Yoga: Off the Mat

by Randi

When embarking on a yoga practice, you’ll notice that it’s often referred to as “more than just the physical body.” Teachers might speak about paying attention to your breathing to become more present or to have compassion for yourself or others. You may even hear someone mention the G-word or some idea that there is a force beyond and bigger than our individual selves. Making these links between a physical pose and these more amorphous concepts can be overwhelming at first, but here’s the idea behind it: if we come to our practice open-minded, these connections will begin to reveal themselves to us. We’ll notice that some of the phrases we’ve been hearing while on our mat are beginning to creep off the mat and into our “real life.”

During a yoga class, you’ll probably hear the instructor tell you to breathe about a thousand times. Why? Yoga breathing, or pranayama, is the practice of breathing in a more conscious way. When you actually have a relationship to the parts of the breath (the inhale, the exhale and the space between the two) you can begin to control the speed of your thoughts and your emotional responses. For instance, with more attention to your breath, before you answer with anger toward your mother if she strikes a sensitive cord, you might take a deep breath, feel your mind and your pulse calm, and respond with more clarity. This one deep breath can shift an entire moment, and thus the dynamics of a relationship. When we learn how to breathe more, when we feel anxiety or worry over jobs, love, or money, we can literally slow our anxiety down thus acting from a place of more clarity and less reactivity. Breathing more during our practice can’t automatically change our life but it can change the process in which we react to it.

The same goes with this idea of having more compassion for ourselves and others. When we spend a little extra time contemplating how human we all are, suddenly others aren’t so awful and we don’t have to be so perfect. When we play with the balancing poses in our yoga practice perhaps we notice how most people in the room are wobbling. We see that we are all trying our hardest to be our best, but it’s not always “perfect.” Can we take that idea and apply it to the person who bumps us in the street or speaks in a tone we don’t like on a phone call? Can we see that we are all trying our hardest? Can we see how very human we all are?

Many people steer away from the idea that there is a force out there bigger than ourselves. In some yoga classes the traditional word “God” will be used, sometimes the “Universe” or some other idea about love/life force. It doesn’t really matter how you define it or what word you use, but when we find a way to connect with an idea that we’re not alone in this big, crazy world, we may feel a little less in the dark. Many people feel that the world is dumping on them all the bad news and worst case scenarios possible, but with a feeling that there is some force guiding the rhythm of your life, we might slowly see the purpose in even the toughest of times. Reminder, this has nothing to do with religion or dogma, but everything to do with what gets you up in the morning and keeps a smile on your face.

Many people feel that the spiritual side of yoga is “too much” or not something they easily identify with. And we certainly all have our own relationship to what gives us meaning in our life. I like to think of Yoga as a toolbox. When we need something to lift us up, or get us grounded, we open up that box and find something that helps. And sometimes it’s just that simple.

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