Five Ways to Advance Your Practice (Hint: NONE of these are yoga poses)

July 14, 2016    BY Britt B. Steele

As yogis mature from beginning and intermediate practitioners, becoming more advanced in their understanding and application of the deeper and more sophisticated yoga techniques, asana practice becomes less about the poses and more about what happens within the poses. In this way, yoga as we know it can not only contain our asana practice but can also serve as a container for our entire lives. With study and practice, one begins to understand that there are many ways to both enhance a simple mat practice and to bring the “state” of yoga into all aspects of life. That being said, sometimes it can be a challenge to know just what practices will have the most potent impact when integrated into our lives.  

Yoga as we know it can not only contain our asana practice but can also serve as a container for our entire lives.

Here is a short list of simple yet profound practices that may change your mat experience—and your life experience—for the better.

1. Set a Devotional Intention

This is a tiny practice with big potential. At the beginning of every yoga session, whether you start standing, sitting, bowing down, or lying on your back, bring your attention to your breath and set a devotional intention. I call this a devotional intention because it requires deciding how you want to devote your time and energy on the mat so that you can step back into your life a little brighter and a little lighter. The intention can be very simple—and is often most potent when it is. One such devotional intention might be “May I be a gentle source of power.” Another example might be “May I awaken into my potential.”

2. Rise and Set with the Sun

Relatively early in a yoga session, let your energy begin to rise and heat up your body. This type of energy may be likened to the brightness of a candle flame—as you feel yourself become more brilliant, expansive, radiant, and potent, you are tapping into the energy we call prana. In the morning, this can be done through sun salutations, and later in the day, it can be accomplished through any flowing pose sequence that challenges you. Kindling your inner fire in this way lets you see how the heat is affecting your body, mind, and heart (just as a light illuminates the area surrounding it). Once you see this, you can use that information to determine if you are going to keep heating up or not; you may get messages from your body to shift into a practice of ease, balance, inversion, or stillness.

Raising the fire is the “rise with the sun” part of this practice’s name. “Set with the sun” refers to the willingness to titrate the heat, and decrease it when fire-building practices may be detrimental. This is about being willing to not make every single practice hard and hot but to instead use the fire to remove blockages and ease tension (for example, a focused practice to relieve headache, anger, or even constipation). Just as the flame in a candle illuminates and softens the surrounding wax, the heat within your practice can help you illuminate your internal environment and make undesirable physical or emotional symptoms softer and easier to remove or resolve when titrated. Fire is very powerful and is best kept at a slow burn to glean the benefits.

3. Bring on the Moon

Connecting to moon energy is about finding ease, grace, nourishment, and any insights that will result in your practice being the catalyst for making everything in life feel more integrated. Discovering these requires self-awareness of your current needs. So, when you practice yoga on your own at home, consider letting go of all restrictions, such as the idea that absolutely everything that happens on the right side of the body needs to happen on the left side and the idea that you must adhere to a particular routine or agenda. Sometimes you will come to the mat and have high aspirations to a strong practice, only to find five minutes into it (as a result of paying attention to how heat is affecting you in that moment) that you actually need, more than ever, to sit in meditation for 20 minutes, then do 20 minutes of breathing exercises (pranayama), and then finish up on your back with 20 minutes of savasana (corpse pose).   

4. Follow the Three Precepts

The Three Precepts, presented here as three questions to ask yourself, can always, always, always be applied in your life off the mat.  

1. Right here, right now, is my breath free and easy? 
If it is not, ask yourself what you need to do, stop doing, shift, or change to allow the breath to be free and easy. Then adapt accordingly.

2. Is my spine long and neutral? 
Extension and flexion are a natural part of life. Therefore, the purpose of this precept is not to keep the spine “straight” all of the time but to seek the “sacred neutral”—a position with no offensive or defensive posturing. Sacred neutral is different than the “spinal neutral” about which we speak in biomechanics. Sacred neutral is that position, in a pose or in life, where one is not bearing down, pushing, or forcing things to be a certain way, nor is one’s sacred neutral in a pose or life circumstance filled with retracting, freezing, or startling back. Instead, sacred neutral is a central, open position, in which one might be contracting or expanding and completely at peace with what is being revealed, even if it is challenging or difficult. It is a harmonious state of being able to relax into what is happening without expectation that anything be different than it is right here, right now.

3. Is my body relaxed? 
In your asana practice, when you move into any more advanced asana, do so gradually so as to find your way into the pose gracefully and ease-fully; if you are not relaxed as you enter (for example, a backbend, a headstand, or an arm balance), then go back to the basic stages of the pose and forego the more advanced version. In general, any time you are not relaxed, ask yourself what can be done that will allow you to relax and then try to do that. (Sometimes this means foregoing the advanced expression of an asana and finding fullness in a more gentle variation of a pose.) To fully experience the good things in life, one needs to be relaxed; stress can prevent us from recognizing and appreciating the positive. To put it another way, all good things need a relaxed body to enter and move through, so invite relaxation in and request that it be the escort and the container to guide and hold every pose you enter—in life or on the mat.

5. Enjoy a Long, Luscious, Focused Savasana

Savasana (corpse pose, or "final relaxation pose") is not the easy pose it may seem. In fact, it may be one of the most challenging of all. It is the pinnacle of a yoga session during which you can assimilate everything you’ve done, bringing it all together so it will be relevant and beneficial to every aspect of your life. To fully achieve this assimilation, give yourself plenty of time in savasana rather than jumping abruptly out of your practice and back into your day. We could all benefit from spending a longer time in savasana rather than limiting ourselves to yoga sessions that are always relentlessly physically challenging. To ensure that your savasana will be not just “long” but also “luscious,” allow your internal energy to move as it wants to move—sometimes flowing, sometimes pulsing or twitching as you relax in savasana.

To be “focused,” aspire to be completely attentive even while completely relaxed. In other words, avoid mentally spinning off to some far away place. You may find that practicing a guided relaxation in savasana helps you to remain present and aware. Gently call yourself back to your savasana if you find yourself starting a grocery list or revisiting a conversation you had or wish you had had. Instead, stay fully present in your body and in the moment to feel how the entire universe enters you, moves through you, and is available to allow you to manifest whatever you wish.  

So there you have it: five practices that have the power to transform your yoga practice and bring the benefits of yoga easefully into your day-to-day activities. They are so subtle that you can do them without anyone else ever knowing, but they are powerful enough to truly transform your life!  

Britt B. Steele
Britt is a thought leader in modern yoga tethered to the ancient teachings, and is the author of Pilgrim: Live Your Yoga Every Single Day. She is a guiding light in the world, dedicated to bringing the powerful and simple teachings of yoga to the forefront of life today. She works with students and teachers alike to discover the hidden depths of the practice and to be a guide in bringing these potent teachings into day to day life. Britt lives with her husband at Deva Daaru YogaFarm, an hour... Read more>>