Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.


Can you touch your toes?

This time last year, I could just about reach past my knees if I tried hard enough.  I’d just got back to university after three lazy weeks at home, ready to face the onslaught of writing 24,000 words that would mark the end of my formal education.  The next semester would be spent at my desk, writing.  I never liked going to the library; there was never anywhere to sit, it was too hot and I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable tapping away at my computer in my dressing gown.  It was the first time I’d ever been faced with so much “free” time – I could’ve opted to spend my six uni-free days a week having fun and living the ultimate student life like most other people, but I decided to use that as my incentive to finish everything first.  This meant spending the majority of the week sitting sedentary at my desk for hours each day, staring at my computer screen, surrounded by a tangle of papers and books, and it suddenly made me think: is this what having a job is like?!

I can now confirm that yes, it is exactly like that.  Well, when I’m at the Board of Education anyway.  I hated (and still hate) the way it makes me feel when I’m sitting in one place all day.  Even at lunch, no one goes for a walk or gets up from their desk to do something else.  I usually go to the top floor and do some yoga because there’s never anyone there, and I can enjoy the sea view at the same time!

I started doing yoga a year ago when I realised I needed a way to take a break from work, refresh my mind and body without the hassle of changing into workout gear or going outside (the surrounding area of my house was a run-down high street and not exactly ideal for a stroll).  I downloaded a free yoga app on my phone and began the first 10-minute routine for beginners.  The poses didn’t look very challenging; it just seemed like a bit of stretching your arms out in various directions, getting down on all fours and sticking your bum in the air.  The video began with the foundation of all standing poses: Mountain Pose.  I listened to the instructions and allowed my weight to spread across the balls of my feet, my big toes touching.  I aligned and lifted my body from my ankles, up through my spine to the crown of my head, pressing my shoulder blades into my back and releasing my shoulders down.  All the while, I concentrated on breathing easily and relaxing my whole body, simply from standing in this position.  The moves that followed were definitely more of a challenge, and Downward Dog made me realise just how rusty my hamstrings were.

Downward dog: it looks easy…

I’m by no means a professional and I’ve never even been to a yoga class, so you’re probably wondering whether I actually know what I’m talking about.  I imagine it’s like teaching yourself to play the piano – if you follow instructions properly, understand the fundamentals and listen out for mistakes (in this case, your body will tell you if something’s not right) it shouldn’t be any trouble.  You learn to know when a stretch is working, and how to shift your body slightly to make it more comfortable and effective, which helps if you practise in front of a mirror.  If you get a mobile app, I’d recommend getting one with a real video of the poses, rather than an animation.  The best one I’ve tried is called Yoga Studio (by Modern Lotus) and costs about £2.50, which seems like a lot for an app but is cheaper than going to just one class.   The narration is calming and gives detailed instructions of the poses, not just how to do them but ways to make them easier or harder, and what you should be feeling during the pose.  Classes range from ten minutes to an hour, so you can get a short practice in before bed after a busy day, or spend a lazy Sunday morning waking up in the loveliest way.

Half-moon: one of my favourites!

Yoga’s not only good for the body, but good for the mind, especially when the dreariness of winter starts to weigh on you and you need a little lift.  The more obvious changes you’ll probably notice after regular practice are an increase in strength and flexibility, but there are a surprising amount of other benefits like getting better sleep, lowered stress levels and blood pressure, improved circulation and preventing joint breakdown.

So if you’re wondering what to do during your break at work today, print out some beginner’s poses or find a YouTube video, escape to an empty room and try it out for ten minutes. (Basic sequence here.)  If your New Year’s resolution was to have a healthier lifestyle, this is it.  Listen to your body!  If a pose feels too difficult, don’t overdo it.  I don’t really want to be responsible for any injuries.  It usually takes me four or five practices to get good at a new or difficult pose and it took me a few months to be able to fully touch my toes.  I’ve gone from being the least flexible person in the world to being able to press both palms onto the ground with straight legs.  It can be done!!

I hope you enjoy it!  If it’s your first time, let me know what you thought of it.  If you have practised before, I’d love to know why you like it and what your favourite pose is.

If you want to read more about the basics, here is a useful link.