Do you ever see pictures of yogis in bikinis or speedos on yachts in Bali with their ankles behind their heads and think, “What does that have to do with my life, with my kids screaming in the backseat, or my pressures at work, or my attempts to nurture the relationships that are meaningful to me?!” The physical yoga practice is beautiful, and it opens and strengthens the body, and if you practice for a long time, the shapes you make will change, and probably surprise you. But making shapes on your mat (or on a yacht) is just one aspect of a practice with eight different limbs. Here are three things you can practice on your yoga mat that will truly make you better at everything.
Be present like a buddha. At its core, yoga is a breathing practice. Before you move anything, you simply observe your breath. You notice as the inhales arise within you, and you pause, and then you observe the exhales, and how your core draws to your spine as the air empties from your lungs, and you pause again. You grow taller with each breath (you can try this as you’re sitting and reading right now), and as you exhale, you release the muscles around your eyes, the hinge of your jaw, your shoulders, and, eventually, any obsessive, redundant thoughts. Because the breath is always happening in the now, you become present, engaged and curious about what is happening right here, in this moment. The mind, left to its own devices, loves to time travel; it pulls us into the past, often with longing, or into the future, often with anxiety. It’s not very fun swinging from sadness to fear, but a lot of people live that way. If you’re human, you’ve probably lost lots of time re-writing conversations that have already happened, or imagining situations that never came to pass. This is all time we don’t get back, and it robs us of the joy that’s available in the present moment, if only we would tune in. This is the same ability that allows us to be there when we get to spend an afternoon with our partners, our children, or our best friends. It’s easy to get caught up with our five-year plans, but the truth is, life is full of surprises, and our plans often get turned upside down. When we work on showing up for ourselves and others from moment to moment, we also learn how to open to joy, gratitude and love. When we find time for that each day, the days end up being pretty great, and when we string a bunch of great days together, we are having a great life.
Develop jedi focus. It’s a fast-paced world we live in, and we are constantly inundated with messages and information from all sides (a lot of those messages have to do with all the ways we don’t measure up, and all the products we need to buy in order to fix ourselves–ugh!). We’re supposed to be able to say profound and witty things in 140 characters or less, and we can’t expect to grab anyone’s attention for more than three seconds! Multi-tasking and feeling exhausted are badges of honor, and collapsing at the end of the day is the norm, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun, or the best and happiest way we could be living. So many people struggle with getting the things done that are really important to them–that passion project gets the shaft because by the time we’re able to find an hour to focus on it, we’re so mentally and physically depleted we end up scrolling around social media instead. There’s a great saying, “Where the attention goes, the energy flows.” On our mats, we work on focal points, or drishtis; each pose has one. This is one tool we use in our efforts to practice “Pratyahara”, one of the eight limbs of the yoga practice. Pratyahara is classically translated as “withdrawal of the senses”, but when you break it down, praty means “away from”, and ahara means “food”. We are moving away from food, but in this sense of the word, food is the thoughts we feed ourselves–the deeply ingrained opinions, ideas or stories we tell ourselves that may or may not be true. We take a break from all that racket, we stop identifying so strongly with our opinions for a little while, and we create space where we may surprise ourselves. Essentially, we’re taking in a little less information from the world around us, so we can focus more fully on the world that’s happening within us. This is the same skill you use when you’re with a loved one at a crowded restaurant, and want to focus on what your friend is saying, instead of the chaos around you. It’s the same skill you use when you have an hour, and can choose how you’ll spend it instead of getting sucked into the whirlwind that exists in the mind, and all around us. It’s the same superpower that enables you to choose one thought over another, which is one of our best defenses against stress. This is how we focus on a presentation at work, on what a client really wants or needs, on what our partner is trying to communicate, on what our kids are telling us about the day they just had. This is the stuff we don’t want to miss.
Love like it’s your last day on earth. Ideally when you’re on your mat, you’re present and focused so you can be in tune with what is true for you, and so you can respond with honesty and compassion to that truth, from moment to moment. Most of us simply long to be seen clearly, understood, heard, and cherished for who we are. When we raise our voices, it’s because we don’t feel heard. Most arguments arise because we feel misunderstood or rejected. When you can learn to really listen to yourself and respond with kindness and patience, you can start to do that for all the people in your life, including the people closest to you, and those you encounter as you move through the day, including your local barista, the stranger who holds open a door for you, or the person behind the checkout counter at the grocery store. Whatever you feed will grow and strengthen. So many people live with a loud inner critic, harshly judging themselves all day long. On your mat, you have an opportunity to starve the voice that tears you down, and develop one that roots you on. You’ll find as you grow in forgiveness and compassion for yourself, those are gifts you’ll have in abundance to share with others. Good for you, and good for everyone else!
“Ally Hamilton is the author of ‘Yoga’s Healing Power: Looking Inward for Change, Growth & Peace’ and the co-founder of Yogis Anonymous, an innovative digital yoga studio that helps people everywhere grow in their practice. You can order her book here, or try the classes mentioned in this article here.”