I recommend yoga to my clients alongside therapy, because it gives them an opportunity to practice the skills we talk about in session. Yoga is a microcosm of each of our worlds; it's an hour (give or take) where we can focus on rewiring our brains for the better.
Here are eight ways you can be intentional in your practice and transfer the skills off the mat into your daily life:
1. Notice when you're comparing, and focus on your own journey.
It's easy to compare yourself to others in yoga. Strength, flexibility, body type, choice of attire — we don't just compare in class, we do it all the time in daily life. And it causes us a lot of pain. We compare ourselves to our colleagues, rivals, celebrities, and friends. We assess our value based on our jobs, our relationship statuses, our bank accounts, whether or not we own property — we judge whether or not we're good enough based on how we seem in comparison. When you find yourself comparing to others in class, bring your attention back to your own mat. When you find yourself comparing in life, bring your attention back to you and your path.
2. The same pose will be different on any given day, and our ability to meet expectations will be different every time.
Life does not follow a linear trajectory. In most cases, we don't improve upon everything we do without "off" days and setbacks. Some days, you might hold Tree Pose (Vrikasana) like a champ, and get your bottom hand off the ground in Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana). Other days, you might wobble like a newborn fawn and fall out of the pose again and again. This doesn't make you weak or a failure. This makes you a human. Some days, you might have the energy to run 10 kilometers or have a super productive workday. Other days, you might not. Recognize that your performance one day is not indicative of the next. Take into account your mood, sleep, hormones, and stress levels, and be flexible with your expectations.
3. Be kind to yourself when you feel defeated, embarrassed, or ashamed.
On that note when you do fall out of Half Moon, come up from Warrior II before the instructor's cue, or end up somersaulting out of headstand (as I last night) — be kind to yourself. The yoga room is one of the most intentional places we can learn self-compassion. Treating yourself with compassion in response to embarrassing or defeating moments in yoga, allows us to translate that voice into the outside world.
4. You're the expert on yourself. Do what serves you.
I remember struggling with a neck injury a few years back during an infatuation phase of my volatile relationship with traditional hot yoga (we've since broken up for good). The instructor kept calling me out for not looking up during Triangle Pose (Trikoṇasana), and seemed completely uninterested in my knowledge of what my neck needed at the time. I chose to listen to my body and continued to look down, and smiled at myself for doing what served me.
My previous self might have listened to a person in power at the cost of my health or happiness. In our world, people will constantly try to tell you what's best for you. While in some cases they might be right, know that ultimately you are the one inhabiting your own body, and thus you know what serves you best.
5. Focus on the journey or you'll miss it.
How many times have you been mid-practice and wished it was over? How many times have you found yourself wondering what you'll have for dinner after class or what you'll wear to that party on the weekend?
The aversion and craving we experience in yoga is not unlike the aversion we experience sitting in traffic or the craving we experience when we yearn for a promotion, proposal, pant size or white picket fence. Use yoga as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Notice without judgment, your physical sensations, breath and feelings. Bathe in the present moment — it's how we truly embrace life.
Outside of class, you can translate this practice to your everyday. Chances are you'll feel more connected to your body and emotions, and you'll notice leaves on trees and mountaintops more often.
6. Lean into discomfort.
Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of seated forward folds. My hamstrings get fiery and angry and I notice myself trying to resist the discomfort. But what we resist persists, and usually it's when we stop struggling against the discomfort that we find peace. When I breathe into the fire and relax into the discomfort, my hamstrings seem to open up a bit and the stretch doesn't seem as bad.
When you feel uncomfortable feelings — anxiety, depression, guilt, envy — instead of trying to push them away, notice them, make space for them and breathe into them. See what happens.
7. Step out of your comfort zone, but stay within your safety zone.
The other night, my instructor offered Crow Pose (Bakasana) to headstand. Now, despite it looking really cool, I knew there was a serious chance of knocking out my front teeth for a third time (the first two resulting from cycling and dodgeball incidents). Headstand was enough out of my comfort zone for me that day, and headstand to Bakasana seemed out of my personal safety zone entirely.
Now, it can be serving to step out of our comfort zones in life, as perfectionism tries to keep us within those zones (and therefore restricted). However, don't confuse your comfort zone with your safety zone. It's one thing to approach someone at a bar and strike up conversation (comfort zone), it's another thing to go home with a stranger after too many drinks (safety zone). It's one thing to go skiing; it's another thing to go into the backcountry alone. Listen to your gut, and know the difference between your comfort and safety zones.
8. Practice non-judgment and compassion toward others.
You know when someone starts snoring during Savasana and our minds start judging? Or someone sneezes, farts, falls, or cries, and at once, we judge? We feel irritated, amused, shocked, disgusted, or superior as a result. Use your experience of judgment in the yoga room as an opportunity to practice curiosity, non-judgment and compassion toward your instructor and fellow students. In life, when you find yourself judging others, whether it be the Barista or your boss, try to implement the same practice. Compassion can be learned, and the yoga room is a wonderful place to start.