“We practice yoga on the mat; we live it off the mat.”
There is a reason they call yoga a practice.
We stand tall with our feet firmly placed on the earth, and we breathe. We take a moment to step out of our life and into our heart.
It is about a 12-inch journey from your head to your heart—and most of us live in our minds. Yoga cuts through all the chatter and helps to navigate a path to steadiness and comfort, sthira and sukha in Sanskrit.
Taking a moment to step gracefully into what’s coming is the first lesson we learn on the mat, and use off of it. One minute into the practice, and we’ve discovered the first hidden treasure.
We don’t just place our feet on the earth, we simultaneously lift our heart toward the sun. This creates a long spine and results in a divine stretch. When we pray, we stand on our feet. The practice of yoga is a prayer in motion. We twist to wring out any energy that’s gotten stuck somewhere.
I often tell students to imagine they are a filthy sponge. The wringing out is an opportunity to cleanse of all the mess we have created for ourselves or others, while wringing out the central nervous system.
When we feel emotionally wounded, our body often plants a seed somewhere within itself. Stale or stuck, it can grow like a weed. It may manifest itself as sensation. This is the body’s way of calling out for attention. “Send me a warm breath,” it’s saying. “Soften my sharp edges and allow my rigid muscles to become more fluid,” it might whisper to you.
This is why we value the quiet moments of the practice.
It isn’t until the mind is quiet that one can hear the soul speak. What other time of the day does one go 90 minutes without speaking? This encourages the work-in, rather than the workout.
As the saying goes, “Music is what feeling sounds like.” I practice with and without music. At times, the sound of my breath is the soundtrack to my time on the mat, and other times, it’s a welcome distraction to get lost in the sound.
We move and breathe in synchronicity. This is the dance. “Inhale, arms sweep up for urdhva hastasana, exhale, hinge from the hips and fold forward for uttanasana.” The flow consists of inhales and exhales. The breath navigates the journey inward. One wraps the pose around it, not the other way around. Panting or holding the breath is the body’s way of sending an alert message. “Slow down,” it might be telling you. “Settle into a child’s pose and take a moment for you,” might be a suggestion. The poses exist simply to tempt one to become distracted from the meditation practice that is yoga.
The breath becomes a mantra, and the asanas, a meditation. Sun salutation is a prayer to the sun in gratitude for providing life on Earth. How ingenious that the practice of yoga begins with an offering of gratitude. It reminds us to begin all things with the simplest offering of gratitude, even when it requires a search for something. And on top of that, in appreciation for something that offers without expectation. The sun doesn’t shine to earn our approval. It just shines. This is the basis for authentic relationships: giving without an agenda.
We enter into poses and often feel shaky. This requires a certain level of self-love. How can we exist in a place that feels unsteady and be okay? We create comfort in the discomfort, calm in the midst of chaos. Utkatasana is an awkward, difficult posture, and I have had days that feel like I am stuck in this pose. But having practiced it on my mat affirms that I will get through. The only way to the other side is through. Challenges in life require steady breath and all four corners of the feet firmly rooting as we attempt to rise up. There’s a life skill worth rolling up into your mat.
Can we love ourselves in the moments of uncertainty? Can we like ourselves when we’re five pounds overweight? Can we be generous of spirit and turn it inward? So often, we are kinder to strangers than we are to ourselves. The idea of compassion is lost if it is not offered first to ourselves. I finally understand why the airlines instruct passengers to put the oxygen mask over themselves first before assisting others. How can we possibly help anyone else to feel safe if we have not mastered the skill? We teach others how to care for us by the way we care for ourselves.
We practice yoga to get better at living. Becoming more proficient at yoga is just the cherry on top.
Stepping out of your world and onto your mat to share space with other yogi souls is an intimate experience, and yet we never leave the four corners of our mat. We stretch our bodies and we open our hearts. We are reminded of the things we already knew, and we shed the film, avidya, that starts to collect as we rush through our daily lives. Breath and movement clear our vision and we can see who we are.
“Atha yoga-anushasanam”—yoga begins now. Namaste, which means, “the divine light in me recognizes that same divine light in you.”