On September 15, Yoga International published an article called “Let’s Slow Our Yoga Down.” The response to the article was fast and overwhelming. I have received so many emails and direct messages thanking me for writing the piece. Many people noted that they have been feeling a similar sentiment and simply appreciated somebody enunciating those feelings for them. But many others were asking for practical suggestions that would help to slow the pace of yoga classes.
Slowing our yoga down might not be as straightforward as it seems. Yoga practice takes on a kind of momentum. In the same way that it can be difficult to unlearn postural habits that we picked up from our first teachers, it can be difficult to unlearn the pace at which we practice. If you have been taking or teaching fast-paced flow classes for a few years, changing to something slower can be challenging.
The following are seven practices that will help teachers and students slow down their yoga and create more relaxed, leisurely class environments.
There are so many different ways to introduce more time for talking in your class. Group yoga classes provide such a great opportunity to slow down and get to know your neighbors and peers. The tendency is for talks during yoga classes to become monologues, but dialogues between students and teachers create even more fertile ground for interesting and relevant discussions.
Storytelling adds a beautiful dimension to yoga classes. Reading a quote at the start of a class is great, but how much better it can be to provide some context. Who wrote that quote? When and for whom was it written? Mythology, history, literature, philosophy, and biographies of influential yoga teachers make wonderful inspiration for talk time.
If you primarily practice on your own, you could consider practicing with a notebook and recording some sequences, variations, and thoughts. Your writing time on the mat can become a conversation with yourself.
Yoga feels so good. Seriously. Sometimes I just do a couple poses and lie there feeling things. My body kind of lights up and I visualize medieval nadi maps, chakra diagrams, mandalas, and yantras shifting and moving through my body. I will stop trying to explain it.
But, yeah, it feels really good. So our yoga practice should have moments in which we can stop and feel what we are feeling. Like conversations, yoga practices should have quiet, thoughtful pauses during which we can consider and reconsider. Lying down and feeling your own circulatory system after some backbends can have a bit of a psychedelic effect if you give it time.
On the other hand, sometimes yoga does not feel good. Sometimes the things we are practicing are no longer appropriate for our bodies and it would be better to stop. And if we were to give ourselves more little moments to pause and reflect as we practice, I believe that more than a few common yoga injuries could be prevented.
One of the most clever ways to slow a practice down is to practice the same pose a number of times, using a few different variations. It gives us a moment to reconsider how we have been practicing that pose and see the posture from a new perspective. It is almost like pressing a “rewind” button on our practice. Learning a number of variations brings a richness and depth to yoga that should not be missed.
Yoga, at its best, is practiced by a dizzying variety of people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. So why would we expect a single set of alignment instructions to work for every person? It won’t. This is why yoga teachers and students have developed a number of options, variations, and modifications that accompany each posture. All my favorite teachers have deep pockets crowded with challenging, fun, and innovative yoga tricks that never cease to make me wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”
Exploring variations forces us to adapt to a number of different loads, forces, angles, and positions, and it’s important that we foster adaptability. Adaptability is a hallmark of a sustainable, lifelong yoga practice because, if there is one thing certain about our human lives, it is that they will change.
In a 2014 article for Yoga International, I suggested that maybe we don’t always need to restrict our yoga practice to sticky rectangles all the time. It’s not that I don’t like sticky rectangles, I just think sometimes the shape of the mat exerts too much of an influence on the shape of our practice.
Another advantage to getting off your mat is that doing so immediately puts you into a more shared space, one that encourages us to see, hear, and interact with the people around us. Getting off the mats and heading over to a wall or gathering around the teacher’s mat can provide a little break in the action. It slows things down just enough for teachers to catch their breath and for students to say hello to each other.
There is a reason that spas play relaxing music. Very little else has the ability to make people exhale and let go of tension more quickly than relaxing music. There is no doubt that soft ambient music can act like a slow metronome to set the pace of a yoga class. Teachers need to speak with the gentle rhythm of the music while students are lulled into quiet listening.
If you are a teacher, checking out different playlists on Spotify or 8 Tracks is a good way to learn about some artists or albums that will set the right mood for your class. There is an excellent article by Jaimie Epstein that has some great tips to help you become a masterful yoga DJ. Finding the appropriate songs for your practice does not have to be challenging. There is no rule that says you have to listen to “yoga music” when you do yoga. You can listen to whatever makes you feel good.
It’s also worth noting that if you are constantly practicing with music you may find it enlightening to practice in silence from time to time. We spend so much time having our senses occupied and entertained that spending an hour or so in silence can go a long way toward reconnecting us with the slow pace of our breath.
Teachers, take the time to demonstrate the postures occasionally. There is no need to demonstrate every posture you teach in every class—that would become tedious—but once or twice a class you can give students an opportunity to watch you practice so that they can see the movements and actions you are encouraging them to explore. This not only provides a little break in the action but also helps students who are visual learners to better understand your instructions.
It almost goes without saying, but mindfulness needs to be on this list. It could be said that all of yoga asana is a mindfulness practice, but the reality is that mindful coordination of all the movements and actions involved in yoga asana is really quite challenging. So, it’s important to take time to begin with a simple seated or reclined breathing exercise because that gives us a chance to relax into the present so we can hopefully maintain that presence throughout the practice.
Additionally, mindfulness meditations based on breath or simple movement can be more than bookends opening and closing a practice. They can also be threads running throughout a practice that help us maintain consistent mindful attention.
Slowing down can feel like wasting time. It can seem that the more quickly we move through each posture, the more time we save—time that can be spent on learning more, improving our skills, or going more deeply into certain poses (not to mention on the rest of our daily tasks). A few of these ways to slow down might even appear to be little more than sitting around doing nothing. I would suggest, however, that doing nothing is much more valuable than it may seem at first blush. Doing nothing is the practice of being, and being is at the heart of what it means to be human.