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How to Take Your Practice Off the Mat

Yoga enhances your flexibility, strength, balance, mental clarity and more, but the practice is even more fulfilling when those qualities enhance your relationship with yourself and others. In Yoga 30 for 30, you often hear me reference “bringing your practice off the mat and into your life” so, to explore that potential further, here is an exercise to help you radically transform your life.

Everything we encounter on the mat is a reflection of our life. For example, in the Yoga Balance practice, when you confront moments of physical imbalance, do you have a tendency to criticize or beat yourself up? If so, this is also probably occurring off the mat when you make a mistake in your life, at work or in your relationships with others.

The next time you are on your mat, bring your attention to the habits or patterns (what in yoga we call Samskaras) of your inner monologue. Each time you fall into the habit of berating yourself, replace the thought with something supportive such as, “it’s ok” or “I’m strong, balanced and capable.” Re-enforce what is working rather than what isn’t.

In yoga philosophy this is the practice of Prakti Paksha Bhavana, which means when we have a negative thought, we acknowledge it, and include a positive thought to help shift the perspective to create a new pattern of behavior or thinking.

Yoga is not just physical exercise, it is an internal journey of transformation and insight. By practicing yoga postures, you learn to embody discomfort with steadiness, to face challenges with equanimity, to observe urges without acting or reacting. Your yoga practice is a physical manifestation of impulse control, of learning to step beyond your habits, stories, likes and dislikes. Each asana (yoga pose or posture) is an opportunity to practice sitting still inside of whatever arises. As Victor Frankl famously said, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Through the practice of noticing your judgements or criticisms, you practice sitting consciously in the space between the thought and the action. As a result, your life becomes invigorated with new possibilities rather than dictated by old habits and tendencies. In that moment of observation, you can make a different, more loving and empowered choice from this new place of awareness.

We now know that your brain possesses the ability to change throughout your lifetime. What is called neuroplasticity. Although your personal tendencies might feel like longstanding mental or behavioral habits, you are capable of creating a new pathway in your mind if you’re willing to do the work.

When a negative thought or habit arises, it’s important to acknowledge it. When we realize we are being hard on ourselves, we are able to say, “self-criticism is here today.” This is an act of empathy. When we acknowledge what’s arising for us, it brings truthful awareness to the feeling at hand and it’s only from a place of awareness that we are able to make a change.
Sometime people express concerns that practices such as this are a form of weakness. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Research now demonstrates that people who practice self-compassion, through exercises such as this, have higher rates of resiliency (meaning they bounce back faster after a setback), they are more willing to take risks and have greater capacities for empathy and connection. A strong, internal self-critic puts the nervous system into a state of flight, fright or freeze, shutting you down completely. Harsh internal judgement leaves us feeling like we are not worthy of love if we make a mistake or that we have to be perfect in order to be valuable or worthy. Most of us suffer from a harsh inner voice which limits our willingness and ability to take risks in life.

When we cultivate a kind, supportive inner dialogue we begin to trust that it’s ok to make mistakes, be imperfect and falter. With a safe inner life, we know we can take bigger risks without the fear of painful, internal reprisal. Failures and oversights are an inevitable aspect to being alive and this practice gives us the chance to experience our mistakes with less judgement and greater kindness; a chance to see our experiences as opportunities, lessons or possibilities instead of failures. As a result, we are kinder, more compassionate and loving not just toward ourselves but toward others in the world.

For one week, bring your awareness to your negative thoughts and practice including a positive thought to create new avenues of joy, love and acceptance off the mat and in your life. When you have a negative thought, acknowledge it, and include a positive one. Ask yourself, “what’s working” rather than focusing on what’s not.

Remember, in the world of mindfulness we would say, “sometimes it gets worse before it gets better.” In the beginning it can feel overwhelming to bring attention to your negative thoughts; overwhelming to suddenly become aware of how active the internal critic actually is. Know that you are not alone in this experience and that it is very normal. Continue to practice and trust that this is the first step toward creating beautiful, new possibilities in your mind, in your life and in our world.

And because change takes time, I find Portia Nelsons poem There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery to be supportive. Maybe you will too.

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

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