3 Lessons I Learned From Switching To Slower Yoga
Updated: May 28
"Slow yoga is so boring, isn't it for old people?"
Actual quote by a student, let's call her Bridget, and between the lines there was a lot of "I am young at heart and way too cool and energetic to enjoy slow exercise!".
Bridget is a professional in her late 40s, very active, good exercise regime fitted around her busy everyday life of family and work. She originally wanted to do yoga as friends had told her "it's good!", but when I mentioned that at Unwind we teach slower yoga styles, she balked.
"Why don't you try it? Worst case you have paid £19 for a few yoga classes with amazing teachers."
"Allright," she said. "I will do the trial, but I know myself, I don't like anything that's too slow and easy."
Well.....that's where Bridget was in for a surprise. She was in for a few surprises, actually, and this is what happened next:
Bridget joined as a member before she finished her trial.
From the first class, she experienced something so pleasurable, she wanted more.
She was asked to spend the first few minutes of the class grounding (aka the time where the teacher guides you from whatever has happened so far that day to be in your space, on your mat, with your self, your body, mind and breath), and Bridget felt a first shift: this wasn't something she knew from the gym.
When she started moving slowly, she noticed tension rolling off her shoulders. The poses were held a little while, and that was challenging, something she had not expected. Being fit surely meant she could breeze through the poses. But a stamina was required here, in the body and more so the mind. Patience was tested - and frustratingly for her, some of the "unfit" students were much "better" at doing the poses.
Now, we don't teach in a way that asks you to compare yourself to the person next to you, in fact, we encourage you to do only you. But once Bridget's competitive nature was tickled, she wanted to "get the hang of the slow yoga moves".
When I bumped into her the other day, Bridget gushed about the "nice post-exercise feeling AND being completely happy, like walking on clouds" she gets after a slower yoga class.
At first, Bridget came to us for a different type of exercise in between her gym and running days. She immediately felt she achieved all the goals she was expecting, and more: relaxation, fast muscle recovery, increased mobility. She started to be more aware of her body, recognised aches better, stopped pushing past pain points. Bridget improved her breathing, too which helped with the running, and stress management.
She no longer thinks slower yoga is "for old people" as she has met our other student of all ages and fitness levels.
From being very sceptic about the "slower"style, she realised that slow is actually a luxury. In her fast paced life, slowing down was what she was missing. She just didn't know it, until she experienced it.
There have been some exciting new scientific discoveries about slower yoga recently. One is in the area of chronic pain, another one depression.
Both of these are massive global issues that baffle the medical community as they are so vague and difficult to pinpoint, or treat. Both whip up the opioid epidemic, causing more problems along the line.
Slow yoga and chronic pain
Research is unraveling the fact that slow movement can disrupt pain signals, reduce sensitivity to pain, and reset the nervous system, which fires up when pain occurs.
This in turn helps to foster the rest and digest response of our parasympathetic nervous system, developing a more functional connection between the body and mind so that chronic pain, or the perception of it, is effectively reduced.
Slow yoga and depression
Research also suggest that slower yoga can significantly ease the symptoms of depression, and has found links between regular yoga and:
Improvements in nervous system function
Decreased release of stress hormones
Reduced emotional reactivity
Reduced dysfunctional thoughts
Enhanced positive psychological characteristics
Practicing yoga students have been shown to have more grey brain matter (responsible for movement, memory and emotions) than a non-practising control group. We lose grey matter as we get older, but that change did not happen in practising yoga students.
So all this slower yoga goodness and you are still not convinced, in fact you are firmly in the "Bridget before she was convinced" camp of "meh...boring"?! :)
Here are 5 tips to help you make slower yoga holds entirely pleasurable:
Tip 1 - Give the body time to soften & expand, it will thank you
When do we ever give our body time to soften into a pose that is good for it? This works with any pose, let's imagine a mountain pose. Standing with both feet reaching into the floor, the legs are strong, knees gently softened. You feel your breath traveling along the spine, with every breath, your shoulders relax a little more, chest broadens subtly, head reaches up. You think you aren't doing much here, but from building strength through the whole length of the body, to anchoring yourself mentally to the earth and stilling the mind, there is a LOT going on that you will simply not get when you rush through mountain pose in a fast vinyasa class.
Tip 2 - Enjoy the feeling of how each pose changes whilst you hold it Notice the way in which a pose feels like one pose after one breath, and a totally different pose after five breaths. It will all change again after ten. "Even without you moving, the pose becomes a new pose, a new pose, a new pose."
What are you feeling? Is the pose becoming easier, maybe harder? What changes in your body, your thoughts, your feelings? And what does not change? All interesting observations that help you learn about you in a unique way.
Tip 3 - Start big, end small
If stillness gives you hives (I was exactly like that...so hyper, the sheer thought of meditation or stillness or holding a pose made me hyperventilate), start with movement. Don't like still meditation? Do a movement meditation (such as yoga). Come in and out of poses in a flow like, wavelike, dancelike motion. Start with big movements, and gradually make them subtler. Then settle into stillness, and hold the pose. You can do all of this with your eyes open, or closed if that feels safe for you. Notice whether you can still the urge to move. Does your body like movement or stillness better? What about your mind?
Tip 4 - Refine, and fully experience your pose holding
...and by refining I do not mean to be in a perfectly instagrammable shape, I mean refine each pose to your body's unique needs in the very moment you are doing it. Focus on what the pose does for you - does it help build leg strength, or core strength? Focus your attention on the area of the body where you feel that experience of strength. Can you subtly change the hold on your core in plank, shift back or forth a bit, how does that change it? Refine, and fully experience is an invaluable way to become more aware of what is happening in the body, mind, emotions, with your energy, health and wellbeing.
Tip 5 - Know that you are giving your brain the break that it needs to stay young
Nothing more to add here.
So what are the 3 lessons I have learned from slower yoga?
Lesson 1: Slow yoga is perfect for my ageing body and I am stronger in my legs, more balanced and mobile than my adult children
Lesson 2: Slow yoga helps me manage emotional reactivity and dial it down to almost zero
Lesson 3: Slow yoga improves my energy levels dramatically, even after a 12 hour work day
I do like a flow yoga class and the meditative rhythm of an Ashtanga yoga class, but I get so much from the slower yoga styles without the risk of injuries or overdoing it. Slow yoga requires patience with the challenge and stamina, but the reward is always an extra long savasana!
Ready to join the slow yoga revolution? Join us for a trial: https://www.unwindyogastudio.com/introductory-offers
Andrews, Neil: https://www.painresearchforum.org/forums/discussion/50044-non-pharmacological-approach-pain-conversation-m-catherine-bushnell , accessed May 2022
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Anheyer D, Haller H, Lauche R, Dobos G, Cramer H.: Yoga for treating low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Pain. 2022
Koch AK, Schöls M, Langhorst J, Dobos G, Cramer H.: Perceived stress mediates the effect of yoga on quality of life and disease activity in ulcerative colitis. Secondary analysis of a randomized controlled trial. J Psychosom Res. 2020