How to practise mindful yoga
Many people in the Western world are drawn to yoga for the practice of postures, or asanas, motivated by physical benefits such as increased flexibility, strength, muscle tone and fitness. Aside from yoga’s impressive range of physical benefits, what often surprises people when they first start yoga is the sense of calmness, the spaciousness and the expanded consciousness they experience both during and after their yoga practice.
The specific postures, co-ordinated movements and breathing techniques of the many different styles of yoga enable you to connect with and release surface tensions and areas of stored “charge” in your body. These tensions build up in your body over time as you experience the many stresses of modern-day life: physical stresses, emotional stresses and chemical stresses from the foods you eat and the air you breathe.
Releasing these tensions through practising yoga helps to clear mental chatter and also facilitates the flow of energy in your body.
The state of mind with which you approach your yoga practice can dramatically affect both your experience and enjoyment of it as well as the depth and expansion of your practice over time. Approaching your practice with the intention of creating more peace, ease, spaciousness and clarity will typically help your experience of yoga to be lighter, more playful, explorative and vibrant.
When it comes to exercise, the Western mind-set tends to be focused on striving for consistent improvement, extending the body and competing with others as well as ourselves, which often involves struggle or force. We expect our bodies to be able to swim further, to run faster and to win or at least to do better than the last time. Approaching a yoga practice with this type of mind-set may not only be detrimental to your practice, it can also be dangerous. Over-exerting yourself, pushing yourself, struggling to be better or comparing yourself to anyone else in the room detracts from the purpose of yoga and accidents or injuries can be attributed to it. Working with your body as it is on any particular day is the best thing you can do, both for your body and your experience of yoga. Yoga can help you to connect with your body, to stay present with it and to respect how you are performing on the day.
One of the major benefits of yoga is that it helps you release areas of tension and stored energy in your body. These areas build up in response to stresses and experiences from your past. The movements, postures and breathing in yoga help you connect with these areas and then dissipate the “charge”, or energy, that is stored there. They help release blockages throughout all the various tissues in your body; that is, in your muscles, ligaments, bones and organs. As these “pockets” of stored energy integrate, energy is allowed to flow more freely and easily through the “central channel” and other energy pathways, the meridians, the spine and the nervous system. Releasing these areas of tension usually brings with it a sense of wellbeing, peace and freedom in your body. All the systematic functions of your body, such as blood flow, respiratory circulation, lymphatic function and digestion, can function more freely and efficiently.
Every so often you will notice emotions surfacing during or after your practice. You will frequently have little idea why or from where these feelings have come. While sometimes quite intense, they are simply your body and mind clearing energetic and emotional “baggage” from past events or experiences. As well as storing tension, your body often retains the energy, information or feelings that may have been present at the time. If you allow yourself to experience these feelings and let them flow, you will often find they will shift and change quite quickly.
While it’s interesting and occasionally quite helpful to know where the surfacing feelings have come from and why, it’s not always necessary and is often not available. As much as possible, simply allowing the feelings to be there and letting any awareness of them unfold by itself will facilitate the fastest and easiest transformation of your body and mind. Trying too hard to figure out your feelings and experiences can often distract you from them and interfere with or stop the transformation that is under way. If any of the feelings you have are particularly intense, overwhelming or persistent, it’s wise to mention them to your instructor or a qualified counsellor.
In the same way that emotions occasionally come up and then clear, tensions do, too. As your practice progresses you will be “peeling” layers and layers of tension and stored energy. With each successive layer that surfaces, new tensions and areas of stored energy will be apparent to you. A movement, posture or breath that may have been easy for you the previous day or throughout the whole time you have been practising yoga may become extremely constricted or seem impossible to co-ordinate. Perhaps the back of your legs feels particularly tight on one day; or your right hip allows you to stretch much further than your left; or you bend forwards and are inches further from the floor or the tips of your toes than you were last week or even yesterday.
While this may feel like a setback or a step backwards, it’s actually progress. It’s another layer of tension and stored energy surfacing. It’s simply the nature of yoga that tensions, stored energy and emotions arise. You connect with them fully and then they release and open to a deeper layer; you progress in waves. If you allow these tensions and feelings just to be there, you will typically find they clear quite quickly and you will open up into a space that is even more open, whole, connected and spacious than before. As your practice advances and becomes more challenging, you may notice these waves of tensions and emotions becoming more intense and flowing more quickly.
Patience is something worth taking with you to a yoga class. Accept your body for how it is on any given day. Approach it with interest and curiosity. The inner workings of your body are one of the most fascinating things you’ll ever encounter. Resist the temptation to beat yourself up by reproaching yourself or physically pushing yourself if your body is not meeting your expectations. Pushing your body into distress frequently results in injuries and can hinder your progression.
Observe your body: how it moves, how it feels restricted in places, how some parts feel co-ordinated and others quite disconnected. Love your body the way it is right now instead of trying to push it to do certain things. If you approach your practice with a mind-set where you explore your body curiously or observe where it is at any particular moment, you will find your practice becomes more powerful and empowering, more open, spacious and enjoyable, therefore creating more love and life in you.
Everyone stores tension and energy in the body in different places and in different ways. We all have our own individual challenges. To help you progress with the most ease and speed, find a reputable and dedicated yoga school with highly trained instructors that can give you the level of individual attention you require. It’s beneficial to be consistent with your instruction. Teachers need some time to familiarise themselves with you and your body and the more they know about your particular nuances the more they can facilitate your progression. Find a teacher or group of teachers that has a style you feel drawn to and comfortable with and commit yourself to their instruction for a decent period of time. Every now and then, get some new input from another teacher or a different style to help your body keep waking up.
If you use your yoga practice as a way to learn about and explore your body, it will help you become more present and you will experience the benefits of yoga more quickly, easily and enjoyably.
Travis Wild and Kelly Davidson run Natural Wisdom, a practice in the Sydney suburb of Paddington. They share a passion for helping people improve their own quality of life. T: +61 2 9331 0400