“Yoga is the journey of the self
through the self
to the self”
- The Bhagavad Gita
What is yoga? It's a question I get asked A LOT along with the obligatory “how many times a week do you practice?” My answer to this question is that I try to practice yoga every second of every day. Now you can erase the mental image of me picking up groceries off the supermarket shelf in a warrior one stance… that's not what I’m talking about ;) I’m talking about YOGA and what it really means to be a practitioner. The physical postures we do on our yoga mat are just a tiny part of the ‘lifestyle’ of a yogi. Yoga encompasses moral guidelines, physical practice, breathing, cleansing rituals, the development of awareness and empathy in this beautiful and challenging life. For me yoga is a vehicle to enable me to live more peacefully. Where I can learn to accept myself and others and live in harmony with the world. It's a practice of (many) lifetimes.
Many people believe that an ‘advanced’ yogi is one that can do complicated handstands or fold themselves into unfathomable positions. While mastery of the body is absolutely something we aim for in yoga, this can take many different forms. For some ‘mastery of the body’ is simply being able to sit on a yoga mat cross legged without pain. As Sri K Pattabhi Jois said "yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just gymnastics".
So how do you know when you’re really practicing yoga?
You’ve had a full on day at work and you’re feeling emotionally delicate. You’re in class and the teacher instructs headstand … its in your practice but you’re just not feeling it. Do you power on or lie down? One of the break through moments in my practice was the realisation that I don’t have to do everything just because I can. As we go deeper into our yoga practice we understand to read our bodies and emotions and make intuitive decisions on the mat. I’ll say this just once. IT”S OK TO REST! When you’re being good to yourself and understanding when it’s appropriate to take a break you’re really practicing yoga because you’re not operating out of ego!
There’s a difference between skipping a posture because you need to rest and skipping a posture because of fear. As with all things in life, the biggest breakthroughs in learning begin at the edge of our comfort zone. If you back out before you try, you never learn how capable you are and you never develop the confidence to take a RISK! Risk is an inherent part of yoga and life. I don’t mean throwing yourself into postures and injuring yourself, I mean allowing yourself to get into your power, develop confidence in your abilities and discover what your body is truly capable of. We are so much stronger than we believe ourselves to be. Don’t let your head get in the way!
The ultimate goal of yoga is Samadhi or ‘Oneness’ , when you cease to see any separation between yourself and the world. When we become immersed in the practice of yoga, we become more conscious of the needs of others. We develop empathy and love for others because we understand that we are one and the same. Conversations that once would have vexed us seem softer because we can see ourselves in the other person. World issues begin to concern us. We become more conscious about what we eat, how we treat the environment and the interactions we have with others.
Now this is tough one when there is so much dogma surrounding yoga. Before I was a vegetarian I was judged for eating meat, for having a glass of wine, for not being the identikit ‘yoga teacher’. I made the choice to be vegetarian for my own reasons and I have absolutely no judgment of my students who choose to eat meat. To be a yogi is to be accepting of others choices and to be open and curious. This extends to how we practice on the mat. At the beginning of your next practice ask yourself, am I willing to let go of any preconceptions I have of what I will/won’t be able to do and just be in the moment. Can I practice from a space of curiosity and simply explore how my body wants to move on this day without judgement. Take this concept into your daily life and notice how much more harmonious it is!
There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ yoga class. Ok controversial I know!! Humour me for a second. When we start to realise that every experience is an opportunity for growth and learning we can take something positive from every interaction. Didn’t resonate with that teacher? Not the style you wanted? Rather than dwelling on what you didn’t get out of it, flip your thinking to what you did learn. When you begin to take responsibility for your own learning you can find a gem of wisdom in every class. Even if its just a mental note to yourself broaden your horizons and explore some different yoga styles.
Its normal to be pissed off because you can’t ‘do’ that yoga pose ok? We’re human. Its what you do with that pissed-off-ness that matters. For the yogi, not being able to do something on the mat is a blessing. It reminds us of the fact we aren’t machines. We are living breathing beings with different bodies, energies, emotions and minds, sometimes with injuries or limitations to work though. It keeps us humble. Never forget that the fact that you can even walk into a yoga studio and sit on your mat means your body is perfect. Be grateful for your body for carrying you through your day, for allowing you to be independent, to carry your children, to run, to play, to explore.
Caring a bit more about the environment and welfare of animals and humans these days? Yep … thats the ‘oneness’ kicking in! Cue not using plastic bottles/bags any more, giving food to stray dogs, getting involved in a charity, being a bit more conscious about where you buy your clothes, makeup and food from.
You have the Headspace app and you bloody well use it! When your 10 minute meditation starts becoming less of a chore and more of an essential part of your day you’re going deeper into your yoga practice. Meditation and pranayama are widely regarded as being the most important part of a yoga practice. Start small and build yourself up to a daily routine. If you have a stressful job, 10 minutes first thing in the morning will help you face your day calmly. If you struggle to sleep, take your meditation lying down in the evening before bed. Gym bunnies … running is totally a form of meditation! Just turn the spotify playlist off and use the time pounding the pavement to listen to whatever comes up for you.
Your friends start to see changes in you. You’re more grounded, fitter, healthier and nicer to be around. They want to know what this ‘yoga thing’ is all about. 6 months ago you’d be telling them its all about going to classes and getting stronger and more flexible. You might have even rocked out a chaturanga dandasana at the pub to demo your newly toned shoulders. How times change! You’re now explaining how backbends make you feel confident and energised, how you were holding emotional tension in your hips. You’re sharing your healthy recipes, educating your friends on the merits of a gratitude journal, recommending books and encouraging them to sign up to do a charity bake-off wth you. For you yoga has become a lifestyle.
You’ve softened into your practice because you’re in it for the long run. Yoga is not a quick fix and you’ve stopped trying to force results to come quickly. You understand that the more you accept where you are right now and put your trust in the practice, the more you can relax into it and allow it to unfold in its own time. And then a magical thing happens … you let go and your practice begins to soar!
With love as always