While the physical practices of yoga have enjoyed increased popularity in the west over the past several decades, yoga is, in fact, an ancient philosophy and spiritual approach to being. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means “to yoke,” and is often translated as “union.” Yoga is an interfaith practice, meaning it does not require the practitioner to hold any particular spiritual or religious belief — or any at all. It simply encourages us to adopt a certain way of being with ourselves, both on and off the mat.
When we practice yoga on the mat we are looking for that place in each asana (pose) where we find our “edge.” The edge is any physical, mental, or emotional experience that is challenging to us without being overwhelming; a place of effort and engagement but not strain. It is the challenges we encounter that allow us to stretch and grow.
Finding our edge in a given moment or situation allows us to feel safe and remain open — to be present exactly where we are — as we encounter life’s challenges. For someone faced with a huge task that leaves them feeling stuck in avoidance and procrastination, finding their edge may mean breaking the task down into small, manageable pieces, or allowing them to set time limits for themselves on each work session. For someone confronting an addiction, it might be asking a trusted friend to accompany them to a first twelve-step meeting. Staying mindful of our edge in a given moment is crucial in creating an optimal working environment in psychotherapy — where the safety exists that allows for deep transformational work to occur at pace where one stretches and grows without feeling overwhelmed.
On the mat, it is said that we are not ‘practicing yoga’ if we are attempting to force a pose – to push our body beyond our edge. If we are experiencing pain (as opposed to the sensations of a tight muscle experiencing a stretch, or feeling a pose in a joint) or if we are not able to maintain steady breath in our posture, then we are likely forcing our bodies beyond a state of wellness and balance.
Learning – encouraging and training ourselves – to recognize when in our lives we are attempting to force something to happen, is a valuable tool. A great deal of tension and unhappiness is caused when we try to control outcomes (by some form of ‘scheme’ or manipulation) or ignore obstacles and resistances that are telling us that the direction in which we are trying to move is not in our best or highest interest. Yoga teaches us to turn to and within ourselves, and become better attention-payers to the messages available to us – to our breath and body, and to the more obvious and subtler voices of our intuition.
Mindfulness is a central component in the practice of yoga, often referred to as developing the witness mind. The witness mind simply observes the thoughts that fill and move through our head, as well as the sensations in, and movements of, our bodies. As witness, we are taking note of — compassionately. What we are not doing is judging or comparing, though we may well notice that the thoughts running through our mind in that moment are doing just that (e.g., “She’s so much more flexible than me. I stink at this.”) You might also notice that your thoughts have jumped right out of the current moment, for instance to what you are going to eat for dinner that night. When our witness mind observes that we have engaged in judgment or left the present moment, it simply names the experience “judging” or “not present” and returns to focus on the pose and on the breath — with compassion and without judging where we’d just been.
The physical practice of yoga on the mat can literally be ‘practice’ for living that same way of relating to ourselves off the mat. After experiencing our witness mind on the mat, we may find ourselves having difficulty completing a task at work and notice we have begun to berate ourselves inside our head. Once we have noticed and acknowledged the thought, we can simply take a breath and let it go, returning to the task at hand. Or we may be engaged in a conversation with a good friend who is telling us about some fabulous trip she has planned, and we hear some petty or jealous thought line begin. Again, once we are aware of the thoughts, we can choose to simply acknowledge their presence and let them go, without further indulging them or putting ourselves down for having them.
When we practice yoga on the mat we experience poses, and our bodies in poses, differently from day to day. I have heard it said that we bring a different body to the mat every day. Yoga teaches us to be unattached to — and not defined by — the body we brought to the mat yesterday or might bring tomorrow. “Beginner’s mind” is a term often used to refer to this coming to the mat without any assumptions, needs or expectations of what we will encounter or experience there. We use our witness mind or our beginner’s mind in the course of our daily lives when we similarly notice the stream of thoughts running through our heads and the movements and sensations of the body, and choose not to identify with, buy into or react to them. We are not our thoughts, any more than we are the bodies we bring to the yoga mat or elsewhere.
One of the primary things that set yoga apart from other forms of physical exercise is its focus on breath awareness. Movements are linked with inhalation and exhalation, and the release of exhalation is often used to help us more deeply open into a pose.
The breath is a most powerful tool for helping us stay in the present moment. My guru (yoga is historically an oral tradition passed from guru to chela, or student to teacher) teaches that, “If you can control your breath, you can control your mind. If you can control your mind, you can control your life.” By practicing breath awareness both on and off the mat, we gain the ability to practice another yogic tool, hesitation. It is hesitation that allows us the moment to choose non-reactivity, non-judgment and compassion.
When you bring awareness to the breath, it becomes prana. Prana is life force energy. There are many practices in yoga, called pranayama, which means “control of the life force”, that allow us to effect the flow of pranic energy within us.
One great way we can take our yoga practice off the mat is by practicing pranayama, or breathwork, wherever we need it. Here are some basic techniques you can try when needed:
Ida Breath and Pingala Breath
Our nasal flow can have a lot to do with our energy. There are three main energy channels that run along our spine. The sushumna is the central channel and correlates with our spine. The ida is the path of the left nostril. Its energy is associated with the moon, and is gentle, cooling, and inward. The pingala is the energy of the right nostril. It is associated with the sun, and is more, fiery, outward, and strong. Our typical breath is such that one nostril is dominant for a little less than two hours at a time, and then it is switched to the other side.
Because the ida channel is gentle, cool and soothing, this breath can be used in situations where we are feeling anxious, overheated, or needing to calm or steady the mind. It is also helpful for insomnia.
Technique: Sit in a comfortable position with the spine upright and long. Using the right hand, keeping the palm flat and fingers together, raise it up and use the thumb to block the right nostril. Take long, deep breaths through the left nostril only. You may want to begin with practicing this for 3 minutes and build up to 11 minutes. If you start to feel your energy getting out of balance, you can restore balance with a right nostril breath.
Because the pingala channel is powerful, hot and dynamic, this breath can be used when we need to stimulate or increase our physical or mental energy.
Technique: Sit in a comfortable position with the spine upright and long. Using the left hand, keeping the palm flat and fingers together, raise it up and use the thumb to block the left nostril. Take long, deep breaths through the right nostril only. You may want to begin with practicing this for 3 minutes and build up to 11 minutes. If you start to feel your energy getting out of balance, you can restore balance with a left nostril breath.
Translated as the “victorious breath,” the ujayii breath is a breath commonly encouraged of practitioners to maintain throughout their asana practices. Also referred to as “the ocean-sounding breath” for the sound created in its practice, this breath is considered the most effective yogic breath for reducing stress and anxiety. The sound, itself, can be incredibly soothing.
Technique: The breath is like sighing with your mouth closed. Begin by inhaling through your mouth making a sighing sound and, while still inhaling, close your mouth. See if you can still hear the sound. You’re essentially drawing breath across the back of your throat, over the glottis. As you exhale, begin again with your mouth open making a sighing sound, then continue the breath as you close your mouth. Once you feel comfortable with it and can hear the sound on both the inhale and exhale continue the breath with your mouth closed only. This breath can be done as a regular practice for a set amount of time (e.g., 3 or 11 minutes) or can be done at any time during your day when you are feeling a need to bring greater calmness to your being.
Here’s one final note on another fabulous way to practice yoga off the mat. As mentioned earlier, yoga is a thousands-year-old philosophy of being. One path of yoga, karma yoga (karma literally translates as “action”) focuses on the performance of seva, selfless service, as a path to enlightenment and liberation. Even if enlightenment and liberation are not what you are after, I honestly know of no better way to pull myself out of a crappy mood than step outside myself and give to/help/serve someone else. To quote a swami I know, it’ll help you “get over your cheap self.” You can do this in a large way by volunteering your time to feed or serve the poor or ill, but you can also do this by making the effort to hold the door for the person coming out of the store as you’re going in, or by making a point of smiling, making eye contact with, and saying hello to people you pass on the street — without being attached to the response. It costs us nothing. And since, as another yogic teaching tells us, “energy follows thought,” holding that openness of thought and heart toward others will create an open flow of energy within our own being.
On or off the mat, you need to be nothing but the truth of who you are in this – and every – moment.
Bringing Yoga to Life, by Donna Farhi
Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, by Stephen Cope
In addition to her psychotherapy practice, Melissa, who is a certified teacher of Classical Yoga and Kali Natha Yoga, is also developing yoga sets specifically designed to address various mental health issues.