Very few students begin practicing yoga with overt spiritual ambitions.
They simply want to feel and move better in their body. However, it doesn’t matter whether or not your initial intentions are purely physical. What’s important is that you’re in your body, consciously moving and breathing, establishing a stronger mind-body connection, and cultivating a little self-awareness. Intentionally or not, you begin a process of personal growth and transformation just by practicing yoga.
You might even say that yoga is for the people who are open to change, and the ones who want to stay exactly the same don’t stay with yoga for very long. Your yoga practice will shift you in some way on some level, if not on all levels. In addition to helping the body gain strength and flexibility, a steady practice helps build concentration, create emotional balance, and cultivate positive qualities, such as compassion, patience, joy, and confidence.
During class you will experience profound moments of stillness, even if only for a few seconds at a time.
The full yogic breathing helps quiet the analytical mind, which never seems to stop weighing options and considering consequences, finally allowing the intuitive mind to have a voice. The internal awareness and mental clarity cultivated in yoga help you realize certain things about yourself and your life. Over time you become skilled at recognizing that which no longer serves you — the relationships, default tendencies, reactions and other thought patterns, and roles that don’t contribute to your overall happiness.
In fact, your yoga practice will typically have an interesting way of creeping into your life off the mat as you become more aware of how you feel and increasingly conscious of the choices you make. Yoga doesn’t require you to change your lifestyle overnight or conform to any outside standards, but you naturally begin to gravitate toward feeling better, making better decisions and choices in your eating and lifestyle habits (and no, that doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian to practice yoga).
You may also notice that your yoga practice is a microcosm for your life. The way you are on your mat — how you respond to challenges, handle disappointment, and relate to yourself, how present you are, how willing you are to try new things — is the way you’ll be off your mat as well. In yoga, you get to “practice” being the way you want to be in a safe, contained environment. (After all, yoga practice is just that, practice.)
Therefore, when you are practicing, attitude is everything, as it is in life in general.
To begin with, your overriding intention for practicing must be rooted in something more meaningful than external appearances or physical achievements, or your asana practice runs the risk of becoming just another outlet for ego gratification, and you’ve missed the bigger, overriding message of yoga.
That means your intention for practicing doesn’t necessarily have to be god-consciousness or Self-realization (although that’s a good intention) but rather can and perhaps should be something personal, whether that is to feel better overall, learn more about yourself or foster self-acceptance, become a better mother or spouse, be more present or experience more joy, cultivate more peace, clarity, or ease in your life, whatever— something more meaningful than having a tight bum or being able to do the splits.
Wanting to achieve an advanced posture isn’t wrong; in fact, the desire can increase your dedication and drive. However, it shouldn’t be your only reason for practicing. What if you never nail the pose? Then what? Without a higher intention, it’s easy to become defeated.
Yoga is in the business of self-acceptance and exploration, which by definition can have no expectations. Sometimes you’ll step onto the mat only to discover your body isn’t on board to practice at the level you were hoping it was. And that’s okay. In fact it’s better than okay; you get to practice listening to your body and doing what’s best for you in the moment. Yoga gives you permission to give yourself a break.
Of course, in a class setting it’s easy to become caught up in comparing (joy’s most brutal thief). As easy as it is to compare yourself to others and feel less than, it’s just as easy to compare yourself and feel more than, or somehow superior, when you can “outperform” the other students in class. As you advance in your asana practice, it’s crucial to remain humble with an open attitude and a beginner’s mind.
With a beginner’s mind, you enter each yoga posture with the excitement and eagerness of a first-time practitioner, gently exploring new ways of aligning or moving your body in and out of the postures.
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Assistant Editor: Dana Gornall
Photo Credit: Pixoto