Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How to Get the Most Out of Your Yoga Practice (and Life)!

As a yoga teacher, I often wonder if my students are "getting it." Having so much passion and confidence in yoga, I want all my students to get a glimpse of what is possible. But, since there's no way to convey everything useful about yoga or mental health in one single class - even if this were a good idea - I have to trust the process and the student to "get it" when they are ready. Still, a few words can help the process along.

Here are a few ideas to help you get the most out of your yoga practice (and life!):

*Show up consistently. Sometimes students wonder why they aren't getting stronger or more flexible and the simple reason is that they don't practice often enough. Committing to practice doesn't mean you have to spend several hours every day at it, but as with most things, the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. I encourage students to try for at least 3 full practices a week if they want to see results - and beyond that, to fit in some yoga whenever they can. The good thing about yoga is that it can be done virtually anywhere - if you can't make it to class, you can practice at home, or wherever you are. This might mean doing a spinal twist at your desk at work, a quick child's pose before bed or a downward dog before getting dressed. It all adds up.

Similarly, in life, sometimes we wonder why things aren't happening for us - why we aren't making more progress. When we examine what we're doing we realize our efforts are sporadic at best. Like yoga practice, life progresses when we actually show up and do the work. Make a commitment to what you want to happen in your life, and do something - anything, no matter how small, every day toward that goal. If you skip a day (or yoga class), no big deal. It happens. Start again tomorrow.

*Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness describes the nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations we practice in yoga and meditation. Practicing mindfulness, we learn to acknowledge our constant stream of thoughts and feelings, and let them go without getting caught up in them. We learn to notice how our experience is constantly shifting - and that no thought or feeling is permanent, or really has control over us.

In yoga class, we are often reminded to 'come back to the breath.' We are encouraged to bring our attention back, time and time again, to the quality of our breath, to bring awareness to our body from head to toe, and to let go of our thoughts and come back to the present moment. In other words, we practice mindfulness! This is what makes yoga a moving meditation - by learning to listen to our breath and bodies, we learn to see what's really going on in the present moment and to do what's called for - and to get out of the endless cycle of thinking and reactivity that we're usually caught up in. This is one reason we feel better after a yoga class - we've gotten a bit of a break from ourselves! Wouldn't it be great if we could maintain that calm, aware state of mind off our yoga mat?

The good news is that we can. Mindfulness is a skill that gets better with practice. And since it's so easy to go an entire day without remembering to practice (as I can tell you), it can help to use things around us as a reminder. A ringing phone or a red light can be used as a reminder to be mindful. Use whatever is around you to remind you to come back to your breath, to acknowledge and let go of thoughts and feelings, and relax into the present moment. If you have to put a sticky note on the phone receiver to remind yourself, no problem!

*Approach intensity with curiosity, intelligence, courage and compassion. We all have yoga poses that challenge us - and sometimes make us want to walk out of class! For me, a long hold in any of the Warrior poses is a real challenge - physically, mentally, even emotionally. But this challenge is exactly what I need - to strengthen my body and mind.

It helps to approach challenges like this with an open mind - acknowledging and letting go of expectations, thoughts and judgments about them ('I hate this pose!'). We can remind ourselves of the value of the challenge and stay with it as long as we can, but with intelligence and compassion. This is where mindfulness comes in: we learn to pay attention to what's really going on in our bodies, and to know when it's appropriate to push on, or pull back. We learn to differentiate between actual pain and our lazy mind saying 'eh, enough of this already, shouldn't we be at home on the couch?' We approach our edge and back off enough so that we don't hurt ourselves, but learn to accept a certain amount of intensity - even if it's uncomfortable. What happens when we do this? We make progress. This is the practice of tapas - the discipline, or heat that fuels transformation.

Life off the mat gives us plenty of chances to practice tapas. So often we view challenges with irritation and resentment, when they are great opportunities for transformation. Whatever the situation is, be it an emotional challenge, a new opportunity that brings with it anxiety, or just a traffic jam, try the yogic formula. Take a deep breath. Let go of your expectations, judgments and thoughts and approach the situation with an open, curious mind. Take another breath. Then, make a decision about what to do that is based on intelligence, courage and compassion, and not your fear/resistance (or other negative emotion) based mind. See what happens!

*Forget all of the above and just enjoy the moment. You may have experienced it in class or elsewhere - out of nowhere, when you least expect it, that feeling of bliss sneaks up and overtakes you. And you weren't even trying! Ahhh, the yoga buzz - it's what keeps many people coming back. You work hard, you let go, and it comes.

In life too, there's a time to work hard, and a time to let go of all the effort and just savor the moment. Or at least have a sense of humor. We don't have to be grave and white-knuckled about life all the time - it's all about balance. But that's another blog post!

These are just a few things to consider - what helps you get the most out of your practice and life?

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