What’s your motivation for maintaining your yoga practice?
For most of my students, the answer is some chronic aches and pains, or sore muscles from activities they have been doing. Perhaps they’re aware of tightness in their shoulders from sitting at a desk too long, or their lower back hurts after over-exertion.
Yoga helps alleviate these physical discomforts, so many people are motivated to maintain their practice.
Fewer students come to yoga because they have noticed how drained they feel energetically or how scattered their minds are. For most of us, our everyday energetic state is all we know; it’s become our normal, and we don’t question it.
As a yoga teacher, I regard alleviation of physical discomforts as an essential benefit of any practice, and I help my students find poses to address their problem areas. But over time, I’ve come to realize that the changes in energy and peace of mind that yoga brings are even more life-enhancing than its physical benefits.
We can achieve these energetic benefits in almost any routine. The secret is to allow enough time to fully develop each of our poses. I’ve developed a process I call “blissful yoga” that breaks down each pose into four essential steps. Here are the steps I teach, along with suggestions for ways you can use them in your own practice.
Essential 1: Aligning the Pose
My process: Following my instructions, students move their body parts to achieve the correct form. I use simple, clear physical references—mostly short phrases—so students can easily accomplish the alignment I am guiding them toward. I refer to well-known body parts, rather than obscure muscles no one even knows exist. I keep in mind that listening to instructions is much different than reading them. I find that short, concise statements, with pauses between, helps avoid confusion, which is distracting and creates tension.
Your process: If you are following a teacher online or in class, ask yourself: Is the teacher giving instructions that are easy to follow? Do I recognize the body parts referred to? For self-guided sessions, avoid rushing through this step. Establish pacing that allows you enough time to check on each point of form and alignment while maintaining a relaxed awareness.
Essential 2: Grounding into Steadiness
My process: After my students have achieved proper form and alignment, I ask my students to sink in and find their rootedness. I remind them to not only use their muscles to hold the form, but also their gaze—a vital component of balance. If I see them wobbling, I suggest adjustments that will help them find their steady point. It’s a delight to watch students ground; I love seeing the concern drain from their faces and their gazes relax.
Your process: Ask: How steady do I feel in my pose? What adjustments can I make to ground more firmly? Where am I holding tension that I don’t need? Simple adjustments can help relieve unsteadiness and resolve tension. Ask your teacher to help you if you are in class. Grounding must be achieved before you can free your mind. If your body is gripping, your mind will be too.
Essential 3: Breathing in Prana (life force)
My process: While students are concentrating on the first two essentials, I don’t expect them to also focus on breath instruction. Only after the first two essentials have been accomplished do I start talking about the breath again. I’ll sometimes count out the duration of the breath (“breathe in to a count of four”) to slow them down. I remind them to draw each breath deep into the lower diaphragm to help their parasympathetic nervous system (the calming one) kick in.
Your process: Ask: Where’s my breath? Is it in my chest or in my belly? Can I slow it down? Can I let go and allow the breath’s rhythm to carry itself? Yoga was originally developed as preparation for meditation. No wonder the ancients advised following the breath, as it is an effective method for reaching a meditative state. Try following your breath lightly with your awareness—no gripping allowed here either.
Essential 4: Inhabiting the Pose
My process: This is the yummy part of each pose. Students feel strong and steady now. Their breathing has drawn them into another realm where the analytical mind has lost some of its grip. They’re pervaded by a sense of peace and silence. Sometimes, I see students deepening poses unconsciously, simply because they have let go. Feeling strong and steady, they relax and truly inhabit the pose.
Your process: Ask: Am I able to shift my attention from my body to my breath and keep it focused there? Do I feel myself relaxing, both physically and mentally? At this point, the pose should feel almost timeless, as if you could stay there forever. Your attention is in your heart’s center, and you feel at peace.
If we use these steps consistently with each pose, we will be ready for yoga to complete its magic by the time we reach Savasana. As we melt into our mats, we can remember to take a moment to feel gratitude for what we’ve given ourselves by consciously moving through each pose with awareness. Then, we can allow our minds to drift off into other realms.
I think the reason yoga has become so popular is because anyone can experience the benefits the very first time they practice it. It’s not like other fitness activities where you have to become conditioned first or need to develop certain skills before the activity becomes enjoyable.
With yoga, beginners can benefit energetically right away by applying these four essentials to every yoga pose they try. With blissful yoga, even the tiniest sequence can take us to a beautiful place and keep us coming back for more.
Author: Sally Philips
Editor: Callie Rushton