The physical practice of yoga is medicine for our bodies. It can also serve as medicine for our hearts. That’s because practicing asanas helps us to develop positive, transferable qualities such as patience, kindness, tolerance, and the ability to let go.
“Yoga,” meaning “union,” is about reconnecting us with what is important—be it the planet, other human beings, or ourselves. Yoga certainly needn’t remain an isolated activity that ends when we roll up our yoga mats. On the contrary, we take yoga with us on our journey through life as an amulet for the challenges we face along the way.
Anodea Judith, author of Eastern Body, Western Mind, diagnoses our modern culture as one that “cuts us off from our bodily experience, and from the earth itself.” She claims that this state of affairs “produces dangerously disconnected actions.” Judith argues that if our sensations and feelings are numbed, we resemble mere robots capable of being manipulated and of objectifying others. In extreme situations, she says, bodily disconnect can be a root cause of mindless killings, sexual objectification, addiction, or abuse.
How do we counteract this endemic dissociation? In order to heal our fragmented society, we in the yoga community can turn to embodied styles of yoga—by which I mean any style that encourages union of the body with the world. It is important to clarify here that not everything labeled as yoga promotes union (or reconnection). In fact, some physically demanding practices are taught in a way that actively discourages it—after all, what kind of union is possible with an overworked body? (See my previous article on the 6 Red Flags to Watch Out for in the Era of Yoga Consumerism).
It is important to clarify here that not everything labeled as yoga promotes union (or reconnection).
"Embodying practices" in yoga can help us grow as human beings off the mat. I have personally found a profound example of this in Embodied Yoga Principles. According to founder Mark Walsh, EYP uses aspects of “life coaching, body therapy, dance, bodywork, improv, and martial arts” to “emphasize psychological self-awareness and transfer of skills to daily life."
After training as an EYP teacher, I found that teaching asanas began to feel more meaningful because I could see the ways the poses could also help students realize their potential off the mat. With this in mind, I offer the suggestions that follow.
I should mention that several thoughtful guides for taking yoga off the mat are already available, and each of them contains helpful suggestions. But many of them lack actionable advice for us to follow. It’s all very well to hear that we must be “a light to the world,” and that we need to “ride the waves of life” or just “relax and allow.” But what exactly are we allowing? And how exactly can we take these magical actions?
I suggest we minimize the abstract language. When life hands you lemons, you need a recipe for lemonade—not a blind taste test. So here’s a pragmatic EYP guide to taking yoga off the mat, with no frills attached.
1. Set an intention on the mat that corresponds to your life
You may have experienced a yoga class where the teacher invites you to set an intention at the beginning of the session, which you then revisit in the final meditation. This intention may be linked to some aspect of your life to which you’d like to devote attention. But why restrict this intention to just the beginning and end of the session? Try to see a yoga class as an ongoing enquiry, rather than a meditation sandwich. In each pose you can explore the qualities of the pose and visualise or imagine yourself embodying these qualities in the real world.
To give an example, the intention you set during your practice may be as ordinary as becoming more visible in the workplace. In your practice, then, it would make sense to focus on expansive poses such as triangle or warrior variations, helping you become more accustomed to the feeling of occupying space.
At the other end of the spectrum, you may be in need of some gentle self-care and a little alone time. In this case, you could set an intention to show up for yourself to a greater degree. Resting in child’s pose while you concentrate on this intention would be a powerful way to reconnect with your own need to be nurtured now and then.
To quote Michelle Finerty in her recent blog post for Gaiam: “If you truly pay attention to what you’re doing in class, you’ll probably find a connection to something you’re working on in your life off the mat.” Once you recognize these connections, make the poses that feel most relevant to your current life situation part of your regular practice.
Micro-postures are an Embodied Yoga Principles speciality. Here, instead of practicing a complete posture, we incorporate discrete aspects of it in our daily body language. An ambition-enhancing micro-warrior could manifest itself in life as a fixed forward gaze, the front leg slightly bent, and hands in a straight line with the arms. The great thing about micro-postures is that they’re adaptable and imperceptible to the untrained eye—allowing them to be done anywhere, anytime: mid-commute, in the shower, or on a date. When you need to demonstrate authority, you can "make a stand" by adopting mountain pose. Or you can curl your fingers into chin mudra to remind yourself to remain calm in stressful situations. The possibilities are endless; it's about discovering what works best for you, in a state of complete bodily awareness.
3. Centering with mindful breathing
When you’re not cocooned within the four sacred walls of your yoga mat, it’s easy to forget how to center yourself. Without getting too abstract here, centering yourself is about finding the calm amidst the chaos, which allows you to react to potential stressors in a level-headed manner. Centering tends to be matched by the physical sensations of muscle relaxation, a slower heart rate, and deeper breathing. Breathing mindfully is a foolproof body hack to help you gain some stability when you’re feeling under pressure. Drawing a conscious deep breath while allowing the diaphragm to fully contract on the inhale (and then relaxing on the exhale) has an instant calming effect, which in turn transforms your state of mind.
Breathing mindfully is a foolproof body hack to help you gain some stability when you’re feeling under pressure.
4. Body scan, as in corpse pose
Some yoga teachers encourage students to relax parts of their body, one at a time, during final relaxation. They may run through a checklist that travels up the body: “Relax your feet, relax your calves, relax your thighs, your buttocks, belly, chest, upper back and shoulders...” Suddenly, you realize that you were carrying habitual tension in particular parts of your body without being aware of it. Personally, I’m often surprised by the amount of tension I carry in a clenched jaw and furrowed brow.
Of course, this body scan needn’t take place only on the mat. You can use it to relieve tension in any situation. Body scanning while stuck in a traffic jam, for instance, can transform your attitude and dispel unhelpful anxiety about being late. That way, you’ll arrive at your destination at your best.
I expect that many of my readers have their own experience of taking yoga off the mat. As this is a learning in progress for all of us, please do share them!
The author thanks Mark Walsh for his help with this article: Mark Walsh has dedicated his life to embodied learning. He founded the Embodied Facilitator Course, Embodied Yoga Principles, Purpose Black Belt, and Integration Training. He has taught in thirty countries and made embodiment available online through a YouTube channel that has over 10 million hits.