Yoga plays a huge role in my self-care routine. I first tried it out in high school, thanks to my mom, and even practiced in college. While I went for a few periods here and there where yoga was not a regular part of my life, it’s been something I’m grateful to be able to turn to to help get centered. When I was younger, I looked at it as more of a workout, but it’s really become a meditative practice for me, a form of mindful movement to keep me grounded even when those hurricane winds of change are blowing my hair around.
NYC Yoga Instructor Angela Dawn was kind enough to talk yoga with me and let me share her story and insight on here. I hope you get as much out of it as I did!
How did you find your way to yoga?
I took my first yoga class in 2005. I was a recent transplant to NYC, and yoga wasn’t serious for me at the time, just another part of my fitness routine. But as I grew in the practice, I started to notice how yoga was different from my time on the treadmill in so many ways. I found grace, moving meditation, and profound opening.
Some styles of practice ignited my spirit more than others ,but diversity kept my practice alive. I tried many different styles of yoga; Kripalu, Vinyasa, Restorative, Yin, Ashtanga, and more. I didn’t grow overly attached to any one teacher, but I was more drawn in by the ones who radiated a sense of being profoundly changed by their yoga practice. Through the years, I looked for profound changes in myself but I saw only small things – better balance on some days, small strength gains, the ability to handle life’s little crises better and better. Over the next decade, yoga saw me through illness and recuperation, job and life changes, addictions and recovery, and several periods of deep grief. I still didn’t feel profoundly changed by my practice but I did feel deeply and lovingly held by a force larger than myself.
As a curvy woman, I often felt left out of the larger conversation about health and fitness, even after managing and improving two autoimmune conditions with a healthy lifestyle and regular yoga practice. Yoga Teacher training, which I completed in the spring of 2016 not only allowed me to begin to steer the conversation my way, but also towards anyone, anywhere, who was not being offered the benefits of yoga. I absolutely love teaching in yoga studios in SoHo, Harlem, and the Bronx, and I also teach in a shelter for women in transitional housing, a high school, and a residential center for adults living with autism and visual impairment.
How do you feel yoga can help people deal with stress in their life?
Yoga can help with stress in so many ways. Just stepping on to the mat can be a small ritual that can literally take you away from some of the stressors of the outside world. Once on the mat, just start by focusing on the parts of the body in contact with the mat, the floor, the earth. Contrast the feeling of those places with parts of the body touched just by clothing, or maybe notice the air brushing across bare skin. From there, move on to the breath. Notice where the breath feels most prominent in your body and hone in on that place. Notice the unique rhythm of your inhale and exhale. Take yourself through a guided tour of your body, with the breath as your guide. Check out the places where you’re holding tension and tightness. Notice where you feel pain. Try to give equal attention to places in your body that feel light and free.
If that’s all you have time for, you’ve still managed to step on your mat and create a mindfulness practice. If you can do more, even better. Start with sun salutations. Surya Namaskar A and B build heat in the body and move the breath around. If you don’t have much time, try 4-5 Surya Namaskar A and 1-3 Surya Namaskar B. If you aren’t pressed for time, your sun salutations are your warmup, and you can go from there.
The focus and clarity we build in our asana practice can help us tremendously in our daily lives. Achievements and even failures on the mat can translate to confidence and resiliency at work and in our relationships. An intense practice teaches us that all sensations are temporary, relieved by the next breath, the next small movement. A restorative practice gives our minds a moment to catch up and quiet down, and gives our bodies a chance to experience profound opening and stillness.
Do you find yoga helpful for learning to tune out or deal with distractions?
In yoga we practice pratyahara, or withdrawal of the energy away from the senses. Pratyahara is one of the eight limbs of yoga (did you know that asana or the physical practice is just one limb of eight?) I have learned, from some really wonderful teachers, like Mona Anand of ISHTA Yoga, and through my own practice, that pratyahara actually starts with the act of noticing one’s surroundings. It sounds contradictory; why would you notice something in order to not notice it? Consider the energy that you spend pushing things away, be they annoying sounds or other sensations, or even emotions that you don’t want to feel. The more you push something away, the more energy you actually give to it.
Face the facts, we don’t all have super zen spaces in which to lay down our super beautiful yoga mats and practice our super perfect yoga practice! We do yoga in the city, often in lovely studios in busy parts of town, or maybe we are able to slip in a few minutes here and there at home or at the office. Any time we come to our mats, we have to start by taking in the sensations around us. Chatter from the next room or the sounds of traffic floating up through our window. After a few moments, all but the most annoying sounds (I’m thinking of a jackhammer here) will fade into the background, allowing us to wipe the slate clean and find our pratyahara practice.
Once you’ve cultivated this practice on the mat, you’re likely to find yourself better able to tune out distractions at the office or home. No more staring at the TV behind your date’s head at the bar or restaurant—you’ll be able to look right into their beautiful eyes and make a real connection.
Is there anything you wish people would keep in mind about yoga instructors?
Not every instructor is going to be great for every student, and its not always about talent or experience or even teaching style. Different teachers will resonate with you personally for any number of reasons and that’s okay. Maybe you like a teacher with a sense of humor, or one who names every pose in perfectly pronounced Sanskrit. You might like a teacher who gives you space to explore your practice, or you might prefer one who cues every micro-movement, while demonstrating the advanced version upside-down with their eyes closed. It is okay to pick a teacher that resonates with you, and it is also okay to float around and try every teacher in every studio in the entire city. Just remember that your preference is personal, and the teacher you like isn’t necessarily the best teacher, but he or she is the best teacher for you.
Any thoughts about morning vs daytime vs evening yoga practice?
If you follow Ayurveda (a holistic approach to living well that is often considered a sister science to yoga) then you have definitely been exposed to the concept of doshas – energies comprised of the building blocks of life (air, space, fire, water, and earth) that influence and help us to understand our bodies and personalities. The three doshas have different characteristics; a pitta type may be headstrong, prone to anger and sweating, a vata type may have their heads in the clouds and need to snack all day long, and a kapha type typically exudes a grounded energy and can be slow to move and change. Most people are a mix of at least two doshas, if not three, with one dosha being primary, and times of day as well as seasons can be associated with the doshas. If one is trying to develop a daily practice, Ayurvedic wisdom holds that each dosha will want to practice during their corresponding time of day, between 6-10 for kapha, 10-2 for pitta, and 2-6 for vata. These times are both AM and PM.
In India where I studied, we all rose at 5:45AM in order to chant and meditate at 6 and practice asana at 6:30. We would not eat breakfast until after practice, around 9AM. We would practice again just as the sun was going down. Teacher training intensives require long days, so this schedule was conducive to the intensity of the training. We also practiced at these times because they were sandhyas, or times of flux around sunrise and sunset, when it is believed that balancing activities, like yoga and meditation, can have the most impact.
Here in the west, we don’t focus on sandhyas, although our typical 9-5 workday is certainly shaped by the rising and setting of the sun. Working with your dosha type can be wonderful, but practicality is essential when choosing a time to practice. For example, it may be your dream to hit up the studio at 6AM and start your day with a post-yoga glow. And if you are kapha-dominant, this may be the ideal time for a Vinyasa practice. But your kapha energy may also cause you to hit the snooze button until 7:45, leaving you just enough time to make it to the office. Heading to the studio after work may be the most practical solution; you’ll get the sleep you need and a great practice.
Even the most well-known dictum of practicing on an empty stomach is more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. Of course it would be very uncomfortable to enjoy a huge meal and then go to Mysore practice. Please don’t eat a huge meal and practice right after. But please also don’t go into Bikram famished; you might pass out. More yin practices such as Restorative can be approached sooner after a meal than more intense fiery practices. Use common sense, eat light foods that you know your body can digest and put as much time as you can between noms and yoga, but don’t stress yourself out over it.
Do you have any tips for someone who wants to fit yoga into their life but feels they have no time?
Although most of us benefit from the personal attention and instruction of a great yoga teacher as well as the social interaction before and after class, it’s not the only way to fit yoga into your life. Even the most extraverted class-goer can get swamped with work and life can start to feel off-balance. Finding 10 minutes to sneak in some free yoga on youtube can make all the difference in the world. Even if you don’t make it to your mat, don’t forget that yoga starts and ends with the breath. If you can spend just a few moments breathing mindfully, then you’ve found time for yoga, and yoga has found time for you.
Angela Dawn (RYT500) teaches alignment-based, strength-building, flow yoga throughout Chelsea, SoHo, Harlem, and the Bronx. She has worked with adults living with autism and visual impairment, women in transitional housing, veterans and their families, and she offers Body Positive Vinyasa at BigToe Yoga on Wednesdays from 2:30 to 3:45. Classes are always $12.
Do you practice yoga?
This has been another installment of the Running with Spoons Thinking Out Loud link party, where randomness is the name of the game. Thanks to Amanda for hosting.
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