yoga accessories explained: props and beyond

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Whether you’re a beginner practitioner or a long-time yogi, you may find it hard to keep up with the many and varied yoga accessories and props that continue to be released to the market on a regular basis. As I explained in the first part of this Yoga accessories EXPLAINED series, the growing popularity of yoga not only has resulted in its worldwide spreading, but it has also established a solid foundation for the ancient practice to evolve into a multi-billion industry. Today, a practice for which one of its most basic tenets required austerity has grown into a potentially luxurious hobby, depending on how much you’re willing to spend.

But what is it that you actually need to practice yoga? And what is it that is truly useful, and can help you enhance and deepen your practice safely and effectively?

My personal opinion, as you may have inferred from my prior blog post, is that less is more. In this blog post, I will share a few basic props that can help you deepen your practice, and a couple more which, though not essential, you may find fun to explore.

The very basics

Blocks, straps, and blankets are the most basic props that you will likely find at any studio, and also at any store selling yoga accessories. They’re available worldwide and can also be easily substituted with items that you already have at home, such as a thick book for the block, a long scarf, tie, or even a belt for the strap, and a regular blanket. Of course, if you are going to be using them regularly, you may want to invest in actual dedicated yoga props.

Blocks are available in different materials. The most popular may be foam, due to its light weight and affordability, and this will likely be the material that you’ll see at most yoga studios. However, blocks can also be made of cork (pictured above) and even wood (which is more costly, and also heavier). In my personal practice, I prefer cork yoga blocks not only because they’re more eco-friendly than foam, but because I feel they’re more sturdy and stable, especially if I want to use them under my hands for arm balances, or between my shoulder blades for passive backbends. With so many different blocks available in the market, you can feel free to experiment with different things according to your budget until you find your favorite!

Blocks are very versatile and can be used for a variety of purposes such as bringing the ground closer to you, promoting correct alignment, adding height for arm balances, supporting passive backbends, and generally adding a supportive surface to a pose when needed.

Straps are typically made of hemp or cotton with a variety of cinches (plastic, metal, or quick release.) They also tend to come in different sizes, though you can expect the standard size to be somewhere around 170 cm or 6 feet. (Some brands offer longer straps that may come in handy if you’re very tall.) Same as with the blocks, you don’t really need to pay an arm and a leg to benefit from the use of a strap in your practice - if you’re crafty you can even make one yourself!

Set of two large  Cork Yoga Blocks from Kurma Yoga ,  Natural Fitness Hemp Yoga Strap , and locally sourced handmade blanket from Figuig, Morocco.

Set of two large Cork Yoga Blocks from Kurma Yoga, Natural Fitness Hemp Yoga Strap, and locally sourced handmade blanket from Figuig, Morocco.

Straps are generally used as a way to add length to your limbs, allowing you to safely enter the correct alignment for poses that would otherwise be inaccessible to you if you’re still working on your flexibility. Think for example of a pose like utthita hasta padangusthasana (extended hand to big toe pose): if you’re unable to grab your toes and extend the leg, you have two ways to approach the pose. You can either bend the knee and still work on your balance, until you have the flexibility. Or you can make up for the lacking flexibility by “lengthening” your arm using a strap around your foot, which will allow you to continue to work both on the balance and the flexibility part of the pose, striving to straighten the knee safely within the correct alignment. Other uses of a strap include assisting advanced techniques such as flipping the grip (full shoulder rotation), providing the necessary resistance to build muscle memory by looping them around the upper arm in arm balances and planks, and keeping the body/limbs in place in passive/restorative yoga poses.

Blankets are another often underrated but very basic yoga prop that you can easily substitute with any blanket you have at home. They can be used to provide extra cushioning for the joints when the mat is not enough (think kneeling poses such as camel or low lunges, for example.) They can also be used under the shoulders during shoulderstand, rolled up under the heels in poses like malasana (garland pose), rolled up or folded under the back for a gentle heart opening experience, or to add height and support in poses like child pose (placing it between the thighs and calves) in Yin or Restorative types of yoga. Let’s also not forget that we can use it to cover ourselves up for a cozy savasana too!

And… this is it! Surprised? You really don’t need much else to maintain a healthy, effective, and sensible yoga practice, but just for fun, let’s take a look at…

Some non-essentials that you may find useful as well!

The Pranamat ECO is an acupressure massage mat intended to relieve minor muscle aches and pains. These types of mats also claim to improve physical well-being, increase skin elasticity, boost energy, and induce relaxation, promoting better sleep. You can read more about the benefits of the Pranamat in their own blog here. Personally, while I don’t think an acupressure mat is an essential must-have, I do enjoy having one, and like to incorporate it at the end of my yoga practice, to enjoy an extra relaxing savasana. I have also found it useful when recovering from a middle back injury that had lasted for months and got noticeable better once I started using the mat consistently. If you’re considering giving it a go, you can enjoy a 10% discount to any of their products and sets by following the link provided above, or by entering the code CHANDRINI10 at checkout.

Yoga bolsters can be defined as a type of cushions or pillows used to support and cushion the body in different poses, most commonly in Yin Yoga or in Restorative Yoga practices. They can be cylindrical (like the one in the picture) or rectangular, and they’re relatively firm. If you don’t regularly practice Yin or Restorative yoga, and especially if you’re quite flexible, you may never feel the need for a prop like this. But if you practice any of these two types of yoga, experience a lack of flexibility, or like to hold poses for a long time, a bolster may come in handy. They can be easily substituted at home with pillows or firmer cushions, so whether you actually need a dedicated bolster will depend on your actual practice and needs.

Malas (like the Coral Snake Mala from Mukhas Collection) are prayer beads used in meditation, in the same way in which you would use a rosary or a tasbeeh. Malas typically consist of 108 beads plus a bigger bead called the guru bead. Though they’re becoming increasingly popular as fashionable necklaces, traditionally malas are considered sacred items used for spiritual purposes. You may wear it to remind yourself of your spiritual intention, and hold it in your hands during meditation for extra focus, or to count mantra repetitions in the practice of japa. I personally own a variety of malas from different brands, but feel a special connection to the ones from Mukhas Collection, which have an exceptionally authentic feel. Both their beautiful rudraksha and fragrant sandalwood are sourced from sustainable plantations. I personally own more than one of their pieces (and so do my kids!) and, though they may not be essential for a yoga practice, I enjoy keeping them close to my skin as they help calm my mind and keep me focused on my journey. You can enjoy a 10% off discount to any of their products with code MINTYOGINI10 at checkout.

Yoga wheels are narrow and wide cylinders made of plastic, wood, or a variety of materials, that can be used to enhance flexibility, offer a more challenging practice, or assist in a variety of asanas. Personally, however, the only way I use my wheel is rolling on top of it for a while to warm-up and open my back before I start my daily practice. When it comes to assisting poses, I find that most “wheel-assisted” suggestions can generally be done with blocks or other home items, making this a fun prop to play with, but not an absolute must-have.

I hope this article has helped shed some light on the fascinating world of yoga props. Please share your opinions on yoga props and ask any questions in the comments - I would love to hear more about what props other people find useful, and how you make the most out of them.

If you’re a brand and would like me to review your product, please feel free to reach out via this contact form.

yoga accessories explained: the yoga mat

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As yoga continues to grow into a multi-billion dollar industry, and the number of new yoga-related products marketed as essential to a healthy and fulfilling practice never ceases to increase, it’s no wonder that some of the most frequently asked questions from yoga beginners revolve around accessories. With hundreds of mat brands to choose from, many people find themselves at a loss when trying to pick one, and things only get more complicated when they start to consider props, accessories, and even clothing (which I will leave for a different post.) At times, the vast variety of available products can even be off-putting and intimidating. In this blog post, the first part of my “Yoga accessories: EXPLAINED” series, I would like to explore the decision making process when choosing a yoga mat, including examples and reviews of the mats that I’ve actually tried and own.

What do I actually need to start a yoga practice? How much should I invest?

This is a question I received countless times, and the answer never changes: all you need is your body, and the intention to start a practice and stick to it. If you already have this, then a mat may turn out to be helpful as well.

While I understand that this answer may seem too simple, and it may not be what some people expect to hear, I believe that this is as real as it gets. You don’t really need anything to practice yoga: no special clothing, no special accessories, no huge investment. All you need is your body, your breath, and your mind, and you’re good to go.

It’s important to remember that yoga mats, ubiquitous as they are, are quite a recent invention dating back to the late 1960s. Before that, yogis in India would use woven cotton rugs and, even before that, they would sit on animal skin or grass. (If you are interested in knowing more about the history of the yoga mat, check out this video by Liforme.) This goes to say that, while you will find using a mat for your asana practice very helpful, you definitely don’t need to make an investment beyond what you can afford to be able to enjoy yoga.

The yoga mat: what you need to know

The role of the yoga mat in your practice is to provide a stable surface that combines cushion properties (to protect the joints) with enough grip and traction so that you don’t slip all over the place. You may find that the qualities that you look for in a mat can be slightly different depending on the type of yoga that you practice, but generally here’s what I look for in a yoga mat:

  • Density: By density, I mean mats that are cushiony yet not excessively soft. A soft mat that sinks when you step or place your hands on it might be comfortable if you need a lot of cushioning for your joints in sitting or kneeling poses, but won’t be able to support your balance in standing postures. In fact, it may make balancing quite tricky, especially in one-legged poses.
  • Grip: There’s nothing quite as distracting as a mat that your hands and feet slip on when you’re trying to hold a pose. And it’s not only distracting; lack of grip can affect your alignment negatively, because you will find your body trying to compensate the slipperiness by changing form. When buying a mat in person, I like to recommend to try do a couple of downward-facing dogs on it to check for grip. However, in a world where buying a yoga mat is usually something we do online, sometimes we just have to take a friend’s (or a review’s) word for it. Do your research to find the best mat for you!
  • Traction: Same as the above, but this refers to a mat slipping around on the floor. This has happened to me with lightweight mats on smooth surfaces. Because of this, I prefer mats with a bottom side made of rubbery material that adheres to the floor, or heavy mats. I don’t really mind carrying a heavy mat around if I find it trusty enough to not move around when I jump back and forth during my sun salutations.

A good mat is a mat that feels like home when you step on it

My favorite mats are the Manduka PRO and the Liforme.

(Manduka PRO Oceana [limited edition color] , and Liforme Yoga Mat in Pink)

(Manduka PRO Oceana [limited edition color] , and Liforme Yoga Mat in Pink)

I use both mats interchangeably, though these days I like to keep my Manduka at my studio and the Liforme at home. In my personal experience, I prefer the cushioning and solid feeling of the Manduka (6 mm thick)  versus the Liforme, which is a bit thinner (4.2 mm).

Both mats are larger than your average standard yoga mat, with the Manduka PRO (Standard) measuring 180 cm x 66cm and the Liforme 185 cm x 68 cm.

The Manduka PRO is made of PVC, but what sets it apart from other PVC mats, according to the company, is that it’s “manufactured through a process that ensures no toxic emissions are released into the atmosphere. The Manduka Pro is certified safe for human contact by OEKO-TEX, and environmental certification agency in Europe for the textile industry.” It also comes with a lifetime guarantee that promises that these mats should not wear from regular use.

The Liforme, on the other hand, claims to be more eco-friendly, as it’s made of natural rubber and eco-polyurethane that, according to the company, “is completely biodegradable within approximately one to five years in normal landfill conditions.” As far as I know, it doesn’t come with any type of guarantee and I can’t speak for what it’s expected lifespan is, as I’ve had mine for less than a year now.

These two mats are on the higher price point. The Manduka PRO ranges in price between $80 to $155 USD, and the Liforme costs $149.95 USD. This can feel like quite the splurge if you’re just starting and are not quite yet committed to your yoga practice. I definitely understand your concern - it took me months of putting the Manduka PRO in my cart and then closing the laptop before I finally completed the purchase in the summer of 2016!

If you’re just starting and are looking for a more affordable mat before you decide to upgrade to the mat of your dreams, I’ve got you covered!

Affordable yoga mats ideal to start your practice

If you’re just starting your yoga practice and not ready to invest in an expensive yoga mat, no worries! There are many reasonably performing affordable yoga mats to choose from, depending on what you need. Below you’ll find some mats that I own, use or have used, and keep in my studio for my students to borrow.

Keep in mind that even if you’re not ready to make a huge investment, you still want to get a mat that performs well enough that you can forget about it and focus on your practice. A mat that makes you feel uncomfortable, distracts you, or prevents you from enjoying your practice is never worth it, no matter how affordable.

Disclaimer: all these four mats have been gifted to me by the companies, either as prizes for winning a challenge, PR, or as part of our working agreement when I’ve received sponsorship for creating and running Instagram yoga challenges. This doesn’t affect my opinion in the slightest - it’s important to me to provide honest reviews to help you choose a mat that really performs to the expected standards.

From top to bottom:

  • Standard PVC Yoga Mat from Locamed (available for purchase in Morocco for 195 MAD / approx. $20 USD) Dimensions: 170 x 60 x 0.6 cm. If you’re based in Morocco and struggling to get your hands on yoga material (which I know can be an epic struggle) this might be for you. This is the type of classic standard PVC yoga mat that can be easily found around the globe, and it provides sufficient cushion and enough grip for a yoga beginner. I find it especially comfortable for more meditative and static practices such as Yin Yoga (sometimes I use this over the Liforme!) and even Hatha Yoga. You may also find it works decently for gentler Vinyasa flows. I wouldn’t recommend it for Ashtanga practice, however, as it can get a bit slippery throughout the practice.
  • Eco-friendly Deluxe Yoga Mat from Gurugrid ($38 USD) Dimensions: 183 x 61 x 0.6 cm. In my opinion, this is one of the best affordable yoga mats that I’ve tried, and I was pleasantly surprised when I first received it. I’ve used it for my personal practice and for teaching both Hatha and Hatha/Vinyasa Flow, and I was always amazed at its grip. It very rarely gets slippery. If I was to find something I dislike about it, it’s probably the fact that it’s a bit softer than I’d like. However this is because I’m picky and used to the solid surface of my Manduka Pro. Though a mere aesthetic detail, it’s also noteworthy that the printed pattern comes off with heavy use. I’ve had my mat for about a year and a half now, and most of the print in the center and the places where you would normally place your hands or feet has come off.
  • AVANZA Yoga Mat in Seafoam Navy from Equilibrium Perfect Balance (€39.95) Dimensions: 185 x 60 x 0.45 cm. If you’re doubting between the mat below (INITIA) or this one, I definitely recommend this one more. Though I personally don’t find this mat to offer enough cushion for the joints, I find it’s texture nice enough for a Yin, Hatha, or slow flow practice. The grip and traction are okay-ish.
  • INITIA Yoga Mat in Tangerine Yellow from Equilibrium Perfect Balance (Originally €24.95 EUR, currently on sale for €16.49 EUR) Dimensions: 190 x 60 x 0.5 cm. Out of the four, this is probably the mat I would recommend the less. I personally find that even a standard PVC mat such as the top one in the picture performs better than this mat, which I found very slippery to the point that I could never concentrate on what I was doing when using it. It’s texture feels hard rather than dense, and it tends to roll up on itself and to shift around on the floor while you’re practicing if it’s on a smooth surface. If you’re looking to buy an Equilibrium mat, go for the AVANZA without a doubt.

Yoga mat Q&A from Instagram

While I was writing this blog post, I asked my followers on Instagram whether they had any specific questions on yoga mats. Here you’ll find some of their questions and my answers.

What about material? Better natural ones, like cotton, or plastic ones?

As yogis, it’s only natural that we’d like our mats to be as eco-conscious and environmentally friendly as possible. Nowadays, there are many brands working towards creating their mats in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to try a non-plastic yoga mat, as even my favorites are made either of PVC or some type of polyurethane. For the same reason, I can’t speak for the performance of non-plastic yoga mats. But if you’re looking for an alternative, cork yoga mats seem to be very popular right now. Juru Yoga, a brand whose blog I’ve collaborated with in the past, offers a selection of cork yoga mats which they describe as featuring amazing grip for even the sweatiest practice (and they ship worldwide!)

What makes some mats more slippery than others? What kind of mat is best for someone with SUPER sweaty palms and feet?

In my opinion, both material and texture can make a huge difference in how slippery a mat is. Keep in mind that this is my personal opinion, but I find that the smooth texture and material of the Liforme is one of the best for sweaty palms and feet. The Manduka PRO’s texture is also amazingly grippy, but I find it a little less adhesive than the Liforme. However, different mats work differently for different people. I’ve read reviews saying the Liforme or the Manduka are slippery, too, so I can’t claim that they’ll work for you 100%. If you can try the mats before buying, or if you have a friend who already owns one, I recommend borrowing and trying it for yourself. Some people also like to place yoga towels on top of their mat to increase grip and keep the mat clean from sweat, but I have personally never managed to make towels to work for me.

Are regular mats enough for practice, or are the fancy ones with alignment markings a better option?

You definitely don’t need the alignment markings. People have been practicing without alignment markings for ages just fine. They are aesthetically pleasing, and can help a bit in the very beginning, but ideally I don’t think you should get used to relying on these markings for your practice. Instead, you should be learning to align your body based on more reliable cues that you are able to use even when you're on a different mat (or on no mat at all!). And when desperately in need of a line, the edge of the mat works just fine. So in my opinion, no, you don’t need fancy alignment markings.

What do you use to clean your mat, and how often should we wash them?

I clean my mat with Manduka’s Mat Wash (I own both the Citrus and the Gingergrass one), which is made with organic essential oils, and which I find to be enough for my purposes. This spray can be used both for daily cleaning after your practice, and also for a deeper cleaning once in a while.

 

As for washing frequency, some people recommend to wash your mat after every practice. Personally, because I don’t usually get excessively sweaty on my mat, I don’t find this to be necessary in my case. Regardless, it’s still a good idea to clean your mat at least once a week if you practice regularly, and to do a deep cleaning once a month.

 

I hope that this blog post can help you choose the best yoga mat for you, or at least give you an idea of what you should be looking for when evaluating your mat’s performance.

Share your favorite yoga mat and any questions in the comments below!

 

yoga sequence to support your fast

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While the body adjust to long periods of fasting, such as Ramadan, it is very common to experience a variety of symptoms that may include lethargy (from staying up during the night, or waking up in the early hours to fuel up on food and fluids before fasting again), stiff muscles and joints, cold limbs, and digestive ailments, either from overindulging in nutritionally poor snacks at nighttime or from lack of fluids.

This sequence, explained in detail below, has been designed as a way to wake up and energize the body; and stimulate the digestive system in a dynamic and effective way that is still gentle and not overly demanding. Because all the poses feature tone and massage the abdominal organs, it is ideal for both those that are fasting for long periods of time, and also those who, though they may not be fasting, would like to give their digestive system a little boost. 

Bear in mind that the sequence is meant to be performed mindfully and you shouldn’t rush through the poses, which are to be held anywhere from 10 breaths to 3 minutes, according to your capabilities. The full sequence can be performed at a slow pace in 30 minutes -- and you can give yourself as long a savasana relaxation as you’d like!)

Detox and increase your digestive fire with this sequence

1. Sun salutation

The sun salutation is great to stretch, loosen up, and energize the whole body, which makes it an ideal sequence to start any yoga practice. Head over to my YouTube channel to learn how to practice the Classical Sun Salutation, and start your sequence with a few rounds, which can be as little as 3 or as many as 10 or more, if you feel like it. Even on days when you’re not feeling like it, just the Sun Salutation is a great practice in itself, and I can guarantee that once you’ve done a couple of rounds, you’ll feel more awake and ready for a full practice!

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2. Setu bandhasana

After you finish your Sun Salutations, lay in savasana between 30 seconds to 1 minute or, if you’re heart rate feels a bit agitated, until it returns to normal. This is a sequence that you want to perform gently and mindfully, so your heart rate should remain stable at all times.

To go into the pose, bend the knees, bringing the feet close to your buttocks. Keep the knees and feet hip width apart, toes pointing forward. Extend the arms by the sides of the body, palms facing down. On an inhalation, lift your hips of the floor. You may keep the palms on the mat or, for a deeper bend, you can interlace your fingers, extend your elbows, rotate the shoulders underneath the body, and press with the arms on the ground as you push up through the hips. Your body weight should be on your shoulders, and your neck should remain long. Hold for at least 10 breaths, and then return to savasana.

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3. Paschimottanasana

From savasana, roll on your right side, and use your hands to prop yourself up to sitting. Extend both legs together in front of you. Keep the feet flexed and engaged, toes pointing up. Make sure you’re sitting on your sit bones. Raise your arms up on an inhalation and elongate your spine (imagine someone is gently pulling you up through the crown of your head). On your exhale, gently hinge forward from the hips and grab your feet. If you find that you hunch when you grab your feet, then grab your ankles or shins instead. Try to keep the chest open, and the shoulders away from the ears. The purpose of the pose is to stretch the back side of the body -- it doesn’t really matter how deep you can fold.

*If you feel pain in the knees, roll a blanket and place it underneath.

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4. Bhujangasana

From the previous pose, come to lay on your belly, make a pillow with your hands, and rest your head on them. Stay here for a few breaths. When you are ready to go into cobra, place the hands next to your shoulders, and separate your feet hip width apart. Keep the neck long and the shoulders away from the ears by drawing the shoulder blades towards the spine and down your back. On an inhalation, project your chest forward and begin to lift your torso off the floor, maintaining the shoulders away from the ears -- avoid hunching!

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5. Balasana

To come out from cobra, lower your torso first on the mat. Then, keeping your nose close to the mat, bend your knees and slide all the way back into child pose. This is a counter pose for the previous backbend, and it will help release any compression in the back. Make sure you are sitting all the way down onto your heels, and your forehead is on the mat. The arms can be extended like in the picture, or you can relax them alongside your body. If you can’t sit on your heels, you can insert a cushion or a blanket between your heels and hips. Stay here for about a minute.

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6. Ardha matsyendrasana

Slowly roll up from your Child pose to find yourself kneeling on your mat. Then, sit on the right side and, keeping your right foot next to your left hip, take your left leg and, bending the knee, place the left foot next to the right knee. Make sure both sit bones are on the mat. Then take your left hand and place it on the mat behind your body. Lift the right arm up, inhale to elongate the spine, and as you exhale twist towards the left leg. You can either hug the left thigh towards yourself, or use the right elbow to press against the left leg as you twist deeper. If you have the space, you can also bind your hands behind your back. Make sure that the spine is straight and you’re not hunching. Also, when in doubt regarding which side to twist towards, remember that your chest should be facing the knee that is up.

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7. Savasana

We’re done! You’ve made it! To practice savasana, everyone’s favorite yet still one of the (if not *the*) most difficult yoga poses, come to lay on your back. Keep your feet somewhere between hip width to mat width apart, and allow them to relax completely, with the toes falling outwards. The arms should also be extended alongside your body, slightly apart from it, with the palms of the hands facing up. Allow the fingers to curl naturally as they completely relax. The idea of savasana is that you lay there as a dead body, which means you must completely let go of your physical body, allowing it to sink into the floor. You must also remain mentally aware or present. There are many savasana techniques out there, so I encourage you to try different ones to see what works for you. You may find that this may also change depending on the mood or how much time you have. You may practice savasana in silent, to the sound of some relaxing music or Tibetan bells, or even to a guided meditation (apps like Insight timer are great for this!). I also have a Guided Savasana up on Etsy if you’d like to practice with me.

I hope that the practice of this sequence helps sustain your fast, if you’re fasting, and increase your digestive fire, in all other situations. Let me know if you try it!

the practice of yoga while fasting

With Ramadan just around the corner, for many of us it’s that time of the year when we start to plan ahead in order to be able to keep up our physical yoga practice while fasting several hours a day. If you have fasted before, you have probably already experienced some of the overall health benefits that come with it. If you are new to yoga, however, you may be wondering whether continuing to practice on a completely empty stomach can be a wise or even healthy idea. In order to put things into context, here I would like to share a few facts about fasting and its relationship with yoga, along with my own experience of keeping up my asana practice during Ramadan.

Fasting in a yogic context

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"In yoga, the ideal break between one meal and the next meal is eight hours. You can manage these kinds of meals even when you are working outside. But a minimum of five hours is a must for everybody. This is because only when your stomach is empty, your excretory system functions properly." (Sadhguru)

Fasting is actually a very common practice among yogis who understand that this healing technique, one of the oldest known to man, can have incredibly positive effects both on the body and the mind.

Yogic fastings can be of different types, including juice fasts, water fasts, or more severe types of fasting in which the practitioner abstains from the intake of both food and fluids. Fasting can also last anywhere from several hours to days. Generally, anybody in good health can safely do a juice or water fast for 3-5 days without supervision. Longer or more extreme types of fasting may require supervision and I wouldn’t advise undertaking one without consulting your general practitioner and making the necessary preparations to ensure that you stay healthy throughout the process.

From a physical point of view, fasting promotes the process of autolysis, which usually begins one or two full days after you start the fast, and which consists in your body digesting and getting rid of diseased, damaged, dead, and dying cells. Fasting promotes the elimination of toxins from the organism, and also provides your digestive system with much needed rest, freeing up the energy that usually goes into the digestion process and redirecting it towards other purposes. Because of this, while many people initially think of fasting as an extenuating ordeal, those who try it tend to realize that, after a while, they feel more energetic than the usual.

From a spiritual point of view, fasting can increase your awareness, making it easier to focus and to enter a meditative state . Fasting may also help to develop your willpower, as you learn to resists bodily urges, and develop the ability to complete a self-imposed task. When you become able to distance yourself from food and look at it as a mere object, without giving in to your body’s craving for sensory pleasures, you start to realize that you are not this body. Fasting may also help you gain sensitivity and intuition.

All of the above create the perfect bodily environment for an enhanced yoga practice. You may enjoy more energy than the usual, and also be able to get deeper into some poses (or to perform poses you had never managed before) because your gut is empty. Likewise, your concentration may be improved, helping you turn your attention inward as you breathe in awareness.

3 keys to keeping up your practice while you fast

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Every year, before and during Ramadan, when Muslims around the world fast every day for a month from sunrise to sunset, I get questions on my Instagram account about whether I continue my regular yoga practice while fasting, and whether I still teach. The answer to both questions is yes. Here are a 3 key pointers that, from experience, work for me:

Asana is not everything

As I wrote in my previous blog post, “what is yoga?”, asana is not everything in a yoga practice. It is important to remember this, because it means that you can still practice yoga even if you’re not doing any physical postures. While it’s definitely better to keep the body active throughout your fast, there may be times when this is not possible or when you are just not feeling it. It’s okay. You can do other things: namely pranayama, seva (selfless service or action, i.e. karma yoga), concentration and meditation, and even reading and studying in order to deepen your understanding of yoga philosophy (you will find several book recommendations on my affiliate Amazon page, linked in the Recommendations section of this website.)

Find a time that works for you

If you’re practicing asana, find a time that works for you. You may need to change the time from your usual routine. As your energetic pattern will change, you may also feel more energized at different times of the day than when you’re eating. You may also want to save some energy in the morning, and dive into a more vigorous practice later in the day, when you’ll have less hours left until you can break your fast. In my particular case, I usually start my own personal practice, which lasts anywhere from 1 to 2 hours, between 11 am and midday. During Ramadan, I often prefer to start a little later, between 1 and 2 pm. I also change my teaching schedule, which goes down from 6 classes a week to just 3, which I hold in the late afternoon, so by the time the class is over people have just about a couple of hours to go home and get ready to break their fast. If you’re looking to join me for class during this Ramadan, please scroll down to the bottom of this post to check out the schedule and book a spot!

Modify your practice if needed

Because my personal yoga practice is not excessively dynamic and doesn’t usually include a vinyasa style flow, I don’t usually feel the need to modify it during Ramadan. I practice my school’s sequence, which is heavily inspired by the Sivananda sequence, and I usually add several extra more advanced poses or modifications, depending on how I’m feeling. During Ramadan, I keep up the same practice and, depending on how my body is responding, I stick to the basic sequence, or take it a little further, always with awareness. I have also recently started learning the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Primary Series, which I practice once a week at the moment, but I am unsure at the moment about whether I’ll keep this one up while fasting, as it’s more dynamic and demanding than my usual Classical Hatha practice.

If you feel like you don’t have the energy for a full regular practice, or you wish to start slower to gauge your capacity and endurance before committing all the way, you can always start by modifying your practice and seeing how you feel. Some ideas are sticking to a few rounds of the sun salutation and 4 or 5 other poses of your choice, or exploring a gentler and more static yet powerful practice like Yin Yoga, in which each pose is held somewhere between 3 to 10 minutes with the aid of props if needed. Yin Yoga is perfect to release the connective bands and tissue all around and within your muscles, as it works on the deepest layers of our anatomy, providing an enhanced sense of relaxation, clearing energetic blockages and promoting circulation.

I hope that the keys above will help you sustain your practice while you fast and make the most out of it— please let me know if you have any additional advice and share your experience in the comments.

If you’re in Oujda (Morocco) and would like to join us for practice, check out the schedule below and book your spot here.

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ETA: You can find an enhanced version of this article, published as a guest blog post, on Juru Yoga's blog.

what is yoga?

Ironically enough, it’s never an easy task to answer the question “what is yoga?”. However, one thing that I can tell you is that it always rubs me the wrong way when I get questions along the lines of “do you practice other sports?” or “what's this exercise called?”. Because I don’t consider yoga a merely physical practice, and because my goal for practicing yoga goes beyond the tangible results, I always find myself struggling to respond to such questions in a way that doesn’t reduce or dilute yoga into something that doesn’t define it for me.

So, what is yoga?

Is it all about balance?

Is it all about love, about cheap positivity, good thoughts, prayers, rainbows, and unicorns?

Or maybe it is about honoring your uniqueness, because surely you must be a special being?

And it feels so good -- doesn’t it feel good?

It must be the joy of being able to accomplish a pose, to realize that your body can do things you never imagined possible?

What if I told you that the answer is neither of the above? That, while all of the above may be byproducts of the practice of yoga (except the cheap positivity, the rainbows and the unicorns, maybe), none of those is the true goal of this 5,000 year old practice that has, almost miraculously, survived its way through to this day.

Yoga means “union” and, as its very name indicates, it’s the science of self-realization or, in better words, the state of unification or enlightenment.

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Yoga is the supreme science of contacting reality. It is perfection in action. It is equanimity of attitude. It is perfect peace. Yoga is union with God.
— Swami Sivananda

What is commonly called “yoga” in the West usually refers to the practice of physical postures or asana, which are but one of the eight limbs of yoga.

The practice of asana comes with many general benefits, such as increased strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance. In addition, each posture targets a different area of the body, both externally and internally, meaning that we’re not just toning and stretching our superficial muscles, but also our internal organs. Asanas also work on an subtler energetic level, helping mobilize stagnant energy, thus purifying the body in preparation for the path of spiritual practice.

If we practice the science of yoga, which is useful to the entire human community and which yields happiness both here and hereafter – if we practice it without fail, we will then attain physical, mental and spiritual happiness, and our minds will flood towards the Self.
— Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois

Ashtanga Yoga

The eightfold path of yoga, as described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is called “Ashtanga,” ashta meaning eight, and anga meaning limbs. “The Yoga Sutras,” compiled prior to 400 CE by Sage Patanjali, is a collection of 196 aphorisms on the theory and practice of yoga, and describe the process a practitioner must go through in order to attain Samadhi (self-realization or enlightenment.)

The eight limbs are the following:

  • Yamas or ethical standards
    • Ahimsa (non violence)
    • Satya (truthfulness)
    • Asteya (nonstealing)
    • Brahmacharya (moderation)
    • Aparigraha (non covetousness)
  • Niyamas or spiritual observances
    • Saucha (cleanliness)
    • Santosha (contentment)
    • Tapas (austerities, discipline)
    • Svadhyaya (self-study)
    • Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to God)
  • Asana (physical postures)
  • Pranayama (breathing techniques)
  • Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
  • Dharana (concentration)
  • Dhyana (meditation)
  • Samadhi (self-realization)

As illustrated by this list, asana isn’t but a very small part of the bigger picture, when it comes to a yoga practice. In fact, the eight limbs are listed in order, meaning that one must first start practicing the yamas and niyamas before proceeding to the physical practice. Likewise, the physical practice would precede the breathing techniques and, together with these, prepare the body for the remaining 4 limbs as the practitioner advances towards the goal.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classical text written in the 15th century, however, describes asana first, followed by shatkarma (purification techniques) and pranayama, mudra and bandha, and, finally, samadhi. The reasoning behind this order is that “in this day and age too many problems can arise if an aspirant comes into direct confrontation with his mind at the beginning of his spiritual quest. [...] Hatha yoga commences with purification of the body, the shatkarmas, then come asana and pranayama. Yama and niyama can be practiced later when the mind has become stable and its outward-going tendencies can be controlled.” (Commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda on Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.16)

Regardless of the method that one prefers to follow, one thing is clear: asana is a tool for the purification and preparation of the body and the calming of the mind, in order to become able to control it as we delve into deeper spiritual practice.

Of the above, no method is superior to the other, as long as it is suitable to the practitioner and followed with discipline. Yoga can also be classified into different types (raja, jnana, karma, bhakti) which appeal to people with different characteristics, but the end goal is always the same: transcendence of this material world.

With the popularization of yoga in the West and its growth in recent years into a multi-billion dollar industry, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of its actual purpose or significance, reducing asana to a some type of oriental gymnastics. It is also true, however, that while many come to yoga initially drawn in by the idea of exercising a bit more or becoming more flexible, many find in it an oasis of well-being that invites them to dig deeper - asana becoming a stepping stone into a vast ocean of knowledge.

Ultimately, I believe, it’s up to us what we make out of our yoga practice.

Truth, however, always remains the same (whether we can put it into words or not.)

In the same way, the essence of yoga always remains the same. We can pick and choose the parts that we actually want to practice and integrate into our lives, or we can surrender and follow the path in its integrity.

Yoga, however, doesn’t change according to our preferences.

It is what it is, and it is us who change, evolving or not, in the way in which we relate to the practice.

 

Tell me more about you! How did you come to yoga and has your relationship with it changed over time?