The benefits of yoga are plentiful. Studies prove, practice shows, and history knows that yoga is more than just an exercise class that you struggle to fit into your schedule.
Yet it’s often those classes in the local studios that remind us it all begins the moment we roll out the mat. Though our lives are busier than a New York street corner, folks go to great lengths to make sure they find time to squeeze in their favorite yoga classes.
But hold the pose—not every class leaves you feeling blissful and ready to take on the world. So what makes one class feel like a path to enlightenment, and another a struggle to get through? Maybe it isn’t so much about the teacher or the studio, but about what we do to get the most out of yoga class. Here are a few tips to keep the yoga in the yogini.
Don’t expect the teacher to offer you the secret to life, don’t expect the other students to leave the window spot open for you again, and don’t expect your tired body to be able to hold the sideways crow after you were up till midnight tending to a vomiting toddler. Letting go and experiencing what really is is the only truth. Moving into each class with an open mind allows you to fully experience the moment instead of wrestling with what you had hoped it to be. Let’s face it: much is out of your control anyway. Your favorite teacher might be replaced by a sub, your ex's girlfriend might show up and settle in next to you, and your left foot might get a cramp. Dealing with the unexpected is part of the practice. Beginning without expectations gives you a fighting chance. Let it all go, so you can stay.
An intention is about the state of being during, not about the final result. So pick an intention to keep your mind focused on every breath of the practice. This will allow you to experience the moments instead of struggling with the idea of the end result—like a perfect pose or open hips.
A big part of a yoga class is staying focused and not letting your mind chatter so loudly that you can’t hear the teacher telling you to grab a block for triangle pose. It helps to clear away any distractions from the get-go, such as a full bladder, uncomfortable clothes, or bangs that flop in your eyes. Don’t wear that cute yoga top if you have to keep dropping out of warrior II to pull it down over your belly. The bottom line is, if you’re distracted by these minor annoyances, you are not present in the practice. It’s that simple.
There are a lot of hamstring stretches in beginning yoga for good reason. The hamstrings tend to get short and tight in people who sit a lot, which can contribute to low back pain. Stretching them, as you do during the seated forward bend, is helpful. This pose offers a stretch to the entire back of the body. Bend at your hips, not your waist, and keep your neck aligned with your spine.
Tell him that your lower back hurts, you just had knee surgery, or you have a trick shoulder. Part of his training is to offer you modifications so that when everyone else is perched in peacock, you aren’t splintering your wing because you were too shy or had too much of an ego to speak up about your needs.
Let the instructor be your guide, and let your inner voice be your guru. That’s right…the experienced 500-hour instructor in front of you is to serve only as your guide. Sure, you can learn from her, but ultimately the goal of yoga is to strengthen and balance so you can honor your own inner teacher. This frees you from playing internal mind ping pong about the instructor. If something she says resonates, take it in. If something doesn’t, let it go. It’s your practice. Listen to your true guru. Which brings us to the next point…
Your amazing body is a unified part of that divine guru within. If you are more concerned about looking good than being good to yourself, you will ignore your hamstrings when they are screaming at you, or even worse, you won’t hear their cry. Become subtle enough to detect that voice whispering (sometimes in the form of a held breath) that says it’s time to drop down to child’s pose. Respect your Self.
Respect the time devoted to the practice. Don’t bring a watch, phone, or any other device that can connect you to the outside world. Let go of those thoughts that drag you out of the studio and into the office. In yoga, you are nowhere but there, so stressing about how much time is left of class so you can get to the meeting, or why your mother-in-law just texted you, brings you out of the moment. Which equates to: yoga moment lost.
A favorite yoga mat that ritualistically brings you back to the practice can get you in that spontaneous calm state a little more fluidly. Kind of like Pavlov’s dog salivated when he believed he’d be fed, our bodies and minds begin to relax knowing it’s time for the practice.
Simple, powerful, and vitally important: breathe. On the mat, and off, you’ll get more out of whatever you do and whatever you think if you inhale and exhale mindfully. It will keep you balanced, grounded, practicing within your capacity, and mostly, will allow you to fully experience and appreciate the moments in your practice. Which brings us to the final point…
Feel thankful for getting yourself to the studio, onto the mat, and into the moment. Your attitude of gratitude will infuse your practice with the yogi’s grace and will help ensure that what you’ve gleaned in class will remain with you long after you’ve rolled up the mat and walked back into the world.