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Counting to Five: On and Off the Yoga Mat

Last week, I wrote about finding a yoga class that fits your needs. This week, I thought I’d dig a little deeper, starting with five things to bring to class and ending with how to incorporate it more into your daily life. It’s important to remember that yoga as exercise sells at gyms because it promises flexibility, lean muscles, toned bodies, and so forth; but in reality, yoga embodies more than a fit, beautiful body. It’s embracing love, kindness, and respect toward yourself and others too.


Five Things to Bring to Class

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1. A mat. Not only is often a requirement to come to class, but it’s more sanitary. It also allows you to create your own space in order to reconnect with yourself.

2.  A block and strap. Although not often required, blocks and straps (and props in general) are excellent tools to help you move into poses more gently, avoiding injury.

3. Plenty of water. Whether or not you drink it while practicing, water is important to rehydrate and cleanse the body of toxins.

4. A towel. When you start yoga, you’ll start sweating, particularly if you are new or unused to this kind of movement. Having a towel not only keeps your eyes from stinging but can reduce slipperiness on  your mat.

5. Open communication. Safety is key. Instructors need to learn about any medical conditions you may have, in order that they can modify or eliminate certain postures from the practice to keep you from injury. Additionally, it’s nice to hear constructive feedback on class so that we can improve it for you.


Five Things to Remember While Practicing

1.  It’s not only about the body. Sure, the benefits are innumerable, from losing weight to clear skin to a lean figure. But yoga does not stop there. It digs deeper. It peels away the layers. It’s you greeting yourself, or meeting yourself for the first time in a long time.

2. It’s saying, “Yes I can.” Sadly, I mainly see two kinds of people who come to class: those who wind up staying and those who don’t. Coming with a defeatist mindset (“I cannot do this!”) sets you up for failure before you start. Remembering that achieving the correct posture takes time–even years–and that your body is unique, with results in physicality varying from day to day, sets you up for a great practice regardless of whether or not you achieve the poses.

3. Patience is a virtue. As stated above, learning and moving into postures, developing correct alignment, achieving maximum range of motion (flexibility), utilizing the deep belly muscles (bandhas), flowing easily and comfortably, maintaining focus (drishti), and breathing (pranayama) can take years to master, if not a lifetime. Even then, there will be days when practice just doesn’t go according to the way you’d envisioned it. That’s okay! Have patience. You’ll get there someday.

4. Smiling helps. I often tell this to my students when they’re looking particularly grim or strained. Not only does a smile utilize fewer muscles in the face, it also brings with it a sense of levity and even an laugh. And, let’s face it, laughter is the best medicine!

5. Yoga is what you make it. One of my instructors said that her husband’s yoga was golf. That was very profound for me because I realized that there really are an infinite number of ways to practice yoga. It’s not just a set of poses, or breathing, or reaching out to a stranger in love, meditating, reading scripture, or praying to God. It’s all of the above, and how you choose to do these is entirely up to you.


The Yamas and Niyamas

The yamas and niyamas are lesser-known, less talked about limbs of yoga, often because there’s a fear of being perceived as telling others what to do. I like to think of them as guidelines on self-care and communal response (and responsibility). Broken into two groups of five, the yamas, or restraints, and niyamas, or observances, discuss how to treat yourself and others while cutting out excess and excessiveness. (For a more detailed look, read The Yamas and Niyamas, by Deborah Adele.)


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The Yamas

1. Ahimsa, “non-violence.” We’ve all heard the saying, “Do unto others as you would want done to you.” This core principle of yoga says that we should never act or react in a harmful manner, no matter what someone does to us. However, this doesn’t mean that we should become carpets to be walked upon. We have a right to stand up for ourselves but we should do so without inflicting harm.

2. Satya, “truthfulness.” This is perhaps the hardest yama to keep. We all want to be accepted but what happens when being accepted means lying? Satya says that we should choose to be real with compassion (as it’s closely linked with ahimsa) rather than being merely nice or self-indulgent. It’s about using discretion when we speak, choosing our words carefully, and yet maintaining our honesty and, therefore, integrity.

3. Asteya, “non-stealing.” Just as satya asks us to speak with integrity, asteya asks us to live with it. Not only should we not steal from others, but also ourselves, our posterity, and the world we inhabit.

4. Brahmacharya, “non-excess.” Many times translated as “celibacy” or “abstinence”, this principle goes further than mere sex. It’s about taming our urges to overindulge in all aspects of life, about discerning our needs versus wants. Along with this is an invitation to live with God rather than excess, thereby turning our attention away from ourselves toward something better, holier.

5. Aparigraha, “non-possessiveness.” More simply stated as “let go”, this yama encourages us to live life to the fullest, with joy yet with the ability to drop everything for God. It’s a reminder that so often, possessions actually possess us, and that we really cannot take anything with us when we depart from this life. Not to be confused with apathy or not caring, aparigraha allows us to enjoy life without clinging to things.


The Niyamas

1. Saucha, “purity.” This has a two-fold application. The first is that self-purification, or cleansing, is important for the body, mind, and our mouth. The second can be applied to relationships. In other words, saucha is not about trying to make something or someone else pure but rather being with the moment as it transpires in the best way we can: without ideals, illusions, expectations, judgements, fear, and so on. It’s learning to become “in-touch” with ourselves–our emotions and thoughts–and when we do this, we can start losing the heaviness we carry within our bodies.

2. Santosha, “contentment.” Being truly content means not seeking for something or someone to make us happy, but rather to find joy in what life has brought us thus far. This isn’t just about material possessions or relationships, it’s about plain old gratitude for ourselves exactly as we are right now.

3. Tapas, “self-discipline.” Literally translated as “heat”, the root of this principle is change. It’s asking ourselves the hard questions, why are we doing what we’re doing. It’s developing a daily practice, not only physically, but also mentally. It’s about choosing the better thing, the better way of living.

4. Svadhyaya, “self-study.” It can be very difficult to pull back the layers we so carefully have constructed in order to meet the person we know as us, or the person we think we know. Self-study asks us to look past the ego, to find the roots of our beliefs, and to learn how to witness ourselves as we go through life.

5. Ishvara pranidhana, “surrender.” Perhaps the touchiest of the niyamas as it presupposes Divinity, it invites us to let go of the ego and enjoy the life we are given. It asks us to look for our higher calling. When the ego surrenders, the heart expands.


Five Ways to Take Yoga Off the Mat

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1. Go for a gratitude walk. Wherever you are, take a (timed) walk and say–and feel–thanks for everything you encounter, be it in the city or in nature.

2. Practice single-pointed mindfulness with a specific task. Don’t let the mind run away with you. Stay focused on one thing. It may be folding laundry or washing dishes. It may be reading. The choice is yours. Just stay focused on it and it alone, regardless of the distractions that arise (and they will).

3. Give back. One of the best ways to get past ourselves is to volunteer. Choose an group that stimulates your interest or works in something you are passionate about, and dedicate a certain number of hours a week/month to giving back.

4. Grow a garden. Part of yoga is taking care of yourself. Statistically, Americans eat fewer servings of fruits and (especially) vegetables than any other food group. Growing a garden not only gets you in touch with nature and the seasons, it teaches self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Bonus perks include better nutrition, potential weight loss, and quiet time to meditate or reconnect with ourselves.

5. Keep and journal or write letters to yourself. This is a simple way of getting things off your chest, gossiping, and reconnecting with your thoughts and emotions with little to no risk of anyone else ever reading it. You can even burn the letters once they’ve been written. The most important aspect of this exercise is to explore why you think, believe or feel this way, and find the root beliefs underlining them. From there, you can decide whether or not they are good to keep.


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