“I’m bad at yoga” An Untruth of the Ego

Yoga is a practice of body and mind. By synching our breath with our movement, we bring ourselves into the present moment and forget about our worries or anxieties about the past or future, if only for an exhale. To be completely aware is something that needs to be developed and practiced, it does not come easily for most of us. In fact, our minds can often wander into a dark place- our ego.

This is a topic mentioned before in a previous post; it often happens that we got to a yoga class and instead of focusing our dristi (gaze of the eyes) where it should be, we let it roam around the room to our fellow classmates. In doing so, negative comparative thoughts can creep in such as, “Wow, she’s going so much deeper than I am.” or “I wish I wasn’t right next to this insanely flexible girl, I must look terrible.” A good thing to do if you find yourself thinking like that, is to take an audible exhale through the mouth, create a sound like a sigh, and as you do so, imagine that the exhale contains that negative thought and  through the sigh it has been expelled from you.

The ego doesn’t always put you down, sometimes it lifts you up. For example, you might hear the teacher give cues to come into a pose that is new to you, and wow! success! you can do this new and impressive looking pose. In that moment a smile should come to your face and you should feel proud and empowered by your practice. That’s a very healthy feeling to have. Yoga teachers want you to have that feeling in their classes, to explore your body and your limits and progress your practice, but a place that isn’t good to let your mind go to is to compare your practice with the other students in the class in a way that lifts yourself up above them. Don’t get cocky. Try your best not to compare for better or for worse, and if you do, use that breath as a tool to bring your mind into a neutral place focusing on the present again.

Another common happening in yoga is to compare yourself to yourself. You might find frustration when today’s bakasana (crow pose) is less steady than yesterday’s. Exhale it out and remember that your body will perform differently day-to-day depending on an array of factors such as the way you slept, stresses in your life that are causing you to lose focus, if you drank alcohol, etc. You will find differences in not only your balance day-to-day but also in your strength and flexibility.

Yoga is a skill like snowboarding.

Yoga is a skill like snowboarding.

My final thought (for today) on this is to remind you that yoga is a skill. I think that most people come to the conclusion that they have the same two legs and arms as everyone else in the room, so therefore they should be able to do the same things with their bodies. Yes, most of us have the same number of limbs, but they are not “the same.” Due to gender, natural flexibility, lifestyle, other areas of practice, all bodies are totally different. In terms of yoga as a skill, while teaching a class I likened yoga to snowboarding (or insert other individual-skill-based-sport,) you wouldn’t go snowboarding for your first time and feel down about the fact that other people at the resort were pulling tricks in the half-pipe and you could not. That would be an absurd thought to have, so why do people often think that way in yoga? Come to your mat again and again, and one day, maybe years away, you might drop into that half-pipe, but if you don’t, don’t worry about it, just enjoy where your practice is today.

To have thoughts like these are utterly normal while practicing yoga. I have had students come up to me and vocalize such thoughts by asking, “How were my poses today?” or “It’s been a while, so I’m bad.” and I reply to them by saying that there is no such thing and that their practice is perfect, for them, today. I’ll come out and admit that I still have these thoughts now and again, especially as a teacher, I sometimes think, “I should be able to do that- I’ve practiced long enough.” When my pesky mind goes into that dark corner, I smile, shake my head a little, and exhale it away.

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Winter Solstice Event

Winter can be a long and cold time of year. The days are short and chilly and unfortunately, most of us are trapped inside for the short precious hours of daylight by a job or school. It’s not very easy in the winter months to get out there and feel the sun on your face without simultaneously feeling wind chill. More so even if you’re like me, and would rather sweat it out on a hot beach than ride down the side of a mountain on thin pieces of fiber glass, meaning, winter’s not my ideal time of year, so I tend to curl up in blankets with books. I generally enjoy cuddling with my pup, but it can feel antisocial. I wouldn’t say that I get terribly depressed in winter, but seasonal affective disorder can be a very real thing, which is why it’s important to remember that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You see, onwards from December 21st, the winter solstice, the daylight begins to increase bit by bit until magically we find ourselves in spring.

Winter solstice itself is the shortest day of the year and the beginning of the winter season. The sun sets early leaving a dark evening to explore your inner self. This is something that can be done solo or with a group. I myself am very fortunate to be a member of an active yoga community in which a wonderful winter solstice event was planned and well attended. It was guided by myself and two other yoga teachers and I’d like to lay out the event as inspiration for your next winter solstice and as a reminder of the warmth to come.

After introductions, participants were asked to think of a goal or intention that they’d like to focus on and dedicate their vinyasa yoga practice to. Once they had one in mind, we all sat together in a circle and lit candles one by one to signify our intention. There was a symbolic meaning to lighting the candles in the circle; it represented the growing daylight of the coming months. In a more personal setting, intentions could have been affirmed out loud, but we kept ours silent.

Following the intentions, a heating vinyasa flow was practiced in the gentle glow of the candles. Many vinyasas were cued, but optional, to warm up as much as desired. Throughout the course of the physical practice, reminders to bring focus back to the intention were given, primarily in quieting forward folds which are very personal and often allow us to go within ourselves. Once inner heat was throughly ignited and stoked to battle the frigid air outside, there was a therapeutic partner practice to get even deeper into the muscle tissues. As mentioned before, I’m not one for outdoor winter sports, so my yoga is close to the only physical activity that I perform in winter. For this reason, a more perspiring yoga practice like vinyasa or power yoga is a good answer to my winter blues (and all those Christmas cookies!)

But alas, yoga is much more than physical and the event carried on into the mental realm. Working the body with the breath quiets the mind, so right after a yoga practice is an ideal time to meditate or simply focus thoughts. In the case of our humble event, a guided candle meditation was practiced. To top everything off there was a journal exercise. Currently (and for quite a long while,) I have fallen out of my journaling habit, but I plan to rekindle it in the coming new year. The journaling exercise of our winter solstice event involved considering the future and writing a short positive affirmation about yourself. I took a lot away from the journaling and will use the affirmation as a tool to bring me back to my target whenever I find myself straying. And that was the conclusion of our event, it was a magnificently warming, community gathering.

Solstice and equinox events can seem far off and even pagan to some, I know I used to roll my eyes in the past, but really when you think about it, they are simply calendar days that mark the changing skies and seasons. Winter solstice is the shortest day and summer solstice is the longest; the equinoxes are about equal in length of day and night. It is not easy to pay attention to the changing seasons with so many seemingly pressing matters pestering our minds, which is why making the time to plan an event or find one to attend is a good way to bring nature back into view. And if you’re still not sold on the idea, then a similar event could be planned for New Years Eve, a time when we transition into a new calendar year and look forward to the future.

Setting Your Intention

Setting Your Intention

As a yoga student I have always been drawn to classes and teachers that set intentions. It can seem silly to some people to hear things such as, “Open your heart,” or “Move forward towards your goal,” but in my opinion, having a class designed around an intention enables the yoga asana practice to become more than the physical poses. I respect people who come to yoga for the physical aspect, it certainly will grow your strength and flexibility, but for me it’s just so much more.

The meaning of the word yoga is union. Possibly more than at any other time throughout your day, you are asked to focus on your breath, and then move your body into the asana with that focus. This is one union of yoga; breath and movement. Union then extends to the mind and body. Day to-day life tends to be busy and even chaotic, full of to-do lists, work, family, social life/media, etc. All of the jumping around from thought to thought creates anxiety and stress for most of us. One goal of a yoga class is to calm the mind and one way to do so is to set an intention for your practice.

One example of an intention that I find myself sharing again and again as a teacher, is focusing the mind on a sought after goal. This goal might be as simple as completing one of those pesky tasks on your to-do list instead of pushing it aside for the umpteenth time, or it could be something larger, a long-term goal say, like moving up in your career. I also like to suggest to students that it could be a goal in your yoga practice. Maybe there’s a challenging pose that you saw online and would like to one day achieve. Then the idea is to practice the class and bring your mind back to the intention, which I cue, and hopefully off the mat you will feel inspired to set that goal in motion.

You can try this now, where you are. Here is the text to a short, guided breath work and intention. Click here for the recording of it so that you can do it with full concentration and closed eyes.

“If you are in a chair, then place your feet firmly on the floor with your knees directly in front of your hips. Play around with shifting to the front of the chair until you feel most comfortable. Closing your eyes will help you concentrate, so do so now.Then inhale your shoulders up towards your ears and exhale them down your back. Rest your hands in your lap, palms up or down, whichever feels best. You should feel taller with this posture.With your eyes closed, begin to breathe through your nose. Make your breath as long as you can and try to get the inhalation and exhalation to be the same length. Measure this by counting it silently in your head. First count your inhalation (1,2,3,) pause at the end of the inhalation, and now count the exhalation (1,2,3.) Aim to get the count a little bit higher with each round, it might not happen today, if so then stay with the count of three. Now, with your mind clear and your breath controlled, think of the intention, chose a goal you would like to work towards reaching. Chose just one to really focus on. In your mind, envision yourself with that goal achieved. See yourself in the future as you would be once you succeed at the goal. Hold that vision as you breathe for as little as five seconds up to as long as you like. This vision of you might bring you joy, so maybe you gently smile to yourself. When you are ready, inhale and bring your hands up to your chest, as you do so imagine that you are bringing that goal in towards your heart. Bring the palms together, your thumbs touch your sternum, this is namaskar mudra, or hands in prayer (mudra means hand gesture in Sanskrit, the language of yoga,) hug your elbows into your ribs so that they don’t splay out far away from you. When you are ready, inhale and slowly open your eyes.”

At first doing a practice like this might feel funny or odd because we tend not to practice mindfulness, but as you practice more and more, it will lose that novelty feeling and become a great tool. Now go out there and get those gears in motion towards your goal.