It’s 5:56PM, your boss is mad you didn’t stay overtime, you have to pay for street parking because your studio’s lot is full– oh, and you left your mat at home. After walking a block around the building because the back entrance was locked, you find yourself on an unfamiliar mat with a strap that won’t untangle and a block that looks as if it had been gnawed upon. This class better be good.
Before you fly through a sweaty session and drive home as occupied as you arrived, barefoot because someone accidentally left in your flip-flops, consider following these tips to enhance each practice and to add a sense of grounding in your busy lifestyle.
The minute you unroll your mat, unravel your destructive thoughts. Bring only positive energy to your practice, for your own sake and for that of those around you. Practice with a loving aura, and allow your inner experience to be a shield to the stresses of the outside world. Besides, karma is real, in the Sanskrit and conventional interpretations of the term. Positive energy feeds more positive energy, just as negativity feeds more negativity.
As described in TKV Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga, one definition of ‘yoga’ is ‘to tie the strands of the mind together’:
While ‘coming together’ gives us a physical interpretation of the word yoga, an example of tying the strands of the mind together is the directing of our thoughts toward the yoga session before we take on an actual practice. Once those mental strands come together to form an intention, we are ready to begin the physical work.
Here, he describes the essential relationship between mind and body in a yoga practice. If the mind is absent from the body’s work, yoga is not actually happening. The physical movements should come from the mind’s intention, rather than expecting mental clarity to emerge from poses.
A great way to link your body to your mind is through the breath, and the two points I will focus on are timing and physical quality. The general rule is that inhalations lead expansions, and exhalations lead contractions. From urdhva mukha svanasana to adho mukha svanasana (i.e. upward to downward facing dog), for example, one would inhale into the backbend and exhale into the settling pose. In addition, ujjayi breathing is highly recommended. In this form of breathwork, the back of the throat is gently engaged and the air makes a hissing sound as it travels both directions through this passage. It flows in through the nose, through the lower, upper, inner and outer lungs using the assistance of the diaphragm, then out through the nose. More advanced practitioners may consider retaining the air after each inhalation and exhalation. When performed in combination, strengthening these two aspects of your breath can have a very significant impact on your experience of the session.
Whether in a mixed class or by yourself, learn to respect your capabilities. Yoga is not a performance, so avoid the temptation to push your body beyond its limitations. Your safety is of utmost importance, as is quality. Be mindful of your body’s learning process, as it benefits more from working through more challenging poses or transitions than from rushing into more advanced looking asanas.
Always, always, always practice savasana. Even if the teacher runs late and you have a prior commitment, never edit out this final resting pose– and if time is an issue, either work on planning your day more appropriately or simply take an early savasana. The reason this pose is so essential is because it is the aim of the entire practice and the pose in which your body absorbs the benefits of the session. The point of practicing the asanas is to get to a state in which the body is filled with prana, or ‘that energy which is infinitely everywhere,’ so that the mind may free itself into a meditative state, the physical demands having been fulfilled.
Take it off the mat.
I was once told that people who sink too easily into poses are generally more strong-willed or stubborn in personality, while those who have a hard time relaxing into poses are typically more mutable, with a difficult relationship with commitment. Regardless of whether or not this is applicable to everyone, there is no denying that practices reveal much about personalities and that lessons learned on and off the mat can translate into its parallel. If you performed a handstand despite being on your cycle (i.e. for women who want to avoid being singled out), for example, or found yourself lost in thought the whole session, learn from those experiences and ask yourself if those don’t reflect something about the way you move through life. You never know what you may learn about yourself.
Do it regularly.
Practicing yoga in any amount may provide benefit, but the more often you do so, the more benefit you have potential to receive. Never let one bad practice discourage future ones, and know that stepping on the mat and into your senses is always a step forward to a healthier, more positive lifestyle.