1 – Only smile if you feel like it.
Some teachers are obsessed with asking students to smile during class. This is a somewhat controversial topic, but I feel strongly that you should only smile if you feel like it. For me, smiling in class takes me away from my meditation and concentration. Also, yoga is hard and we work through a lot of physical and emotional pain in class. Yoga is serious business and sometimes it’s ok for our faces to reflect that serious work. Like with anything, it’s ok to smile from time to time to see if it feels right, but don’t feel like you need to put on a happy face just because the teacher asked you to.
2 – Tight hamstrings? Work your sit ups.
One of the best tips I learned was to focus on executing really good sit ups in order to increase my hamstring flexibility. In standing head to knee and standing bow I was struggling with getting past my tight legs. By focusing on the pull and stretch at the end of each sit up, I gradually opened up my hamstrings and the standing postures became easier. Take an extra moment to get a really good stretch at the end of each sit up. Bonus tip: work really hard in pada hasthasana (the first stretching pose in half-moon.)
3 – Relax the inside of your mouth.
Teeth_OrinZebest_CCIt’s common when we first start practicing to clench our jaws or tighten our faces. In time we learn to relax and release our faces and jaws, but many of us – including myself – still tighten the inside of our mouths.
Think about if you were holding water inside your mouth, that whole area can easily become tense when we’re working hard. Try relaxing this space and notice what happens with your breath and heart rate, they should both even out.
4 – Pull your “wings” in during savasana.
I have shoulders that naturally roll forward from years of swimming. As a result, when I lay in savasana, my shoulders roll forward. Think of tucking your “wings” (aka scapula) in when you lay on your back. You will notice your shoulders naturally roll back creating a more relaxed savasana.
5 – Add strength training to your routine.
For years I drank the Bikram kool-aid and thought you didn’t need to do any other complimentary exercise to maintain a healthy body. I still believe that solely doing Bikram yoga is great for your body and mind, but as I have aged, I’ve noticed a decrease in my muscle tone and mass, despite having a consistent practice.
Adding strength training a few times a week has not only helped my overall health (you can read about the many health benefits of strength training here) but has also improved my practice. It has helped me tone and strengthen the muscle groups not adequately strengthened in the beginning 26 posture series.
6 – Work your biceps, glutes and center back.
These are the three areas I’ve noticed receive less attention during the beginning class. If you take up strength training be sure to work these three areas to compliment your practice. Also keep in mind the postures that you can work these muscles, but we often choose not to.
Biceps: hands to feet pose (last part of half-moon pose), standing separate leg stretching, wind removing pose, sit ups, and final stretching.
Glutes: All spine strengthening poses, squeeze those buns!
Center back: squeeze the central part of your back in between your scapula during triangle, separate leg stretching, half moon, standing bow, balancing stick, standing separate leg head to knee, tree/toe stand and full locust pose.
7 – Be mindful of righteous thoughts that will hold you back.
I have learned this lesson the hard way. For years I struggled in spine strengthening series (I still do) and wouldn’t work as hard as I could or needed to. I would tell myself that the reason I couldn’t work hard in those postures is because I worked so hard in the standing series that I was physically shot. If other people worked as hard I do in standing series, they would struggle with spine strengthening too.
All of those thoughts are a bunch of hooey and have only held me back. The result is I’ve cheated myself for years in spine strengthening and my practice has suffered as a result. Get over your righteous thoughts, and into your postures. It’s hard, I know, but many yogis get stuck in this mindset and never leave.
As Bikram says, “Your mind is like a bad neighborhood, stay out of it.”
8 – If you struggle with the heat, take a longer savasana at the end of class.
If you struggle with the heat during class, a long savasana will help you cope with heat the next time you practice. As a nordic Minnesotan I used to think anything over 60 degrees was balmy. You can imagine my rebellion when I started practicing in a room that was 105 degrees with 40% humidity — in short, I hated the heat.
The final savasana is a great time for your body to acclimate to the heat without physically exerting yourself. If you want to run out of the room and jump in a cold lake the second the teacher leaves class, you’re not alone. Once you feel like you’re fully relaxed in savasana, take ten more deep breaths.
9 – It’s all about your quads in Standing Separate Leg Stretching pose.
This posture is easy to relax and let gravity do the work. This posture is ALL about squeezing your quadricep muscles with all your might. This is another posture where your biceps play an important role, but you can only use your biceps if you’re properly activating your quads (otherwise you can risk pulling your hamstrings and lower back.)
Think about sucking in your stomach while squeezing your quads the whole time in this posture. You’ll find it is more strenuous and requires an incredible amount of mental discipline. Many of us are fatigued at this point since it comes after the balancing series, but, for advanced yogis – try working this posture and see what comes.
An important note: if this posture is not done properly you can, and will, overstretch the back of your legs and inflame your sciatic nerve, please follow the instructions properly and squeeze those quads and stomach muscles!
10 – Avoid looking at your cell phone right after class.
It’s so tempting, I know! You’ve just spent 90 minutes cleansing your body and mind, enjoy it. All day we’re attached to our electronics, computers, phones, Twitter, texts and email. Enjoy the peace of mind you’ve cultivated. Try not to look at your phone until you’re back home.