Whether you’ve alway wanted to master advanced arm balances and inversions or if you’re looking to simply get deeper emotional and spiritual rewards from your practice, the steps are the same.
1. Breathe! (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?) The breath allows your practice to become much more than a workout—your whole being gets involved. And when your mind can tune into the flow of movement right alongside your physical body, that attentiveness is where the magic happens. Also, breathing simply helps you get through tougher poses with greater ease. Try this: next time you practice, set a firm intention to let your breath be the primary focus and the movements secondary. This may mean giving up your challenge poses or just taking it easier physically, but after you commit to practicing this way for a while, you can incorporate your deeper breath connection into your strong practice once more—and you’ll see some serious results. Another tip is to let the natural flow of your breath dictate the beginning and end of each pose, rather than the other way around. This way, the body leads the mind rather than vice versa.
2. Have patience. Since I teach at a college, I often see that my peers—who are usually young, fit students—attempt the most difficult poses immediately. It’s part ego and part eagerness, but if you jump into more challenging practices without a firm foundation, you risk injury and you compromise the equally rewarding mindfulness aspect of your practice. Instead, take your time but dedicate yourself to trying just a bit each day by getting strong and stable in your existing practice. Remember what Pattabhi Jois said: “Practice, practice, practice and all is coming.”
3. Face your fears. This is a good way to counterbalance the previous point because there are also times when you’re ready for a deeper practice, physically or spiritually, but you’re afraid to take the leap because you think you aren’t ready yet! But you never know until you try. Fear and doubt are the biggest obstacles to certain poises like inversions, in my experience. The strength and alignment are huge, of course, but once you have your first few moments of realizing that what you thought was out of reach is actually exactly right for you, your practice starts to accelerate exponentially.
4. Ask yourself why you do yoga. It’s, at first glance, any easy answer: it feels good! It centers us. And so on and so forth. But I’ll be honest: I’ve seen so many people use yoga as a way to express their body discontent. It can often become a way to try to become leaner, bendier, stronger, sexier, or to try to mold our bodies into what we think it should look like. When your practice becomes too focused on looking right and doing impressive and acrobatic poses for the sake of it, you start to lose such a profoundly more rewarding experience that lies underneath the physical. And that’s the part that brings you simply to your yoga mat and your Down Dog for the presence, the sensations. Make sure that your yoga practice is motivated by a sense of enjoyment, ease, and self-acceptance. I suspect that a huge reason behind yoga injuries in which people push themselves past their limits is the desire to look a certain way or prove to themselves their own capabilities. Yoga demands nothing and it doesn’t care about how well you can balance upside down on one finger. It just wants you to feel.
5. Remember that the deepest you can go is right here, right now. Let me explain. “Deepening your practice” sounds like there’s a destination you need to get to as a yogi that you just haven’t gotten to yet. But that’s just it: the destination is right here and now as deeply as you can manage. The sheer amount of presence and awareness you cultivate on your mat is the deepest you’ll ever need to go. Everything in yoga—the asanas, pranayam, mudras, and fancy techniques—are all meant to you bring you deeply into this point of absolute awareness. They are a means to this end, rather than the end itself. So if you’ve ever questioned your yogic capacity, your skill or experience, fear not: you’ve got everything you need if you can just be and feel. And I know you can do that!