by Abi Carver: When it comes to starting or advancing your yoga practice, there are certain things that every person should know…
For example, it’s important to have a good yoga mat that isn’t slippery, a nice place to limber up in, and clothes that you can shape-shift in comfortably. These are tips you can find most places on the internet.
But there are some other, less common tips that can further smooth your entry into yoga—or help you get back into it after you’ve taken a break. Implementing these lesser-known tips into your practice can make all the difference when it comes to reaping the physical and mental benefits of yoga. So without further ado, here are my must-know tips:
1. Drop any preconceptions.
Yoga isn’t exactly stretching, nor is it just a nice way to relax and unwind. It’s both of these things and so much more. The best approach to take when you first step onto your yoga mat is to be open and alert to your experience as it unfolds. The trouble with deciding in advance that you know what something is going to be like is that you stop listening carefully and disengage your natural curiosity. So just let it be whatever it is.
You may be tighter than you thought, or more flexible. The session may be more or less challenging than you expected. You may find it hard to concentrate or discover that you drop effortlessly into a state of yogic bliss. Try to come to your mat with an open mind and an inquisitive spirit.
2. Remember that it’s your yoga, not anyone else’s.
Yoga is not about perfectly imitating a series of elaborate poses or checking off a specific goal on your self-improvement to-do list. It’s a physical discipline designed to stretch you, both literally and metaphorically, that has no red-ribboned finish line to shoot for. In yoga, the aim is to skillfully work with your body, breath, and mind, to make subtle improvements to various aspects of your health, one step at a time.
Something that is often not talked about in yoga is the importance of intelligently structuring your practice to accomplish your own individual goals. In Sanskrit, the term for this is vinyāsa krama, or “wise progression.” This means that if a pose is too hard for you, the smart option is to practice an appropriate modification until you are ready to move on. You’ll get in a pickle if you try to copy what someone else is doing or skip a crucial step. Stick with what feels right to you. Trust your intuition. Use your teacher’s guidelines as a framework and not as a divinely authored prescription.
3. Yoga is a practice.
A practice requires commitment, discipline, and consistency. If you give your yoga sessions anything less than 100%, you’re cutting yourself off from many of the benefits. You don’t have to do a long class, but whatever time you commit to it, go all in. And if you want to practice with your family or friends at home, that’s OK. But try not to disturb each other. Yoga is a uniquely personal experience. It is different from other physical disciplines in that it requires your undivided attention and an intention to be aware of everything that is going on in your body and mind.
When you go to the gym, it can help to put on motivating music to distract you from the fatigue and pain of pushing yourself to your limit. In yoga, we try to feel everything. Be disciplined and take it seriously. Yoga is powerful stuff if you give it everything you’ve got.
4. Yoga should always be challenging.
You don’t need to practice advanced postures to challenge yourself in yoga. There’s always room for improvement—even with the fundamentals. Synchronizing your breath with movement is surprisingly difficult, as is maintaining full focus throughout the sequence. If you feel like you’re just phoning it in, here are some tips to make the practice more challenging.
Aim to maintain smooth, controlled breathing throughout the sequence, try your best not to come out of poses early, look for ways to sharpen up your alignment, see how gracefully you can transition between postures, and be ready to take the more advanced variation of a pose when you can. If you are asked to do a pose that looks like it might be outside of your ability, give it a shot. As long as you follow the process, step by step, more than likely you’ll surprise yourself with what you’re capable of.
5. Approach yoga like you would meditation.
There are two parts to meditation—concentration (not allowing yourself to be distracted) and nonjudgmental awareness (also known as mindfulness). I find that yoga is actually easier than seated meditation as there are more things going on to keep you occupied. Throughout the practice, observe the sensations in your body as you move, stretch, and breathe.
That’s not the same as thinking about the sensations. Feel them. See how closely you can observe your experience. Notice how a stretch feels different when you deepen your breath and relax into it. Feel the expansion and contraction of your belly and chest as you breathe rhythmically in and out. Notice any changes in your body temperature and heart rate and the feeling of contact between different parts of your body and the mat. Emotions may come up—frustration, boredom, impatience, gratitude, pride, or bliss. Notice any thoughts related to these feelings, but don’t invite them in for tea. Experience everything, without trying to push away the parts that are uncomfortable or cling to the aspects you find easy.
6. Be grateful.
When you approach yoga in this way, you are doing yourself a solid, so acknowledge yourself for that. It shows that you respect yourself and that you want to improve in positive and healthy ways. Yoga is a particularly effective self-care strategy because it operates on multiple levels—physical, mental, and emotional. It not only eases aches and pains and reduces stiffness; it also relieves stress, clears the mind, and helps you to feel better about yourself. It is a mind-body discipline that recognizes that everything is connected. You feel light in your body, which gives you more energy. This lightness drives you to be more active, which helps you to think more clearly. Mental clarity helps you to make better decisions, which boosts your mood. And so it goes.
A daily yoga practice initiates a positive ripple effect through you, your life, and out into the world. So be grateful that you are the sort of person who chooses to spend your precious time and attention giving yoga your best shot.