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Slow Yoga: Slow Down and Tune-In to Your Practice
A small silver lining of this unprecedented COVID time has been the space and time to get on my mat most days of the week. Through taking virtual classes from different teachers with separate styles, I’ve noticed an interesting thing. I’m finding gentler, slower asana flows more pleasant, calming, and focusing than those that move with the rhythm of a fast song, faster than my breath naturally flows.
That makes me laugh a bit because as a dancer, I’ve always loved—and my body has been naturally inclined toward—moving swiftly. That’s translated to much of my yoga practice; I’ve loved to flow fast. Speedy vinyasa classes have left me feeling truly invigorated. And simply put, I’ve found them just plain fun.
What I’m sharing here is my experience alone, and yoga shows us that our experiences in practice are all different, because we are all different. Yet, I think my experience illustrates some meaningful truths that go far beyond me, and they seem worthy of a closer look. In essence, it’s this: my yoga journey, which has taken fascinating turns of late, has shown me the value of slowing it down, allowing space and time to tune in, listen, and breathe in a natural, easy rhythm.
Interoception: Turning Inward
Through this evolution in my practice, I’m noticing how my breath is an accurate indicator of my body’s experience. We know that the body’s experience is inextricably tied with the mind and spirit experience. I’m slowly learning that fast isn’t better, and I don’t always have to go at my instructor’s speed and intensity. After all, my body is a pretty darn good teacher with a lot of wisdom to share—if I can learn to truly listen. The scientific term for this “tuning in” is interoception, accurately detecting and understanding signs and messages from one’s body.
For one thing, a smooth, even breathing rhythm indicates that outer stimuli and demands are not overly taxing the body. This is the body in a rest-and-digest state; it’s not anticipating a threat. Conversely, shallower or more arrhythmic breath is a sign that what the body is being asked to handle might be beyond its capacity at this time. In other cases, it’s an indicator of the flight/fight/freeze response, meaning that the body is anticipating a threat.
Neither is wrong or right; it’s not aligned with yogic principles to label in such binary ways. We need access to both states, but the rest-and-digest state is the body’s baseline, the state that’s healthiest for us to dwell in most of the time. Being in the fight-or-flight state for excessive amounts of time will ultimately lead to fatigue.
This rest-and-digest state gives me better access to interoception. I can sense how a certain body part is feeling, or if there’s a slight adjustment I can make to find more stability in a particular pose. Thinking back to my dance experience, I would (and often still often do) find moving fast thrilling. Fast vinyasa flows are a similar experience for me. But moving more slowly, with my interoception therein fully awakened? That’s a different, and not lesser, kind of thrilling.
Proprioception: Connecting Outward
Zooming out a bit, I’m also seeing that moving at a more moderate pace changes the experience of my body moving through space while practicing. The rest-and-digest state brings a more grounded experience. It also brings more of a connection to the ground beneath me.
Additionally, there’s more time and energy to truly expand outward through space when practicing at a moderate pace—to send just a bit more energy out through my fingers in a Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II) (above), to bend just a bit deeper in a Goddess/Horse Pose (Utkata Konasana), to lengthen my spine just a bit more in a Triangle Pose (Trikonasana).
I can also feel how my body parts are related in that greater connection and expansiveness—where my spine is in relation to my pelvis, how my joints are aligned (or not aligned), what muscles are engaged in a pose, perhaps more than others. That sense of the body and its movement in relation to surrounding space, including the relationship of body parts to each other in space—is called proprioception.
Yoga shows us how interoception rests on a foundation of inner sensing, of energy in the body expanding outward from its center. In a more moderately paced vinyasa flow, I can nurture and then sense those interoception and proprioception working together in conversation, in and out of my body.
Focus: The Point of Yoga Practice
It’s been said countless times but bears repeating: asana is great for our holistic health and enjoyable in its right, but that’s not the point. In classical yoga, the poses are meant to prepare our bodies to sit in meditation. In a broader and perhaps more modernized sense, poses teach us to be mindful while we make choices and work toward a goal. They also offer a myriad of lessons through direct, embodied experience, including acceptance, non-judgment, and much about how we treat ourselves off the mat, for example.
From a foundation of more awakened interoception and proprioception, with all of the resulting effects, I’ve recently found my “monkey mind” calmer and quieter. To-do list or “I’m not quite sure what to do about that” thoughts certainly pop up in my head while practicing—a lot. (It’s a practice, right?) But then I hear my steady, smooth breath, as I move through poses at a modest pace, and that becomes my focus once again. Then, guided by my instructor or by my awareness, perhaps I refine my pose. Perhaps, on a deeper level, I simply notice and enjoy my pose as it is. This is finding focus, a key aim of yoga that leads to even more wonderful states of being. My body and mind are in it!
Tapas: How to Evolve Your Yoga Practice
An important thing to note: the ways I’ve seen my practice recently evolve is likely the result of showing up to practice. In yoga, this is called tapas or dedicated, consistent work in one’s practice or another endeavor. Having taken frequent virtual classes from different instructors in the time of COVID has allowed me to notice the differences in my body-mind-spirit experiences in various asana practices. Direct experience nurtures awareness, which is the first step toward change. There’s no direct replacement for practice.
I’m also taking more dance classes, and I’ve seen these changes in my breath, inner and outer experience, and focus in my dancing as well. I’ve thought for a while that a pleasant aspect of yoga practice is having the time to refine movement and postures in a way that classical dance rarely does. Yet now I’m finding myself craving those refinement opportunities from yoga for a different reason, not from perfectionism, but from a desire to truly connect, both inward and outward. I’ve discovered the wonder in something that might have even bored me at a different stage of my movement journey. Moving fast will always excite me, but I’ve learned the wonder of moving more slowly. The mat will always have more miracles to share with us, as long as we continue to practice.
Kathryn Boland is an RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans - all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!