What a great feeling, that post-yoga-class glow: when we’re more grounded, relaxed, connected, and open.
That is, before we casually check our phone and read something upsetting, and it’s like we never even did yoga.
Suddenly, we’re in stress city all over again.
So how, dear yogis, can we make that feeling last so that the benefits of our practice live beyond the moment we step off our yoga mats?
By taking the time to notice and integrate the effects of practice while we are practicing.
Each time we open, breathe, lengthen, support, and organize, there is an internal response. By training ourselves to become more aware of these responses in the moment, we work toward the long-term, accumulated effects of our practice step by step, pose by pose, breath by breath.
When I practice, I always consider how each breathing exercise or pose has a beginning, middle, and an end. My friend Cyndi Lee describes these three phases as arising, abiding, and dissolving.
For me, arising is the process of coming into a pose: where I focus my attention and shift my body weight so that the parts of me that are the foundation of the pose connect deeply into the floor. After that comes abiding, where I maintain all of the actions and focus the pose requires. Then dissolution, where I come out of the pose, making qualitative changes in my body and mind so that the transition is smooth as silk.
I’d also like to suggest a fourth moment, after the dissolving phase, which I liken to the silence after an om—a quiet, personal moment that can help us further integrate the effects of practice, making it last.
How do we access this moment?
Before we move on to the next pose, by pausing to experience what we’ve done, either assimilating the benefits or letting go of extra tension that we might’ve generated, each of us can identify the messages and sensations we experience for ourselves.
For example, sometimes I feel…
• This challenge is done.
• Ugh! That was exhausting.
• I’m okay. Better let that exhaustion fall off me, like snow melting down a mountain.
• Holding my abdomen as though I’m still doing the work of the pose.
• I can really feel my heart beating now.
• Deep muscular relaxation, even in my face.
• I’ve never felt that part of my body before!? Wow.
• Perceiving a flowing connection between parts of my body.
• Sizzling with life
• Rinsed out
Sometimes I feel stunned. Once after I came out of a headstand, a good friend asked “Are you okay?” I think I must have looked like a deer in headlights.
Then there’s the time I came out of a pose and my teeth were chattering. I thought, Oh no, I must have done something really wrong—this can’t be right. Sometime later, I heard my teacher tell a fellow student that a build-up of too much prana (life force) can lead to headaches. I think it was the same with my chattering teeth.
Some poses seem like they’d be pretty simple to do, like gate pose, and yet my body is like, What? so restricted and tense. I’m fairly flexible so it can feel surprising and disappointing to meet up with such limitations. That’s when I pause to breathe and modify the pose, backing off to find some reasonable comfort for myself. I allow my body’s intelligence to lead rather than my need to look like everyone else.
Behind the drive to go straight into the next pose, and the next, and the next is a feeling of not being good enough. We think we have to keep pushing ourselves to improve and do more. Taking a moment to integrate the effects of a pose is the antidote to the mistaken idea that “I’m not enough.” We are more than enough.
The more hours we work, and the more we engage socially, the more essential it becomes to go inward and nurture our bodies and souls.
Even though cultural expectations encourage us to reach out to more people, do more, and be better, reaching within is more important than continuously reaching out.
The same is true on the mat. Instead of striving for more poses and harder poses, we can become more intimately attuned to the poses we are doing in the moment. Instead of looking outside ourselves for yet another challenge, we can look inside and recognize our own sensations, gaining more agency in our practice.
Awareness of our thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions gives us options and clarity on the mat and in our lives.
You might think the green light to move deeper into a pose is there. But do you give yourself permission to pause and feel, so that you can discern when and if an opening, a breath, an invitation to go further is truly there? Paying attention to signals that things aren’t going well—teeth chattering, headaches, breathlessness, nausea, and pain—are all signs to back off and invite moderation.
Insights from yoga can be immediate.
If we can pay attention to ourselves on a sensorial scale, again and again, the cumulative effect of yoga in our lives will be greater. These moments of attunement to our own bodies and selves on the mat may allow us to feel more open, friendly, and fully alive off the mat. They build our capacity to be fully present to what’s happening in and around us in our daily lives.
A Forward-Bending Experiment
Come into a standing forward bend, placing your hands on blocks, the seat of a chair, or the floor if you’re hamstrings allow. If your back feels strained, bend your knees. If you have glaucoma, headache, or sinus issues, keep your head up and your spine long, coming into a half forward fold instead—which will still give you a great stretch at the back of your legs, through your back, and sometimes your neck. Hold the pose for about a minute or, say, 10 breaths.
When you come out of the pose and stand up, keep your attention on the parts of your body where you felt the stretch while you were in the pose. Now it’s like a phantom stretch. You are tuning in to parts of your body that you never see (your back and the backs of your legs), awakening greater awareness.
The stretch in these areas affects other nearby parts of the body, unlocking pathways of support and openness. You might feel how everything in your body is connected in a new way. If your hamstrings are less tight, you may feel some ease in your lower back. If your lower back is in its natural curve, then perhaps your upper back doesn’t have to work so hard to hold you up.
What is the effect for you?
Does your pelvis feel lighter, more buoyant? Is your spine more upright and reaching to the open sky?
You might still feel a restriction in your hamstrings, even when you come back to standing.
The traditional version of this pose is a half inversion, where the brain is below the heart, which may feel restful. All of the organs have changed their relationship to gravity. Coming out of this pose, or dissolving it, I sometimes feel redeemed, like I’m starting over.
I’ve gained a deepened sense of myself and now feel more self-possessed in a good way, in exchange for doing a yoga pose. That seems like a good deal. And it all grows out of taking that pause in between poses, a mini savasana in the middle of practice. I can feel things in myself that I can’t even see, like my hamstrings.
There’s so much to be aware of in our complex human experience.
The Space Between
In a group class, it’s tempting to keep up—pose for pose, breath by breath—but taking a moment between poses to actually feel what we personally are experiencing is an act of self-care. This encourages self-respect and helps us to know when we might benefit from using a prop or from modifying a pose, all while staying fully engaged in the practice.
For me, another time to find space is right after a class. Instead of immediately launching right into all the mundane to-do’s and picking up my phone, I now give myself a momentary pause.
My regular yoga class takes place in a fifth-floor walk-up. No elevator. Now, I’ll at least wait to check my phone until I get to the lobby.
Not only does this give me more time to walk down with a clear mind, letting the effects of class sink in longer, it’s a much safer bet. Missing a step and falling down the stairs would be a big obstacle to my practice.
Smart, simple decisions can help a lot.
I’ll definitely need my body to make my practice last.