3 Tips for Getting Back on Your Mat After a Long Hiatus
They All Involve Your Breath!
by Anna Withrow
As a teacher and longtime practitioner, I know that taking time off from yoga practice happens all the time. It happens for good reasons—like resting after an injury, devoting time to family and work, or exploring something else you were curious about.
For whatever reason, you’ve been away from your practice, and now your mat is calling you back. Yet I know it's also natural to hesitate in answering that call.
During your time off, you’ve been subject to inertia. Now you may experience further resistance stemming from feelings like guilt and self-doubt, which are commonly associated with our assessment of our own habits. Together, these can cloak the mind and dim the light of motivation and enthusiasm.
I loved the way I felt when I was doing yoga, you think to yourself. I need to start again. But that thought is quickly overshadowed by others: But I'm stiff, and I’m so busy. Maybe next week.
Even when you make it to that first class or first home practice, it's quite possible to be discouraged by the results. The body can feel tight and unyielding. Balance may be elusive.
The remedy, of course, is more yoga. That's easy to grasp intellectually, but logic is often a weak tool in the face of resistance. However, we have a much more powerful tool—one that, when skillfully applied, can be the antidote to not only the inertia keeping us from the mat, but also to the deeper forces of doubt that lie beneath that inertia. That tool is the breath.
The remedy, of course, is more yoga. That's easy to grasp intellectually, but logic is often a weak tool in the face of resistance.
Learning to apply the breath skillfully in asana practice is a complex endeavor. But you don't need to begin at the PhD level. You can begin at the beginning. With awareness.
How Your Breath Can Bring You Back to Yoga
When you use the gentle discipline of drawing the mind to the breath again and again, even in the midst of other sensations, thoughts, and efforts, you are building your capacity to be focused and energetically stable.
Focusing on your breath can also take the focus off less uplifting, potentially undermining ways of framing your intention to get back to your regular practice—like "catching up as quickly as possible to where I used to be." With an increased capacity to focus, you are better able to make choices that serve you (like practicing more!), and you have a greater pool of energy to fuel your resolve.
Eventually, you even become joyful about doing the healthy things that in the past seemed to be a chore or sacrifice—like leaving work on time to hit your yoga class.
An Invitation to Practice
Knowing the power of mindful breathing—and with a nod to the popular notion that it takes 21 days to form a new habit—I invite you to commit to three weeks of asana practice in which you develop and cultivate your awareness of your breath.
My prediction is that the three-week commitment, along with your new (or rediscovered) skill in breath awareness, will provide the momentum you need to return to a regular asana practice (either at home or at your favorite studio).
Once you have established breath awareness in your practice, you will be far less likely to slide back into inertia. Being mindful of your breath not only facilitates focus and stability, but it invites you to engage body, breath, and mind—which will make your practice richer and more effective.
To build an awareness of your breath, you will use three methods while you practice asana. Commit to one each week, either by focusing on that one alone, or by also incorporating those you have previously practiced. I present them in the order I think makes good sense, and I suggest you focus on each for one week. However, your approach does not need to be rigidly linear. Just make sure you're not being overwhelmed by trying to focus on too much at once.
Method 1. Be Aware of Breath Awareness
Awareness of awareness may sound lofty, but this method is actually intended to be super simple.
Before you begin practice, it may be helpful to spend a few moments observing the flow of your breath in the body. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the body, then back to the breath in the body. If you can achieve a steady, even breath, that's great—but don't exert much effort to change how your body wants or needs to breathe.
Staying attuned to your breathing during an entire asana practice is a very ambitious endeavor. Rather than setting that as the goal, when you begin your practice, simply pay attention to the number of times you can anchor your mind to your breathing. Notice which poses take your mind away from your breath, and in which poses you notice a steady, even breath. The simplicity of this method is deceptive, so keep an open mind and be willing to explore how it affects your experience.
Method 2. Be Aware of Inhale and Exhale
Once you have some practice returning your mind to your breath, you can refine your awareness of inhale and exhale.
First, you might simply notice the quality of the breath in and out. In other words, notice if the breath feels smooth or choppy. Is it easy to take the full breath in, or is it challenged near the top? Does the breath out flow easily through the nostrils, or do you feel the impulse to sigh out with an open mouth?
Once you’ve explored the quality of the breath in and out, begin to notice how each affects your physical body.
For instance, the inhale is often associated with a feeling of expansion. Do you sense an expanded quality in the chest, the abdomen, or anywhere else? The exhale is often associated with grounding, so consider these possible effects: How does the exhale impact the legs in your standing poses? Does the exhale engender a sense of being strong and stable in the low belly or elsewhere?
These questions emerge from common experiences, but remember that you aren’t looking for any particular experience. You are simply refining your awareness by noticing as you practice that the inhale and exhale are associated with experiences in the body.
Method 3. Be Aware of How Breathing Affects Your Mind
With your awareness even more refined, you can now turn your attention to a more subtle aspect of breathing.
Each breath affects the condition of the nervous system, which in turn affects the experience you are having at the level of the mind. To tune into this aspect of the breath, pay attention to relationships like these:
• When your mind is distracted in practice, notice what the quality of your breath is like.
• When your breath is smooth and even, what is happening in the mind?
• During challenging postures, can you change your breath to keep your mind more focused?
• In resting postures, can your breath help to anchor the mind?
• When you come into savasana (corpse pose) at the end of practice, your breath may seem calm and effortless—does your mind then have similar qualities?
After three weeks, I hope (and expect) that you will find you’ve made headway against the resistance that kept you from returning to practice. Along the way, you will likely make many observations and discoveries about your breath, your body, your mind, and even your life. Proceed with curiosity and openness, without grasping after any one experience. Instead, use your practice as a way to build your capacity for awareness of your experiences, which will allow you to truly grow from them.