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5 Tips to Improve Your Yoga Practice/Life

February 22, 2013


1. Arrive Early for Class

In an ancient text, the rabbis say that early arrival at the house of study ensures that we enjoy the fruits of this world and the world to come.  That seems extreme: being punctual gets you into heaven?!  No, what they mean is that being mindful, living in an unhurried way, setting priorities for spiritual practice to allow enough space and time – these things are key to a good spiritual life,

Many of our mistakes are made because of haste.  By ensuring an early arrival, you ensure a more thoughtful entry into your practice.  Try this off the mat: set a goal for one week to arrive everywhere you need to be at least 10 minutes early.  Use the time to breathe, set intention and look around you.  Do this with yoga, and it will deepen your practice.

2. Move from your Usual Spot

Have you ever been a little bummed when you got to class to discover your favorite spot was already taken?  There is something comforting and helpful about staying in the same spot in the yoga room.  There is familiarity and safety.  So every now and again, when you arrive, don’t always go for your “usual” or favorite spot.  Try some place new.  This teaches us creativity and flexibility.  If you are used to the front row, the back row can help you test your visual and mental focus.  If you are used to the back row, being closer to the mirrors can help you see more clearly.  Too often, especially in hot classes where the sequence is similar from class to class, it is easy to get stuck.  Changing places in the room is one one to become less stuck, habitual and complacent.

3. Choose or Create a Pre-Class Mantra

Eknath Easwaran writes,

A mantram is a powerful spiritual formula which, when repeated silently in the mind, has the capacity to transform consciousness. There is nothing magical about this. It is simply a matter of practice. The mantram is a short, powerful spiritual formula for the highest power we can conceive of – whether we call it God, or the ultimate reality, or the Self within. Whatever name we use, with the mantram we are calling up what is best and deepest in ourselves. The mantram has appeared in every major spiritual tradition, West and East, because it fills a deep, universal need in the human heart.

When you have settled on your mat (in your new spot), take a few minutes to silently speak a sacred phrase – something that helps you feel peaceful, something that touches your profoundly.  It can be a well known phrase from a tradition or just a few words that help you center and remain present.  (I sometimes use the phrase “slow, smooth, steady” to remind me of the quality of breath I want to bring to class.)  Read more about mantras at Eknath Easwaran’s website. (Click on #2 – repetition of a mantram.)  Practicing a sacred phrase brings a focus and even holiness to your practice.  Remember that yoga is not only physical exercise, it meant to create union.

4. Keep a Gentle Smile on Your Face Throughout

Regular readers of this post will recall my recent discovery that I had the face of the mean-spirited Miss Gulch (from the Wizard of Oz) while practicing standing bow posture: my face scrunched, my lips pursed – oh what a sight!  Oddly the tightness in my face seemed either to reflect or cause tightness in the posture, I am not sure which.

Consider the idea that many depictions of the Buddha show his radiant peaceful face with a gentle smile:

The Buddha smiles because he has made peace, not only with himself, but with the rest of the world too.  What the eternally seated Buddha represents is the state of enlightened bliss that the Buddha abides in.  The secret of the Buddha’s smile lies in the mastery of his mind.   (Shen Shi’an)

Try to remind yourself in class: when you look at your face, hold a gentle smile.  Recent studies have explored how a gentle smile effects your mood (and the people around you too):

Read more on the theory of how smiling effects mood!

Like remembering to breathe, holding a gentle smile is an indication of awareness and mindfulness, as well as not taking ourselves too seriously.

As I said before: Don’t be Miss Gulch!

5. Above everything else, bring your focus on your breath

When the breath wanders, the mind also is unsteady.  But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still.  (Hatha Yoga Pradipika)

I am not the best yogi in the world (as you know if you are one of my victims: if I have flopped accidentally onto your mat falling out of triangle posture or smacked you in the face in a floor posture).  I am certainly not the yogi in the best shape or with the best breathing (asthma), but I have seen many new, enthusiastic yogis give up part way through class because of one simple, central tenet: don’t hold your breath!  In fact it is the breath that should set your pace for class – not the other way around.  Don’t go into a posture until your breath is ready and in the posture never ever hold your breath.

As I said I am not in the best cardiovascular shape but I can hold my own – as long as I don’t hold my breath.  This is a tip as much for life as yoga: keep the breath steady and refreshing and even the most difficult situation cannot shake your calm.

– By Rabbi Chava Bahle

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