Darkness inspires deep relaxation

This coming Saturday I’m teaching a special extra-long yoga class at Younion Yoga to mark the Winter Solstice. It’s the third year I’ve led this seasonally-driven session and I particularly love using yoga to embrace darkness on this longest night of the year. The inspiration for the practice fits perfectly with my teaching style: deliberately slow, purposely restful, mindfully self-centred, well-supported—and with a bonus literary touch. 

Slow yoga is advanced yoga

I did my first yoga teacher training with Shakti Mhi in Vancouver (she’s now in Tel Aviv). Her 200-hour training follows traditional hatha lines and Shakti was never a fan of sweating profusely during a practice. An overall sense of peace, comfort, ease (often known as sukha in Sanskrit) underlies Shakti’s asana teaching style and she focused on maintaining relaxed, natural breath—no huffing or puffing here! Well, unless it’s part of pranayama (breathing exercises). 

These principles underlie how I teach so-called ‘regular’ yoga and perfectly fit my favourite styles: yin and restorative. I give lots of space for rebounds between poses, encourage students to move slowly, and suggest relaxed, long holds. Many yogis love an athletic, quick-paced flow (think vinyasa), but that’s not my style. Shakti spread the gospel that slow yoga is advanced yoga—and I’m definitely a convert!

Supervised almost-napping

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that an ideal savasana (meaning resting in corpse pose) is at least 10% of the total practice. So seven and a half minutes for a fairly standard-length yoga class and nine for a longer 90-minute session (but why not round up to 10?). That might seem counterproductive (after all, isn’t the purpose of doing yoga asana to move?!?), but I really believe that this intentional, conscious rest is where we soak up most of the benefits. It’s a way to press pause and reset.

For a tiny fraction of the day we’re allowed to be in a space where there’s nothing to do, nowhere to be. Isn’t that a powerful method of self-care? To be suspended in that state just before slumber, where the mind drifts and wanders. To put your everyday worries and anxieties on hold and simply float. 

I often encourage this suspended animation by leading students through a yoga nidra practice before leaving them in quiet repose. Moving through the physical self, directing attention to different body parts (up to 108 distinct points), yoga nidra helps release tension throughout the physical being. I’ve been told that my voice has a hypnotic quality during yoga nidra that lulls students into a deep peace—or allows listeners to tune out and let the words simply wash over them.

Holding the space

To my mind, every yoga teacher exists for a singular purpose: to create an environment where students can surrender to their yoga practice. I think of this as holding space for my students: taking on a bit of their burden and supporting them in ways that allow them to discover what they need. 

I always have a plan for what postures to teach and in which sequence, but often the class pulls that framework in a different direction. Students might feel unwilling to leave a particularly juicy pose and we stay for an extra minute or two, maybe it takes three times as long to get everyone sunk into their props, or perhaps the asana I was thinking of simply isn’t suitable for a class filled with students who have knee problems. Whatever my original intention is for the class, I am willing to end up wherever the students need to go that day.

As an active teacher, it’s important for me to give my full attention to each student. Seeking out clues in a pinched expression or a twitch in a limb. Offering additional props or a gentle touch. Actively encouraging students to express any discomfort or uncertainty. And inviting silence in the room to help quell the noise in their minds. 

When I teach, I am fully present. Completely engaged with the class unfolding around me. Always thinking about how to support the people who have chosen to practice with me. I bring that tranquil focus to the room—letting students immerse themselves in their own experience and recover their own energy. 

My way is not the highway

While I want to take care of each and every student, I also know that they are responsible for their own practice and, ultimately, they are their own best teacher. I can yammer on about a pose, but it’s most important how it feels for them. It doesn’t matter what I observe externally or intuitively, what counts is students being aware of how the poses impact them—and adjusting to suit them.  

Bernie Clark, author of the amazing Your Body, Your Yoga, has a great metaphor about students as pilots: 

“Ground control is full of helpful advisors: your doctor, dentist, accountant, lawyer, yoga teacher… They want to help, but you’re the one flying the plane.“

Taken from Jodi Dodd’s interview with Bernie Clark on Shut Up and Yoga 

When students are mindfully self-centred, they aren’t worried about offending me by refusing a suggestion or modifying the posture to suit their own unique needs. They are concious of fitting the pose to the person, not forcing themselves into something just because that’s how someone else thinks it’s supposed to look. 

Adding a little bit of storytelling

The first time I led a Solstice yoga session I was inspired by a beautiful composition from Margaret Atwood (well-known for dystopian novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood is a superb poet as well). Her Solstice Poem conjures up all the darkness and brooding of the longest night—and hints at the promise of the days to come.

This is the solstice, the still point
of the sun, its cusp and midnight,
the year’s threshold
and unlocking, where the past
lets go of and becomes the future;
the place of caught breath, the door
of a vanished house left ajar.

A portion of ‘Shapechangers in Winter’ by Margaret Atwood

The poem evokes the power of this longest night and I’ll read the whole thing aloud during one of the long-held restorative poses of the session. 

It all comes together for the longest night

The Relaxing Winter Solstice Yoga on Saturday, December 21st starts with a short welcoming meditation, then a handful of yin yoga poses (well-propped, but still with a bit of intensity and held for around five minutes) that lead into a couple comfortable, long restorative yoga positions. We’ll then find a supremely-supported corpse pose and bask in around 20 minutes of rest. I’ll do three readings during the practice and kick off savasana with a mesmerising yoga nidra, recalling childhood bedtime stories and my own introduction to guided relaxation at summer camp

And in 2020 I’ll continue teaching a 75-minute Yin Yoga class at Younion Yoga every Tuesday evening, the occasional Restorative Yoga class on Fridays, and probably subbing a few classes here and there.

Rejoice that the days will slowly start getting longer soon (well, in the Northern Hemisphere, at least) and channel the darkness into deep relaxation!