I do yoga every morning. It wasn’t always this way. For years, I wanted to be doing yoga more frequently. I thought it would be good for me, for my stiff shoulders and neck as well as aches from an accident decades ago. I felt virtuous when I did yoga and guilty when I didn’t. I liked feeling virtuous.
For a while, I did manage to do an exercise or two most days, usually in the morning. My kids were little then, and sometimes they’d join me for a few minutes. Just as often, I’d give up when they arrived in the doorway wanting attention. Some days, they’d arrive before I was out of bed, so I gave up before I’d started.
As they grew and wanted their own bedrooms, one of them moved into the room I had used as a study – which was also where I did yoga. It’s a pathetic excuse, but, yes, that’s why I stopped doing yoga on a daily – ahem – occasional basis. My study had had plenty of floor space to do the Bridge or the Boat Pose. It wasn’t the same doing those on the living room rug where the cat had puked the day before.
I moved my writing tools to our new conservatory, with its hard tiled floor and muddy footprints. Back then, a hundred kids used to run in and out of our house, playing Hide and Seek or the Hunger Games Outdoor Game or just chasing each other, because that’s what kids do.
Things change, kids grow into teenagers and nowadays the muddy footprints mostly belong to our cats, but somehow I never regained the yoga habit I’d lost. It was, I told myself, evidence of my lack of discipline. Bad me.
Then I went on a workshop run by my friend Andrea St Clair on Yoga For Sleep. At the start of the workshop people explained why they were there. Mostly they couldn’t get to sleep or woke for hours in the night, but for one person the problem wasn’t not sleeping, but waking up sluggish and taking ages to get going. “Yes,” I thought, “That’s me too.”
Although Andrea gave us practices to do just before bed, and some for a pick-me-up during mid-afternoon slumps, I was intrigued to see if a few yoga exercises in the morning could make any significant boost to my energy levels.
I was also aware that if I tried to do it all, there was a chance I’d feel overwhelmed and do nothing. When it comes to self-care, there’s very little point in trying to force yourself into action. Instead, we need to go gently. Setting goals too big is a major reason most New Year’s resolutions fail. When we try to create rapid change, we are more likely to backslide, simply because life tends to balance itself so massive change generally stirs resistance. As James Clear says in The Paradox of Behavior Change, “the best way to achieve a new level of equilibrium is not with radical change, but through small wins each day.”
In addition, most of us tend to be too hard on ourselves when we don’t achieve goals. However, research shows the more we punish ourselves, the more discouraged we feel, and so the less likely we are to take the action needed to get those goals.
Knowing that self-punishment doesn’t work, it made sense not to set myself up for failure so I decided to set a small goal of ten minutes of yoga every morning for 30 days.
I chose 30 days because some psychologists say that’s how long it takes to establish a new habit, and I figured that would be long enough to tell if it was going make a difference. I chose ten minutes because that felt easily achievable.
I’m not sure how long it took to make morning yoga a habit, but two weeks in, my body already felt more flexible and less tired.
Two months in, I pulled muscles over my ribs (not doing yoga!) I had to adapt the exercises because reaching up, bending and twisting were all too painful. I read that pulled rib muscles take three to six weeks to heal, but mine took a little over two. I don’t know if daily yoga helped – but it’s possible.
Now, five months in, most days I do around fifteen minutes of a mix of yoga and Pilates. I feel more flexible, and aches that I’ve had for years are much improved. Today at my weekly Pilates class, the teacher said that I look more comfortable moving my body than I used to do.
Best of all, I do yoga because I enjoy it and the effect it has on my body, not because I think I should do it or am trying to be good. Recent research actually shows we benefit more from exercise when we don’t force ourselves to do it. I can believe that! My favourite of the exercises I do is the tree pose – as I do it, I look out over our back garden to our willow tree, and so it becomes a meditative and inspiring practice. (In the dark winter mornings I stood in semi-darkness so I could see the willow rather than my own reflection.)
The Take aways – how to develop your own yoga practice
These suggestions assume you are already familiar with yoga and have attended classes with a professional teacher. If not, first attend classes before you try to do yoga at home.
- Find time of day that suits you.
For me, morning works best, but you might prefer evening.
- Choose a setting that inspires and uplifts you.
Looking out to the garden definitely helped to make yoga into a daily habit. I’ve come to really enjoy noticing the twists and turns of the willow branches and the space beyond them. Perhaps in the summer, I’ll even step outside!
- Do only exercises or postures that you enjoy.
This is a no-brainer – if we enjoy exercise, we get more benefit from it.
- Once you’ve found a set of exercises that works for you, keep doing them.
I think this works because it’s easier to see progress and so feel encouraged to keep going. It also helps develop a routine, which is helpful for forming a habit. You can add other exercises from time to time. My basic practice is some shoulder loosening exercises, a backward bend, a warrior pose, a forward bend and the tree pose every day. I also do extra exercises, including some Pilates, each day and I vary these from time to time.
- Set a length of time for your yoga that is easily achievable.
If you don’t think you’d manage ten minutes, start with five. Start small and you’ll feel a sense of achievement that encourages you to go on. If you go over that some days, that’s absolutely fine!
- Set the number of days you plan to do this, and treat it as an experiment.
If you feel better after that time, you won’t have to cajole yourself to carry on.
- Don’t worry about perfection; instead do what works for you.
I start doing shoulder exercises as I walk downstairs, and carry on while I wait for the kettle to boil. By the time I reach the conservatory with a warm drink, I’ve already got well into my morning routine. That may not be classic yoga practice, but it works for me! Instead of worrying about being a good yoga student, find what works for you.