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How to Practice Yoga off the mat

It’s been 23 years since I first stepped into a yoga class. From that time, I’ve observed my practice shift and evolve with the seasons of life. When I first started attending regular classes, I had time and youth on my side. Now, I have insight and self-compassion. At other times, I’ve gone for years without much asana (physical postures) at all. And at others, I’ve been completely immersed in all things yoga — visiting my mat multiple times a day while teaching and working full time in the industry.

The importance of asana

For me, asana has provided many beautiful metaphors for the deeper philosophies of yoga — philosophies that I may not have been able to fully understand or integrate have been made available through the visceral experience of a physical practice. The reminder of the temporary nature of everything often comes when I’m releasing from a challenging pose and witness the strong sensations quickly dissolve. My ego is highlighted when I compare my handstand attempt to my neighbour’s perfect arm balance. And my samskaras (mental imprints) are invited into my conscious mind when I watch the same thought patterns on repeat as I convince myself that something bad is going to happen if I don’t release from this five-minute frog pose right now.

For many, asana is an essential element in their spiritual discipline. After all, it is one of the eight limbs of yoga according to the ancient texts. These essential eight branches encourage us to live ethically, practise meditation, connect with a divinity beyond the ego as well as commit to a physical yoga practice. Many years ago, this may have been simply sitting in a cross-legged position while breathing. Now, it’s often an hour-long, sweaty practice at the end of a big day at the office (which your body may very well need after hours of being sedentary) or a committed asana practice at the crack of dawn to invite in tapas (inner fire) and stay committed to the path of yoga.

The magic of yoga off the mat

Right now, though, my own practice is off the mat — and I make no apologies or consider myself less of a yogi for it. It hasn’t always been this way. For many years when I’d take a break from my practice, I would call myself a “terrible yogi” and berate my lack of commitment. I’d feel like a hypocrite and fail to acknowledge all the ways in which I was integrating the philosophies of yoga into my daily life. But these days, I go with the flow. I see that my practice comes and goes, and looks different through the different days, seasons and years.

Two years ago, I was enjoying a regular practice full of impressive arm balances and backbends when my body suddenly changed. After coming down with Ross River Fever (a mosquito-borne inflammation-causing disease not uncommon in the wet, warm region that I call home), it was hard enough to get myself from a sitting to standing position, so strong asana was completely out of the question and, instead, I maintained a gentle practice with much resistance from my body. A year later, when I was feeling ready to move in that way again, I fell in love with and brought home my darling cattle dog puppy, Bear. From that day, the moment that Bear sees my eyes open in the morning, he’s dancing around my feet and begging for his first 90-minute walk of the day. And so, for most of the past two years, my morning practice happens in the form of a long walk: a mind-observing wander where I leave my phone at home and watch my thoughts unfold. I feel my feet on the earth, inhale the fresh air deeply and practise patience and boundaries as my insane canine pulls me strongly to sniff, stare, explore and test in a way that only a young cattle dog can. He is a beautiful metaphor for the monkey mind that bounces from one thought to another, becomes strangely obsessed, and experiences aversion towards the strangest of things. And sometimes, on the rare occasion when he’s thoroughly cooked, he sits back and finds some stillness.

Infusing the philosophies of yoga into daily life

If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will go through periods in life where we just don’t feel we have the time or space to commit to a regular, physical yoga practice. So how can we infuse yoga into other aspects of our lives, and see where it exists already?

My dear friend Bec Gonthier is another yoga teacher without a current, committed practice. She teaches Pilates, walks her dog, goes for hikes, and values a slow, mindful way of living like me. When chatting about our on-again/off-again relationship with asana recently, she said, “For me, the asana practice brought forward my relationship with myself and how honest I can be. Physically that looks like breathing mindfully and extending exhales, or transitioning more slowly where I would rush out of discomfort, checking my ego and backing out of a big shape unless I was really ready. The practice is still there off the mat — it’s still about checking my honesty — while making plans, in relationships with family or in difficult conversations, breathing fully and staying present.”

Another friend and yoga teacher, Chrissy Beth Hubbard, who lives on the Sunshine Coast with her partner and two-year-old little girl, doesn’t have as much time for a physical practice as she did pre-mum life. “When the day is full of mama and home life and moving my body takes a backseat, I look to my breath. I focus on noticing my breath when I’m unloading the dishes — the inhale and the exhale. This causes me to slow down so that I can really feel into both. I sink into the moment at hand instead of thinking and rushing onto the next task. I light a candle to honour the sacred. I realise that it’s all a practice — it’s an act of devotion and it’s all sacred. Whether we are moving on the mat, caring for our child or doing the dishes, we can always tap into that inner sacred heartbeat of life,” she shares.

We can learn so much from the physical practice of yoga, and it’s certainly an important element in a spiritual life. But once you’ve created that foundation, those philosophical lessons will always be with you — whether you have a dedicated asana practice or not.

Eight ways to practise yoga off the mat

Be kind

Honour the yogic philosophy of ahimsa by practising kindness towards others and your Self.

Be real

You are perfect in your imperfection. You don’t need to pretend to be anything other than what you are in this moment.

Surrender

Life sometimes has plans that are beyond your control. It’s okay to let go.

Move your body

Asana is about exploring your physical body so that you are able to find comfort in stillness. Move your body however you like to create the space for being receptive and still.

Take time to be still

Life can be busy, but there’s always time for stillness. It doesn’t have to be a formal, seated meditation, but just a moment at the start or end of your day to simply be.

Learn

Be open to new lessons and understandings. There are gurus all around you.

Breathe

Take a deep breath into your belly.
Then another. And another.

Be here now

Whatever you’re doing, practise being fully present with the experience. Tune into your senses, notice what’s distracting you from the moment and be open to whatever arises right now.

Jessica Humphries

Jessica Humphries

Jessica Humphries is a freelance writer, editor and yoga teacher who enjoys life in the slow lane in the Northern Rivers of NSW.

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