Yoga is not a competitive sport.
“It absolutely doesn’t matter if your heels can reach the mat in downward dog,” explains Santa Fe-based yoga instructor Emily Branden. “I’ve seen so many students with the most beautiful asanas (poses) who completely miss the point of practicing yoga.”
Whether you’re new to yoga or a die-hard yogi, sometimes it can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to “do it right” by achieving the miraculously twisted poses we see all over Instagram. But in truth, your ability to do vrischikasana (scorpion pose) isn’t important. What matters is how you practice. So to experience the fullest benefits of yoga – even if you fall over every time you try to stand on one leg – focus on the following 6 steps:
Contrary to current trends, you don’t need any special clothing or gear to practice yoga – and having the most expensive accoutrements will have zero impact on the benefits you receive. Yoga was originally practiced by barefoot, penniless sages with nothing but a loincloth between them and the jagged Himalayan terrain. In fact, being your truest, most authentic self is what will make all the difference. “Bring your hangover, bring your bad relationship, your insecurities and fears, your slipped disc and banged-up knee,” Emily reassures. Yoga is a way to practice total acceptance of yourself – as unpretty as that may be.
In Sanskrit it’s called sankalpa, and it refers to a determination of the heart and mind. It’s the start of any yoga practice, and it’s an incredibly empowering step. Take a moment to close your eyes… center yourself… and set an intention (internally or spoken) for your practice. The intention can take the form of an aspiration, e.g., “May I open my heart more fully and be kinder to my kids;” an offering, e.g., “I offer this practice to our President so that he may govern with compassion;” or an affirmation, e.g., “I am a creative and talented person with unique gifts.” The most universal intention is to simply offer your practice to a higher good, e.g., “I offer this practice to god (or the universe or the goodness in all beings).”
The most critical component of yoga is connecting to your breath. It sounds simple, but it’s a routinely overlooked aspect of yoga today. Remarkably, recent research shows that many of the medical benefits of yoga (decreased stress, lower blood pressure, weight management) can be achieved with the breathing techniques of yoga alone – whether or not you’re moving through physical poses. These breathing exercises, called pranayama, are a science onto themselves, but the simplest instruction is to begin your yoga practice with several deep, extended inhales and exhales… and then to maintain your attention on your breath as you move through each pose.
We’ve all heard the plea at the beginning of yoga class to “turn off your cell phones.” Well, if only it were as easy to turn off our wandering minds. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s spent half a class thinking about work when I should’ve been focused on my sun salutations. Unfortunately yoga is not like doing cardio – regardless of where your mind is, you’re still going to burn calories on a treadmill. Yoga is only beneficial when we participate fully in this moment. But there’s no point in beating yourself up about it. When you notice that you’re not present, just gently bring your attention back to your breath and your body. The key is compassion.
“I often tell my students – I will not be handing out blue ribbons at the end of class. Yoga is not a competitive sport.” Emily points to our need for validation as the root cause of this competition and striving for perfection. “The most common question I get from my students is, ‘Am I getting better?’ But when the goal of yoga is to be more authentically yourself – to accept yourself fully in this moment and move through your life with connection – then there can be no ‘better.’ You already are your best.”
Yoga means “union” – the union of mind, body, and soul; union with your divinity; and union with the world around you. In that spirit, practicing yoga doesn’t end when you step off the mat. When class is over, try to carry the connection you feel with your body into the world. Ultimately, the goal is to help you feel a deeper affinity to your family, friends, and strangers, by recognizing that we’re all part of the same universal source. Of course, this can be challenging, like when you’re standing in line at Whole Foods for 35 minutes. But one way to “ease into” your practice of loving kindness is to start with beings that can’t talk back. No joke. When you’re finished with your yoga practice, see if you can first connect with the trees and flowers outside, your cat or dog, the sound of the birds… and then try to find compassion with your fellow commuters in rush hour traffic!