ultimate goal, according to the eight limbs of yoga, is Samadhi, a Sanskrit word which means self-realisation – where you reach a higher state of concentration and self-connectedness.’
These eight limbs are steps that act as guidelines for living a more meaningful life. Of her own journey, Noble says: ‘Yoga was self-liberation. It brought me home to who I was, and away from what society told me I should be. I left the corporate world I was working in, as I wasn’t happy, and came back to my intuition.’
She says others will notice the change in you, too. ‘They [may] say why is that person so calm and not getting stressed?’
4. You don’t have to be bendy to do yoga
If you can barely touch your toes, you might automatically write yoga off. But practising isn’t about showy poses – you choose the level you’re comfortable with.
‘If you compare yourself to someone with their legs behind their neck, of course you’ll think “I’m not flexible enough,”’ says Noble. ‘On my website, I show myself in child’s pose or sitting cross-legged – images that are attainable.’
With patience, your flexibility will grow – and people frequently underestimate themselves, Noble adds. ‘Students in my class often say “I can’t do that.” But they find, when they slow down and give their bodies a chance to respond, they get there.’
5. There are at least 13 styles (and counting)
Whether you want a vigorous workout, to find your spiritual side or to relax, there’s a yoga style for everyone.
Novices should try classes that simply say ‘beginners’, advises Nobel. ‘These will usually be Hatha Yoga, the umbrella yoga. It’s a good place to start as it’s slow and gentle.’
A beginners’ class should cover those names you’ve heard: warrior pose, tree pose, downward-facing dog, pigeon position and triangle pose.
From here, you can branch out – and there’s a lot to choose from. Bikram is hot yoga, practised in rooms heated to 40 degrees Celsius. Vinyasa flow is where you seamlessly move between poses, synchronising with your breath. Lyengar involves holding asanas for longer, often using props like bolsters. Kundalini is more meditative and includes chanting.
In highly physical Ashtanga, you follow structured sequences of postures. Slow Yin Yoga works your muscles as you hold poses for extended periods. And relaxing Yoga Nidra involves lying down during guided meditations.
Noble also mentions modern spin-offs such as Disco Yoga, where you boogie with friends, Aqua Yoga and vigorous Power Yoga.
For people with disabilities, options include Chair Yoga. This adapts poses so they can be done seated, ideal for older people and those with restricted mobility. And Noble even teaches Bed Yoga.
6. You’re born a yogi
Baby Yoga is hugely popular – where new parents or caregivers gently move their baby’s limbs for a bonding experience (and it’s thought to benefit everything from colic to sleep and motor skills).
Noble says: ‘I believe we’re born yogis. When you see a baby on their back putting their big toe in their mouth, that’s the happy baby pose. Lying on your back, knees bent towards your armpits, pulling your feet down.’
Then there’s the mudra hand gesture, where your thumb and forefingers form a circle. ‘Some people think you see babies doing this on ultrasounds.’
7. You need to find your tribe
You wouldn’t hang out with the same friendship group if it didn’t feel right. The same goes for yoga, says Noble. ‘Go to a class and see what the energy, style and teacher are like, to see if it fits you.’
Find the right class, and you’ll quickly feel part of a community, says Nobel – it can even beat loneliness. ‘Yoga is about connections, not only with yourself but others. At a weekly class, you get to know people – even at online classes.’
8. Having a yoga teacher helps
You can learn yoga online, and many did just that last year.
However, Noble says you can’t beat a real-life teacher. ‘In a class, you want someone to challenge you – to say “lift your leg a little higher”. Alone, you may not push yourself, or discover your full range of movement. You also might not be standing in the correct alignment due to habit, and not realise – a teacher can guide you.’
9. Daily practise helps (but isn’t essential)
‘I love doing yoga in the morning as it resets my mind so I can deal with anything,’ says Noble. ‘There’s a misconception that yoga takes time, but it actually creates time. It makes you more focused and productive – it’s why companies often bring it into the workplace.’
Noble says she practises for a minimum of 60 minutes a day. If you’re starting out, she recommends aiming for a minimum of 90 minutes a week, with even 10 minutes a day, six times a week being better than nothing.
10. Yoga encourages resilience
There’s no doubt yoga makes you stronger. ‘Depending on the postures, you [gradually] become able to lift your own body weight,’ says Noble. ‘If you have a dodgy knee, doing the same posture every day can strengthen it.’ However, yoga teaches another type of strength. ‘If you’re encouraged to go beyond your comfort zone on the yoga mat, you can bring that into everyday life.’
11. Yoga isn’t about goals
Ultimately, yoga is a process, explains Noble – one that teaches patience. ‘In our culture, we want to be the best instantaneously. But it’s not about perfection, it’s about practice. Yoga is a journey,’ says Noble.
Yoga has been the perfect antidote to lockdown life, but even with restrictions lifting, it can be a good way to relax and reset at the end of any day. We look at what yin yoga is and how you can practice it from the comfort of your home.
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