Yoga is an investment. Like money, we don’t want our practice to be a proverbial credit card, where we’re charging skills and tricks that our body actually can’t afford for us to do. We also don’t want to needlessly hoard our energy, so we must learn to invest ourselves and our energy wisely.
As with most things in life, you’ll get out of yoga whatever you invest in it. This makes me oh so happy! Hooray! A predicted outcome: work hard, enjoy the results! On the other hand, this makes me feel RIDICULOUSLY GRUMPY: wait, what? Sooo…no coasting? Not even a little cheating?! DAMNIT! I guess I’ll have to rely on good old fashioned hard work when it comes to my practice. Oh, joy. But all good things are worth the effort, and yoga is at the top of that list.
Because yoga allows for many modifications and no one is shouting at you to run harder, climb higher, pump heavier, the degree of intensity is a highly personal and regulated primarily by the individual. Pros: you know your body best, so you know when you can go deeper or push yourself in a pose. Cons: we often ignore the needs of our bodies, so we either don’t dive in and therefore don’t get as much out of our practice, or we go too hard and end up with an injury. How do we balance this out? Remember yoga is an investment. Like money, we don’t want our practice to be like a proverbial credit card, where we’re charging skills and tricks that our body actually can’t afford for us to do. We also don’t want to needlessly hoard our energy, so we must learn to invest ourselves and our energy wisely. Here are some tips to get the most out of your practice:
Care for you body, you only have one. Yoga will often be uncomfortable, but it should never hurt.
1. Respect the limits of your own body.
Seriously. I’m looking at you, you fellow overachiever! Yoga practitioners especially over-strain during forward folds, splits, and really anything involving hamstrings. Repeat after me: you will not win a prize for being super flexy. It’s just hella awesome. You know what isn’t awesome? Being injured, so be mindful of your limits during twists and backbends. You might be able to go further than you let yourself, or you might be pushing too hard.
→Tip: Respect your spine. Back injuries don’t heal as well as other areas of your body. Care for you body, you only have one. Yoga will often be uncomfortable, but it should never hurt.
2. Breathe. Take deep, long breaths or ujjayi breaths.
I don’t know about you, but the only time I hold my breath is when I’m swimming under water (something I avoid at all cost since watching Jaws as a child and developed a phobia of pool drains. I know I can’t be the only one with an overly active imagination), or when the season finale of Top Chef is on. Breathing is pretty much a favorite thing to do.
This might seem basic, but breathing is the foundation of vinyassa and Ashtanga yoga in particular. It’s also essential during any cardio activity to prevent lactic acid buildup. Linking your breaths to your movements not only gives you much more energy, but it also feels incredibly detoxing. The breath is life. Life is in the breath.
→TIP: on rising or lengthening poses, inhale. On folding or twisting poses, exhale. Work on extending the breaths to at lease several seconds so your breath is even, not rapid and shallow. EXTRA TIP: it’s ok to not be “good” at yoga breathing. OMG, if your breathing (which I assume you are;) that’s good enough! You’ll experience more and more benefits as you master your breathing, but it’s not necessary. If you’re more distracted trying to breathe “correctly,” don’t worry about it!
3. Let your body teach you: Be mindful during your practice.
Mindful practice just makes life so much better. Self-study is actually a key concept in yoga. Pay attention to what works and doesn’t work. If you do the exact thing every single time, you’ll have the same results. When a pose is difficult or particularly challenging, stay in it a few extra breaths and as yourself what about it feels difficult for your body. For instance, I found the revolved extended side angle (Parivritta Parsvakonasana) asana according to traditional Ashtanga to be a challenging twist. The key, I realized, is to lengthen my back, get a better twist from my spine as I enter the pose, and make sure my armpit is hooked securely over my knee with my palm flat on the ground. My body taught me what adjustments I needed to make, and with the help of my teachers, those adjustments worked for me. Try not to blow through poses. Soak up what they want to change about your body…and the heart.
→ Evaluate where you can stabilize a pose so you can better mobilize that pose through movement or flexibility. Stability always comes first.
3. Get to class early. Relax, stretch, disconnect from your crazy day and your to do list.
If you rush into class, it will take much longer for you mind and body to slow down. Start slowing your breathing, finding an intention or mantra to focus on throughout class.
→Tip: a mantra or intention is merely a word or concept that you find value in, like giving grace, self love, or inner strength. When you hit a difficult portion of your flow, instead of letting you mind wander or think about quitting, you recall your intention, slow your breathing, and focus on the intention your set and why you came to your mat in the first place.
4. Invest in a good mat.
If you feel better wearing yo’ fancy pants Lulu’s, by all means proceed. You don’t need anything in yoga except yourself, a good balance between determination and surrender, and preferably a mat that you love. You spend ridiculous amounts of time on your mat (hopefully…yes? you do?) so you might as well make sure it’s one you like. You don’t need any equipment to do yoga. You don’t even need to wear fancy pants…yoga pants that is. But you do need a mat that matches your yoga needs. I once made the mistake of renting a mat when I was in a bind, and it was pretty shitty. It had no grip and I basically had an adverse reaction to it. I just felt uncomfortable and distrustful towards that damn mat. Needless to say, the experience wasn’t very zen.
→Not sure how to chose a mat? Check out my post regarding how to choose the best mat.
5. Keep your practice light. Resist the urge to judge yourself—or critique others!
As the famous yoga saying goes, leave your ego at the door. Easier said than done sometimes, I know! I think one of the hardest things in the world is to extend grace to ourselves (and others). We often feel very inadequate in yoga. If you have the thoughts “I’m not good enough, strong enough, skinny enough whatever enough,” shut that mind talk down. Shut it down for good. You are enough. What you can do right now and what you have to give right now is more than enough to reap revolutionary changes in your heart and for your body. Try not to look around in class or compare your flow to another person’s. No two bodies are alike, and their strengths and weakness won’t match yours.
→TIP: stay focused by effectively using your breath and gaze. With each pose, lock your gaze on a certain point and don’t look away. Common places to look are at your hands or toes.
The most important way to have a dynamic yoga practice is to want to have one. Go into your class eager to give of yourself and ready to receive the benefits of letting go. Keep the perspective of respecting your body and investing your heart, and you will find your practice blossoming more and more. And as Nike says, just do it. Get on yo’ mat and om it out! Any tips or tricks you’ve found that works for you? Let us know! Much love!