For yoga practitioners, it's often the case that our experiences on the mat become microcosms of our lives off the mat. We each have a unique opportunity to observe ourselves, our reactions, and our tendencies, as well as our attachments, aversions, and ego trips. Many is the tear that’s been shed on the mat when “stuff comes up,” and many the breakdown and breakthrough as well. All of it allows us to navigate tricky life situations with a little more insight than we had before.
For yoga practitioners, it's often the case that our experiences on the mat become microcosms of our lives off the mat.
I know this from my own experience (as well as from listening to other practicing yogis). But what about teaching yoga? Is that a microcosm too? It struck me recently, while I was driving home from an intense period of teaching, just how many of my frequently employed teaching cues can also be usefully applied to life off the mat.
“Breath leads the movement.”
Above all, before doing anything—anything at all—take a moment to connect with your breath. Steady yourself, find a place of calm. From there, inhale….and begin!
“Reach for the sky.”
I love to use this evocative cue at the opening urdhva hastasana (upward salute) in a sun salutation. What a great cue for life—aim high! There is no greater waste than wasted potential, and you never know what you can achieve until you try. So go for your dreams! As Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
“Ground through all four corners of the feet for a strong foundation.”
While your drishti (focus) is up there, little stargazer, keep those feet planted squarely on Mother Earth. Feel her support beneath you. Connect with her strength and energy. Everything we do in life begins with a foundation, whether it’s building a house, learning a language, raising a child, or setting up a yoga asana. Get that right and you’re already halfway there.
While your drishti (focus) is up there, little stargazer, keep those feet planted squarely on Mother Earth.
“Don’t rush through the parts you don’t like. They have a lesson for you.”
Oh boy, ain’t this the truth! It’s easy to take our time and breathe long and smooth in the restorative poses or the deep stretches that just feel delicious. But who hasn’t suffered from brain chatter, or sped up their breath count, or fidgeted through challenging poses like navasanas (boat poses) or utthita hasta padanghustasanas (standing hand-to-toe poses)? And don’t we do that in life as well? Like yoga, life isn’t always easy, but we don’t learn and grow from easy! The parts where we start to tremble and shake and just want to get the heck outta there, that’s where the juice is. That’s where the lesson is.
“Use the full exhale.”
Chaturanga is a great example. Any teacher will tell you that we see a lot of hastily executed, blink-and-you-miss-them chaturangas (four-limbed staff poses, or high-to-low planks) on the way to cobra or up dog. But if you take your time getting yourself down there, if you engage the bandhas (energy locks) and use the full exhale, you just might find that chaturanga not quite as arduous as your monkey-mind would have you believe. Using that full exhale calms the central nervous system and engages the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” response. On top of that, taking your time builds up your strength. So, next time you find yourself (literally or figuratively) racing through that journey to someplace easier, use your full exhale to find calmness, strength, and equanimity right where you are.
“Honor your body.”
How many times have you heard this (or a variation of it) in an asana class? All the time, right? Well, that’s because it really is super-important. And it doesn’t stop being super-important when you roll up your mat and head back out into the wider world. Here’s a kind of gross but very helpful trick I use when I get all “what the hell?” and feel like I want to dishonor the old girl by chucking an extra glass of wine or some vile sugary nonsense her way. What do I do? I visualize my internal organs. (Told you it was a bit gross!) I place my hand on my chest and feel the ba-bump of my heart. I feel the rise and fall of my rib cage as my strong but delicate lungs expand and contract. I picture my stomach and intestines doing their peristalsis polka, so strong and uncomplaining, but also so vulnerable and at the mercy of what I send down there. “What do they really want?” I ask. Then, most of the time—I’m no saint, but most of the time—I’m inspired to make a better choice. To honor my body. I mean, where the hell else am I going to live?
“Offer the heart forward.”
In every moment, we have a choice: to close in, to shy away and shield ourselves, or to open to life and the people we meet. To take a risk. Offering the heart forward is scary. It’s not always what we want to do in the moment, but when we greet another person, or another moment, with heartfelt openness, we begin to connect in a way that would be impossible if we were hiding; for it is only by offering the heart forward that we can feel the joy of loving one another.
In every moment, we have a choice: to close in, to shy away and shield ourselves, or to open to life and the people we meet.
“Engage the bandhas.”
Well now, engaging and releasing your pelvic floor (for example) can certainly be a good thing to do when waiting in line at the grocery store. But what are we really doing when we engage the bandhas? We’re drawing on our inner strength. When we’re tired, toward the end of class or a long day, it gets harder. But our inner strength is always there, and through practicing again and again and again, we get better and better at knowing how to call on it.
These are always my last words before I fall silent to hold space for my students in shavasana (corpse pose). It’s a turn of phrase I picked up from the wonderful Kathryn Budig and it sums up that last phase of practice for me—final relaxation. Here is where we soften, unwind, restore, and simply be. It’s something we don’t do enough in modern life—certainly not without feeling guilty about it. But we all need to do it! So let’s all give each other permission. Let’s be still. And take rest.