March 26, 2011

Yoga Schmoga 101: Breathe.

The most important part of yoga is the breath.

Right now, take three deep, complete breaths. Inhale fully, filling the lungs and relaxing your abdominal muscles. Let your exhale be passive, in other words don’t push it out or try to lengthen it unnaturally. Already after just a few breaths using this method, you may feel calmer and more centered. Imagine breathing this way for an hour-long yoga or meditation session. Or all the time!

Yoga teaches our bodies to breathe more deeply as a habit — even outside our formal practice.

Without even thinking about it, we may begin to sigh or breathe more deeply throughout the day. Breathing with acute awareness of the breath and a pervading sense of gratitude for each inhale and exhale transforms your attitude and sense of well being.

Yoga Schmoga is more than flexibility. While the practice does obviously lead to greater physical bendiness, it also improves mental strength, emotional balance, and spiritual focus.

The yoga schmoga lifestyle greatly reduces the tension which manifests as pain and stress by incorporating  mindfulness, deep and conscious breathing, selfless service, vegetarianism, hatha yoga practice, devotion and wisdom through experience.

True yoga schmoga is taking the mindfulness and compassion cultivated on the mat into our every interaction and relationship.

There are various categories of yoga, including bhakti (devotional), jnana (scholarly), karma (selfless service) and hatha. One famous hatha yoga adage says: You are as young as your spine is flexible. Hatha yoga is the physical body’s branch of the yoga tree. It involves stretching, breathing and meditating. Hatha yoga is what you’ve seen become so popular in America: downward dog, lotus pose, etc.

“Ha” means sun in Sanskrit; “tha” means moon. Hatha yoga represents opposing energies: yin and yang, hot and cold, male and female, positive and negative. Hatha yoga balances the mind and body via physical postures (asanas), purification practices, controlled breathing, relaxation, and meditation.

The driving force behind yoga schmoga is the philosophy that any yoga practice is a good yoga practice… almost.

There is only one wrong way to practice yoga, and that is to beat yourself up about it.

To be cruel to yourself, to allow those broken records of self-criticism play inside your mind over and over. To wallow in self-pity.

“My hamstrings are too tight!”

“Geez, I have gotten so pudgy that I can barely do this forward bend anymore.”

“My right shoulder is never going to open up like my left.”

“I can’t believe how much I suck.”

Listen to the self-talk that goes on in your mind as you are in each pose and in meditation. Most of us can be pretty harsh — way nastier to ourselves than we’d ever dream of being to anyone else. Yoga time is counterproductive if it’s spent berating ourselves for a less-than-perfect physical or emotional condition.

The key is to notice these thoughts without judging, and always, always, always cultivate compassion for yourself.

As soon as you notice the distracting train of negative thought, you are catapulted back into the present. Breathe. Let go of the criticism and instead focus on what you can do, how good the stretch feels, how grateful you are to have made the time for your yoga practice.

Treat your mind like a bumbling puppy. Every time it wanders off the path, gently, kindly pick it up and bring it back to the  path. This will happen countless times, especially at first. Slowly but surely, with devotion and discipline, the puppy-mind will obey.

No matter what “level” of experience you have, as long as you stay mindful of your body and breath and ego and thought processes, you will achieve true yoga freedom!

As long as you’re breathing with mindfulness and compassion, you’re practicing authentic yoga.

So take a deep breath. Again. And again. Over and over. Nonstop. Ahhhhh, don’t you feel better?

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Michelle Margaret Fajkus  |  Contribution: 55,900