How To Incorporate Yoga into Your Day
As well as being Summer Solstice today – the day that marks the peak of dreamy, long, warm summer evenings – it is also International Day of Yoga, when people all around the world come together to celebrate the gifts of Yoga. Many of you will have felt for yourselves how much Yoga has to offer: it brings benefits to every level of our being, strengthening our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. What some of us struggle with however, particularly when we lead full, busy lives with multiple tasks, people, screens and needs all jostling for our attention, is finding ways to incorporate Yoga into our day. It can feel like another task on our never-ending to-do list.
The good news is that it’s easier than you think! The more you learn about Yoga by studying its scriptures and being guided by knowledgeable teachers, the more you realise that it is not just something that we practice on a mat, but is a whole way of life. We don’t just do Yoga, we live it. So, as it turns out, you don’t have to be in a stunningly curated studio to practice Yoga, or in expensive leggings, or in a beautiful Instagram-worthy woodland idyll. You can be at your desk. On the school run. Or even in bed!
Here are some suggestions of how to incorporate more Yoga into your life.
Start the day as you mean to go on
Living Yoga – rather than picking it up as you roll out a Yoga mat and then putting away again – means taking care of ourselves and making good choices for our health and wellbeing right from the beginning of our day. So rather than reaching for our phones first thing, hunching our shoulders and necks forwards to pour ourselves into emails, the news or Whatsapp within minutes of opening our eyes, you could choose to spend a few moments on the edge of your bed, feet planted firmly on the floor, gently stretching your arms, heart and chest open and making space in your body for optimal breathing. Try simply interlacing your fingers with an inhale and pressing them away from you with an exhale until the arms are extended, then, still keeping the fingers interlaced, inhale the arms up and overhead, and wiggle the hands from side to side, stretching down one side of the torso and then the other. These moments spent in conscious presence to how we are feeling inside our bodies, rather than allowing ourselves to hurtle straight out of sleep and outward into work and all the things our phones remind us we need to do or be, can make all the difference to our mindset for the day ahead.
Add to that thinking of, or better still, writing down, one or two things that you are grateful for about your day ahead – however big or small – and you are off to a wonderful start. Santosha or ‘contentment’ is one of the foundations of the Yogic path. Neuroscience reveals that cultivating gratitude is hugely beneficial for our brains. It is associated with dopamine and serotonin production, two important neurotransmitters for good mental health, and by regularly making space to reflect on the positive things in our lives our brains become better at discovering other good things too – we are literally rewiring ourselves for more joy! It’s a wonderful way to set you up for even the hardest of days ahead.
Asana (physical postures)
Asana practice is the most well-known Yoga practice in the West and makes up the majority of time spent in Yoga classes at studios and gyms. Having a consistent asana practice is beneficial for a whole host of reasons and getting yourself along to in-person classes with trusted, inspiring and well-informed teachers can be a huge boost for our motivation and sense of belonging to a community, as well to strengthen and stretch our bodies. But be assured, you can still practice asana, even if you have little time or money to get to a studio regularly. One way is to find a regular live online class. Plenty of great teachers are still offering these, having seen how convenient it is for many parts of society to practice from home, such as people suffering from social anxiety and those with very young families.
Aside from classes, you can practice Yoga asanas by yourself just about anywhere you like. If you sit at a desk all day, take short breaks for Yoga in your chair. This will give your mind a little break and re-boot, and give your body a chance to ease out the tension that comes with sitting in the same position for hours on end. Taking some spacious, conscious breaths while moving through some seated Cat/Cows and Twists can be lovely. Or, try Modified Cow Face Arms, which opens your chest, stretches under the arm pits, and strengthens the upper back, countering the tightening, forward slump effect of typing at a keyboard all day long. For Modified Cow Face Arms, first make sure you are sitting with a long spine, then reach your left arm above your head and bend it at the elbow, reaching the hand down between the shoulder blades. Then use your right hand to gently draw the elbow towards the midline so that the left hand slides slightly further down your back. Repeat this on the other side.
Create routine and rituals
One of the central tenets of Yoga is ‘Tapas’, which is often translated as ‘discipline’. Routine and rhythm can play a huge role in managing a healthy and happy lifestyle. So alongside weaving ad hoc moments for breathwork or stretches at our desk or in the kitchen into our day, it can also be hugely beneficial to dedicate some time every day, at the same time, in the same space, to move through a ritualised Yoga practice.
So for example, if you are someone with children who works from home, you could decide to dedicate 20 minutes to Yoga each day as soon as you get back from the school run. You might have a particular candle you light to signify this special part of your day, and you might have your mid-morning Coffee + Collagen when you are finished. This practice does not have to be the same every day and it does not have to be asana. Some days your body may call you to spend those 20 minutes moving dynamically through sun salutations. Other days you might realise that what you need is to sit or lie down in meditation and stillness.
Pranayama (breathing practices)
There is more research being done all the time into the power of the breath. Learning first how to become mindful of the breath, and subsequently to control the breath using specific practices can facilitate everything from proper immune function to the reduction of depression, anxiety and physical pain. One of the beauties of breathwork is that you can practice it anywhere, at any given moment, for free. No one need even know you are doing it – so you can use it as an internal coping strategy when you are feeling jangled about giving a big presentation at work or when the kids are hyped up and emotional after school.
Throughout your day, in times of high stress or anxiety, simply becoming aware of the breath can help to bring a greater sense of calm, dropping out of a busy mind and into the body, into the present moment. So first just explore becoming mindful of your breath. Notice it, feel it and experience it fully. You can do this seated, lying down, standing or even walking. It you are still, you might decide to close your eyes, to block out any visual distractions or stimulation. Then send all your awareness onto the inhalation, as it enters through your nostrils and brushes over the back of the throat. You might be able to feel a gentle rise in the chest, around the ribs and belly, then a slight pause, before a sinking and settling feeling on the exhalation. Perhaps you then feel the breath leaving the body through the nostrils, a little warmer now.
From here you could try expanding the breath and equalising the length of the inhalation and exhalation. Starting with counting to four on the in-breath, then noticing a little pause at the top of the breath, before counting to four again on the out-breath. If this feels good after a few rounds of breath you could increase the number of counts towards a very steady and spacious breath. Before and after you do this, pay attention to how you are feeling physically, mentally and emotionally, tracking any changes in physical sensations and mood. Just this act of consciously slowing the breath down activates our parasympathetic nervous system, creating the conditions for the body to move from activation and stress into a more harmonious state of balance. (Please note that counting the length of the inhalation and exhalation does not work for everyone. If you find it increases feelings of anxiety or panic, then stop and go back to gently observing your breath.)
More, better quality rest
When life feels hectic, our minds filled to capacity and our energy levels depleted, what we need is to slow down. Fifteen minutes spent stepping away from all the tasks we have to ‘do’ and just allowing ourselves to ‘be’ can do wonders for how we are feeling mentally, emotionally and physically, which in turn sometimes allows us to get back to our to-do list with extra vigour, and other times might give us precious space to notice that what we really, really need is more rest in order to avoid total burn out.
Lying in Legs Up The Wall is one such way to give ourselves a nourishing break. To try it simply sit sideways with your right side against the wall, exhale and gently swing your legs up onto the wall, and settle your shoulders and head lightly down onto the floor. You could rest your head on a folded-up blanket for comfort. Team this with steady equal breaths and it is very soothing for your nervous system. You may also notice your mind beginning to quieten down.
Another Yogic practice to delve into when you know you need to slow down is a Yoga Nidra. Eking 10 or 20 minutes out of your busy day might seem hard, but realistically many of us spend that much time plugged into screens, so why not spend it doing something that nurtures our hearts, souls and bodies instead? There are lots of free Yoga Nidras online – I highly recommend the Yoga Nidra Network – and for me, if I’m working from home, after lunch is a perfect time to lie in bed and calmly boost my energy and dopamine levels for the rest of the day ahead.
End the day with Yoga
If you find you have got through the whole day without any time for Yoga, don’t despair! Using it to help you wind down and drift off into a peaceful, deep sleep is another great way to integrate it into your day. Practicing Child’s Pose and some gentle Supine Twists before you climb into bed can be helpful, particularly if you suffer from insomnia or struggle to decompress from the stresses of your day. Top that off by practising some lovely long, spacious mindful breaths, with particular focus on lengthening the exhalation, and you’re giving yourself every chance of a beautiful, long night’s sleep.