As the Yoga Sutras say, the purpose of yoga is to calm and still the fluctuations of the mind. Yet if you’re like us, sometimes the practice feels like it does the opposite as we struggle in postures or find our thoughts floating elsewhere.
Senior yoga teacher at BodyMindLife and psychotherapist, Mandy Scotney shares her top five tips to make the most of yoga’s calming benefits, and come back to the present.
Take a breath
Breath is key. It’s one of the best ways to get the most from your time in class and manage stress levels off the mat.
Long, slow and deep breaths that focus on the exhale trigger a switch that takes you from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is your internal ‘stress-buster”. It counteracts the impact of stress on your body, reducing chronic stress hormones and increasing heart rate variability, which is a measure of your ability to tolerate stress.
Pushing and grunting your way through a yoga class won’t give you the same benefits. Sure, you’ll get a good workout, but to really benefit you need to practice at a level where the breath stays calm, steady and deep throughout. If you do this you are literally training your nervous system to stay calm under pressure and building your stress management muscle so in the face of uncomfortable or difficult situations in life, you can keep a sense of calm and peace.
Learn to be present
Most of our anxiety and stress comes from worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. Or we focus our attention on situations in the past that we can’t change.
It’s easy to get stuck in these circular, unhelpful thought patterns that go round and round. These are the “vrtti’s” Patanjali refers to.
In asana practice we use our body and breath as tools to be present and train the mind to stay focused; to be here in the now rather than in the then and there.
Being present is one of the most powerful tools we can learn to keep stress levels low, and health and wellbeing high.
In Sutra 1.22, Patanjali says: “through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent.”
This friendliness and compassion Pantajali refers to should start with ourselves first, and from the self spread out to others.
We’re so conditioned to push ourselves harder, to do more, to be more, to achieve more. Let your mat be a place where you give yourself a break from all of that and be kind to yourself. Take child’s pose when you need to; listen to your inner dialogue and don’t worry about others around you.
When I look around the room in class, I often see a bunch of super serious faces, determined to get the pose right.
Yoga teases us by presenting all these personal challenges every time we step on the mat – challenges to take the pose deeper, to a fuller expression, to get stronger, to nail that handstand or arm balance.
However, the philosophy also reminds us not to get attached or to focused on the outcome because it’s all impermanent and will change. So sure, celebrate that you rocked the peak pose today today – enjoy it in this moment, but don’t get attached, because it will change.
If you treat yoga as a competitive sport you’re missing one of the biggest benefits of all. Give yourself a break on the mat and learn to simply accept what’s there and what’s not… and know that tomorrow it will be different.
Connect with others
One of the things I love most about yoga is the idea that we are all connected. The word yoga itself means ‘union’ and through most of the traditions is this sense that we are not alone, that we are all interconnected and share the same stuff.
Research shows that we are healthier and happier, and live longer less-stressed lives when we are part of a community with strong relationships and support systems. BodyMindLife is a tribe of like minded, awesome human beings. If you want to get the most value out of your practice, then reach out and connect, say hi, smile at your fellow yogis – you’ll be amazed at the lasting friendships that will result.