Taking your Yoga off the mat
You may have had the experience of being in a Yoga class and experiencing a deep sense of inner peace or calm. It may even have been in a challenging moment in class. Perhaps holding Chair or a strong balancing pose or Dolphin for what felt like a long time, but through breathing more smoothly and calmly you find some extra resources to stay and even soften into the intensity. Or perhaps it is a deep relaxation in Savasana, it could be the deep release after a strong class, or the fullest relaxation after a long restorative session or guided Yoga Nidra. Whatever it is there is a sense of deep presence and ability to be with whatever arises.
And then, how many of us have gone into our lives and found that as the stresses of modern life, busyness, conflict, family, whatever pushes our buttons, happen we have lost that ability to find inner peace?
Some of you may have had glimpses of being able to access those tools Yoga gives us when in the thick of life’s difficulties, but they can seem to be enigmatic and inaccessible a lot of the time!
Yoga is more than making shapes
Yoga is not just a sequence of postures and breathing exercises to bring health and balance to your body, although it is a wonderful practice for that and we can use the shapes we make and the awareness of breath to gain great insight about ourselves too.
Yoga is also an ancient philosophy and offers us a way of being that brings balance to the world. What we learn on our mat about our own bodies and minds, as we turn attention in; bringing balance to our system with breath, movement, diet & more; nurturing ourselves; practicing with intention, kindness and compassion; and offering up our practice for the benefit of all, are tools that we can take with us into our daily lives.
7 tips for Living Yoga and integrating what you learn on the mat in daily life
Here are my 7 tips for not only bringing a sense of Yoga (meaning union or balance or connectedness) into your daily thoughts and actions, but also for living in a more connected way in all aspects of life.
1. Gross body awareness
At the most basic level Yoga, taught in an anatomically safe way, teaches us better posture and teaches us to be more aware of the way we move our physical body. If we are practicing mindfully and with the intention of bringing no harm to body (Ahimsa) then we learn what shapes and movement bring greater ease and health and what exacerbates injury or instability, or creates pain.
This is really important, as yoga is a very individual practice and should be modified for different bodies, especially where there is injury present. You can read a little more about adapting your Yoga practice for your body here.
Hopefully what you do find in class is that through learning correct alignment in postures you are able to adjust your posture in other areas of life too.
Some things you can do are
- Notice when you tense your shoulders and let them relax down away from your ears.
- Notice if your lower back feels compressed when standing and take a moment to feel your feet on the ground, soften your knees and lengthen out your lower back by anchoring your tail bone towards the ground (this gently activates the deep core muscles needed to support good posture).
- If you find yourself slumping on your chair or sitting with your legs crossed for long periods (so bad for your pelvis!) bring mindfulness to your posture and sit forwards on the chair, feet flat on the floor with your spine long. If this is too much for your core for a long period you can get a cushion or rolled up towel and place at your mid back so you can lean against the back of the chair but without slumping.
- When walking or running use the opportunity to be mindful of how you place your feet and hold yourself. This can really help with injury prevention in running. Check out this great article which goes into more detail.
2. Subtle body awareness
One of the most powerful aspects of a regular Yoga practice is becoming more aware of your subtle body or energetic body. You may not realise it but everyone has an energetic body. On one level this consists of the more subtle aspects of our body’s systems such as the blood flow, nerves, breath, hormones, lymph etc. We can connect with the energetic body by checking in with whether we feel well or unwell, tired or full of wakefulness, dull or restless, but it also includes our emotional and mental state too.
Through a mindful yoga practice we learn tools to be able to affect the subtle body through the shapes we make, the control of breath and our state of mind through intention setting and positive meditation practices.
In our lives we can also start to become aware of how what we eat affects us, how sound affects us, how the seasonal and moon cycles of nature affect us and how other people, places and activities affect us.
Prana is the vital energy that runs through each of our subtle bodies. Becoming more aware of what increases and decreases this pranic flow is one of the most powerful things that Yoga can teach us. Try this exercise to get in touch with your subtle body and how you relate to things in your life.
- Make two lists in your journal or a sheet of paper.
- At the top of one list write the heading “What increases my Prana?”
- At the top of the second list write the heading “What decreases my Prana?”
- Underneath the headings start listing activities, items, experiences, people or places that either increase or decrease your energy.
- Make note of any interesting observations.
- Invite in an intention to bring more focus to the things you wrote under the first heading!
3. Connection with breath
What sets Yoga apart from many other forms of movement practices is the attention we place on our breath. At the most basic level what this practice does is helps us to become more and more aware of the quality of our breath in different situations. We aim in class to try to keep the breath in a steady and smooth rhythm using tools such as Ujjayi breath (the slight constriction at the back of the throat).
As poses might get more challenging or as the mind may start to wander we can lose the connection with the breath and it may become more shallow or rough or we may find ourselves holding our breath. Over time and consistent practice we are able to notice this quickly and adjust the shape or consciously smooth the breath out to meet the challenge. We may find that this conscious control of the breath allow us to stay a little longer in a pose.
Once we move onto perhaps more advanced breathing techniques, or Pranayama, we start to learn about the ways we can control our breath (changing the length of inhale or exhale, the retention of breath, forceful exhalations, deep inhalations and alternative nostril breathing are all examples). We learn through experience the affects that those breathing techniques have on our body, nervous system, emotions and mental states. We can then bring those tools into our daily life when we need them.
A couple of simple breath practices to take home:
- If you are feeling anxious and overly stressed or busy simply sit for a minute with hands on belly and breathe in and out for the count of five, focusing on bringing the breath deep into the belly so it expands & contracts with the movement of breathing.
- If you want to sit for meditation but find that the mind is in full monkey-mind state, with lots of thoughts bouncing around, try Kapalabhati breathing first as guided in my video here. ** This practice is best done in the morning before food and is not recommended if pregnant.
4. Creating space for self-care
The simple act of showing up each week (or as often as you can) to a Yoga class is something to thank yourself for. Particularly in modern, Western society we celebrate busyness and many of us have been conditioned and programmed to believe that self-care and looking after ourselves is ‘selfish’ and somehow weak.
In reality it is the most important thing we should do each week and rather than squeezing in a Yoga practice around all of the other demands on our time, we should be scheduling it in to the calendar as a non-negotiable activity. This doesn’t mean you have to make time to come along to a studio or gym class multiple times a week (although attending at least three times a week is massively beneficial if you can), but it does mean scheduling in a good amount of time for self-care each week (and even each day).
This might look different depending on your own schedules & responsibilities but some ideas to carve out that time and space at home are:
- Setting your alarm for 15 minutes earlier in the morning and practicing a guided meditation (you can find some here or on Insight Timer)
- Setting aside a portion of a day off for self care rituals (that might be a warm bath, guided relaxation, a walk in nature, chanting, restorative Yoga) – something that increases your Prana in a nurturing way.
- Start the habit of a Home Yoga Practice so you are not bound by studio class times in order to maintain your movement and breath work. You can find my Home Practice Guide by signing up to my newsletter here.
5. Invite in intention & ritual
In my Yoga classes we start and end each class by bringing our attention to an intention or San Kalpa. This focuses the mind to a positive purpose for the practice. This might be to ‘be calm’, ‘connect with our breath’, ‘mobilise stiffness in the body’, ‘be strong’, ‘uncover wisdom & insight’, ‘be present’. Setting this intention also brings in a little element of ritual to the class. We know that we open and close the class by bringing our focus to this intention, as well as often chanting the sacred syllable Om, and this helps to hold the energy and space of the class between those actions.
This intention also guides the practice and gives it a flavour that is very individual to us (unless a group intention is set to fit a particular class theme). The intention is a guiding energy which as well as the breath and sensation in the body can be an anchor to focus the mind. If the mind starts to wander and get lost in running through stories or judgments, we can come back to that intention at any time.
Just as we use the intention & ritual in class we can also bring this practice into our lives in a few different ways:
- Set an intention at the beginning of the day when we wake or after our morning meditation.
- Start a gratitude practice, thinking of 3 things that you are grateful for at the start or end of the day (or both) and writing them down. This is a powerful practice to shift negative thinking too!
- At particular times of the year (New Year or Seasonally or by Solstice) or on the Lunar cycles you might do an intention setting meditation to reflect on the last period, let go of any limiting beliefs or habits and set a new intention for the period ahead. You may have other practices you wish to bring into these little rituals. I like to cleanse my HartRoks Crystals in the full moon, make an Essential Oil blend and draw a Tarot card or spread for the next period ahead. [Yes it’s a little bit Witchy (!) but these rituals really help me to connect with my intuition and to create a focused and positive energy for the time ahead!]
These rituals are even more powerful in community so if you can get along to a community meditation circle or retreat during these times! Check my Events page for Community Circles and other Events honouring the cycles of nature and setting of intention.
6. Kindness & compassion
At the heart of Yoga is a dedication to benefit all beings in the world. When we are in the throes of practicing a challenging twisting balancing posture this might be furthest from our minds but it is there running through the fabric of this ancient practice. We always come back to bringing in kindness and compassion for ourselves when we practice Yoga (ideally Yoga should not do us harm) and let go of any judgment or expectation we place on ourselves.
As we practice this in class we learn to bring that in to our lives too. And we also learn to offer that to others, acknowledging that we all experience these judgments, stresses, emotions,, limiting beliefs and shadows as part of this human experience. When we become more in touch with our own emotional and mental landscape we can be better at recognising reactions in others and offering up kindness. But it is a practice!
A couple of ways that we can practice these concepts in our lives off the mat are:
- Practicing Metta meditation in public – I love this practice! Metta is a meditation on Lovingkindness and is practiced by sending feelings of kindness to others usually by reciting phrases in your mind (“May you be happy as you are, may you be free from harm, may you be well or at peace, may your life be filled with joy and ease”). When out walking or sitting in a park or at a cafe, practice this for a few minutes with eyes open and sending those feelings and phrases to people around you. It’s probably best if you don’t stare at people directly (!) but you can do this inconspicuously especially if you are out walking.
- Practicing some random acts of kindness –
- Buy someone you don’t know a coffee,
- Pick up rubbish around town,
- Compliment someone genuinely on something they have done,
- Tell a friend or family what you love about them,
- Message someone or call them just to say hello,
- Talk to someone you don’t know in the street or shop and ask them about themselves,
- Cook a meal for someone who needs some support.
Finally, and building on the last point about acts of kindness, Yoga can also very much be about being in service. The concept of Karma Yoga is to give without any expectation of rewards or attachment to the results of your action.
Living as a Yogi also involves being of service to the world. On one important level we do this simply by showing up fully, in a committed way, in our practice. By continuing to journey along the Yogic path we become the best, healthiest, kindest, most centred, strong person we can be and this supports all of those around us and ripples into our community in ways that we cannot underestimate.
Taking this further we may consciously also find ways to be in service in our own community or on a wider level (in a way that is sustainable for our own energy). This might involve volunteering for a local organisation that brings benefit to the community or globally. Some ideas might be:
- Volunteering time to assist in Aged care, School or Playgroups
- Helping in a Homeless shelter or Soup kitchen
- Volunteering with an human rights activist group such as a Refugee action group or Amnesty International group
- Volunteering a skill you have to assist those that may not be able to afford it
- A local sustainability initiative (such as Plasticwise, Food swaps, Community gardens, local energy grids, tree planting, Boomerang bags (an Aussie group that makes shopping bags out of excess fabric) etc.
- Helping at the local Rotary or Lions club (or equivalent)
- Creating your own group to support a cause that needs you!
Please feel free to add your own ideas about taking your practice off the mat and living your Yoga in the comments below!