The new year brings with it the earnest, hopeful and eager desires of our hearts to do things differently. Some decide, at the turn of the calendar, to begin yoga or to begin yoga again. Here then, from my nearly forty years of studying yoga, is a humble offering of ESSENTIALS as you begin or begin again this year.
- Don’t worry about what you wear OR what you practice on. Wear a bathing suit. Practice on a dog bed. Sure, it can feel nice to roll out a brand new, off-gassing yoga mat. It can make you feel like you’re someone who does yoga, but yoga pants and yoga mats don’t belong to the earlier practices of yoga and they are not essential. If it makes you happy to slap on some cool leggings and if the sound of rolling out your mat brings your attention alive, then by all means do it. I practiced on blankets for most of my yoga journey and generally in loose pants purchased from the Salvation Army. The less we care about what we practice IN or ON, the more space we make for the practice itself.
2. Don’t reserve your practice until class time. Tight shoulders? Interlace your fingers behind you and lift up your hands while taking a deep breath. You don’t need to wait for yoga class or for your sixty minutes of free time (that will rarely if ever make an appearance). Imagine if we said: I can only drink water when I am sitting in this one chair in my house! You can drop into a downward dog if your legs feel tight, roll on the floor when your back hurts. Often we exacerbate physical problems when we wait. This is also true of troubles in the mind, like anxiety or depression. Take your 3 breaths NOW.
3. Don’t bother with classes or teachers that teach there is a right way. There is a right way for you, but there’s not a right way for everyone. We have as many types of yoga as we have crackers in the cracker aisle. Besides the fact that yoga philosophers, anatomists and therapists have disproven there is only one right way to do a posture, our own bodies tell us that. Alignment gives us a starting point. Just like the beginning line of a race gives us a starting point. But it’s not necessarily where you’re intended to end up. Exploration, experimentation and attention inform our practice much more than any alignment we might learn in a book or from a person. The idea of one right way perpetuates a sense of wrongness when or if our body can’t or doesn’t do it the same way. Wrongness is antithetical to yoga’s ESSENTIAL teachings of freedom. If it feels good and serves you, you’re doing it right.
4. Don’t look at how other people do yoga poses. FEEL how they do poses. Sounds weird? Here’s the thing, if you watch someone do a yoga pose and you look only with the critical, judgmental part of yourself (which we all have), you’ll end up either judging that person or yourself. But if you look in a more energetic way, you can sense how the pose feels. When someone does a pose as an expression of their soul, you can feel it. When they do it to look pretty, you can feel it. This goes for watching the person next to us in class, on the Zoom screen, in a book, or on social media. One question you could ask is: when I see that person do that pose, how do *I* feel? If it makes you feel alive or excited to practice or more open or more hopeful, great. If it doesn’t, then look away! Yoga is not about how you look.
5. Don’t wait until you have an hour. Five minutes can make a lovely practice. Or twenty. Or thirty. A long class is a lovely delight and, of course, has different benefits, but all too often we don’t do what we want to do or know would make us feel better because we feel we don’t have the time. Yoga does not require an hour. If you sign up for classes, any amount of time is good. We don’t need to be attached to the idea of a certain length class. Each amount of time offers a different benefit. Sometimes five minutes once a day can give us much more than sixty minutes once a week.
- Do practice with your eyes closed. I mean this both literally and figuratively. When you practice, shut off that external gaze that might want to look down and say something about your thighs or the fuzz balls under your bed or your leg or hip opening. This can be challenging. We spend the majority of our days seeing life with our eyes. To learn a new way of seeing takes time. Yoga helps us practice that. You can close your eyes in every pose or between poses if you need your balance. I have a beloved friend who teaches her whole class with her eyes closed. Remember, you have other senses and you will strengthen them, and your compassionate self, when you let go of the dominance of the gaze.
- Do have fun. It’s funny that I have to say this but I can’t tell you how many classes I have gone to that were so serious they felt like funerals. Hamstring funerals. Funerals for your hip flexor. I say, may all the somber yoga classes rest in peace. Laughter is, in fact, a medicine. It is an antidote to so many of our modern ailments–and this is documented and researched. Opening up to playfulness and laughter opens the lungs and relaxes the body. If we take ourselves less seriously, we can actually do MORE poses and go farther in our poses because we understand that it doesn’t matter if we reach our toes or not. But it does matter if we’re grumpy and irritated doing it.
3. Do let yoga change you into someone better. Yoga is a philosophical tradition that uses the body to transform the mind and heart. Be willing. Sit down at your mat as you begin your practice and be willing to be changed. Be willing to have your heart open. Be willing to listen to yourself. Be willing to change your old, outdated or painful thoughts. During a practice, you’ll receive these nudges. Listen to them. Yoga as an anti-racist, anti-bigotry, anti-cruelty practice invites us into a deeper level of living. It may make you question some life choices. Go with that. Because yoga serves your entire being, you can’t really just get more flexible of limb but not of consciousness.
4. Do commit. The quality of devotion is one of my favorite energies. Devotion springs up AFTER commitment and it feels like a gigantic, wonderful friendship. As you commit to your practice and show up for it, over time, your practice will begin to show up for you. It becomes a sanctuary. Not because there are pretty lights and nice music one time. It is a sanctuary because it becomes a place you can go that connects your to a deeper sense of peace. One thing is true, it’s hard to get the lasting effects of yoga if we don’t make some kind of commitment. It can be small. It can be bite size. But let it be. The rewards are internal and they grow as we continue to devote ourselves to the practice. You know how to do devotion. You are already devoted to coffee or movies or your four o’clock routine. This is a powerful way to stabilize your life.
5. Do remember there is no REAL YOGA. The yoga that you do, that is the real yoga. The yoga that serves you and helps you feel good, that is the real yoga. That yoga that changes you or assists you or wakes you up, that is the real yoga. There is not one real yoga. If you are not flexible in the ways you think you should be, or not doing the “advanced poses,” or not spending thirty minutes in meditation, it is not as if you are doing FAKE yoga! What does it mean to be real? Real is the thing that we do. The fake yoga is the yoga we only think of doing. The real yoga is the yoga we show up for, however it looks, however long we do it for, and whatever form it takes.
What are YOUR essentials for yoga?
Many blessings in your practice!