People come to find yoga for many different reasons. If you ask the people in your regular yoga class what made them come to practice, you'd find a wealth of answers. For some it's a physical ailment or pain that nothing else has managed to budge but for others it's to relax and 'switch off'. Very few come to their first yoga class looking for spiritual enlightenment. We are normally drawn to the practice through our physical body.
Fast forward to one of my teacher's yoga class last week. I found myself being completely refreshed as to why I even step on to my mat. I'd recently been using my yoga practice to help me keep fit (I am trying to lose a few pounds for some weddings I'm going to in the summer...yes these things still worry us as yoga teachers!) I'd started to ignore the really core part of my practice - surrender.
When I stepped onto my mat ready for my teacher's guidance, I was wanting to challenge myself. My mind was preoccupied with wondering whether this class would leave me feeling less bloated, would I burn any calories, could I do this every day and get back down to the weight I used to be? I could get angry at myself for thinking this way but we are all human. I'm doing my bit to better myself spiritually and occasionally if that means my mind wonders into material matters, so be it. My goal is never totally lost.
Change of attitude
What I was faced with however was something entirely different and unexpected. Debbie (from Omkari Yoga) took us through a slow class. She left us longer than normal in Savasana at the start, she gave us lots of time to focus on taking deeper breaths before we did Kapalabhati then guided us into a few rounds of slow Surya Namaskar (sun salutations). Her focus for this class seemed to be the breath alone; not losing that connection, using it to expand your ligaments and muscles and using it to ground or uplift you.
These are all things I do practice at home when my mind is in the right head space (when I'm not stressed, I don't have a long to-do list etc) but not something I continue to do when life gets a bit much. I tend to let my practice falter here as I'm 'too busy' to find the time. It's at these moments however that your breath is the most important.
The practical bits
Taking Debbie's class was perfect for me, forcing me gently to find the time to practice and to surrender. We moved through the postures at a speed I am not used to practising at (usually because I need to be somewhere else shortly after starting to practice). We must have done around six postures after the sun salutations in an hour and a half class.
Debbie worked our legs with the single leg raises using a belt. Having us hold our foot above the hip at 90 degrees, rather than opening the hamstrings, we were working the ligaments behind the knee and realigning our hips. She spoke softly always telling us to remember to expand the ligaments with the breath. This statement alone sounds odd. How can you possibly do that? Well, it's simple really. Draw your inner focus to the ligaments behind your knee, connect with them, feel them, imagine them and then breathe deeply.
The whole class encompassed this approach. It brought me to the tiniest parts of me that I don't normally pay attention to. If you expand how you breathe, your body can follow. Creating space within our body and mind is key to living a healthy life.
You have a long day ahead of you with a thousand things on your to-do list. Every time someone speaks to you at work you want to hit the roof as they're adding to your already exploding list of things to complete by 5pm. Your chest feels tight. Your eyes are blurry and your head aches. Your head feels full. Your body is tired and probably stiff. How would you be breathing? Would you even notice what your breath is doing in these circumstances?
Now imagine walking into a yoga class or going home to practice. Imagine that practice being slow and considerate after the sort of day you've had. Imagine feeling connected to how you're moving your body and how you're breathing. Imagine noticing the small things inside you as you move. It's a freeing sensation and one that can snap us out of our stress bubble almost instantly.
Where the mind goes
The freeing sensation is relieving but can only happen if we surrender our mind. Going back to my early point in this blog, I had recently rejected this idea in my home practice. By moving slowly, it actually opens up more opportunity for you to surrender. Postures can feel more intense and difficult to hold so your mind will speak up. I had numerous thoughts in my head during Debbie's class; 'I can't hold this much longer', 'why is my leg this tight?', 'is anyone else finding this hard?', 'I wonder if she'll pick up the pace later on'. The list goes on and on.
This is where you need to learn to surrender. Holding a posture allows your mind to fight against you, so you use your breath. Breathe deeper. Once you have the breath sorted, you can then focus on the parts of your body which are doing the work. If your mind continues to fight you, you can say mentally to yourself, 'yes I've heard it all before. Please let me have this time without you, you can have your time later'. Take a friendly approach towards your mind, do not punish it. Ask it politely to leave you be while you practice, just as you may ask your friend to give you a moment if you're in the middle of something, before you call them back.
Surrendering to life
Whether your approach to yoga is a fast paced class with lots of Vinyasas or a slow Yin Yoga session, it's important to surrender. Surrender your body to the movement but most importantly surrender the mind. This is what gets in the way of our practice normally. Our mind limits us, not our bodies. Our practice can resemble the ebb and flow of our life. When our practice becomes hard, when we're focusing on the body and connecting with it, when the practice is easy, when we can concentrate and when we can't - these are all temporary states. Life throws things at us all the time. We have good days and bad days. We have good practice days and bad practice days. The more we can surrender our mind to not overthink or over analyse, the more peace we will find on and off the mat.