Yoga is about connecting with yourself, not about what you look like or how bendy you are.
It’s important to remember that yoga is not a competition. It’s not about how bendy you are, or how you look in a certain pose. It’s about connecting with yourself and being mindful of your body.
We all come into this practice from different walks of life. We have different goals, intentions and abilities. Some of us are beginners and some of us have been doing this for years, but we can all learn something from each other if we let go of the ego and simply listen to our bodies and our breath.
This practice always begins on the yoga mat, but it shouldn’t end there – it should become part of your day-to-day life. Yoga is about the journey, not the destination; every time you show up to your mat you learn something new about yourself!
Greet your body
The first step to a yoga practice is to greet your body. Say hello to all parts that are functioning or not functioning. Pay attention and become aware of where you are holding tension in your body, whether it be in the forehead, jaw, shoulders, back, or hips. Notice the sensation of each breath: Does the abdomen expand? Does it feel easy or effortful? Greet the body with friendliness and curiosity.
As you do this practice over time, begin to notice how certain areas of your body are always tight—perhaps it’s your lower back or hamstrings due to sitting at a desk all day. By greeting these areas regularly with love and compassion rather than frustration or judgment each time they tighten up, we can begin to change our relationship to them and even help them relax more consistently over time.
Focus on an intention
Yoga is not a religion, but it can have a spiritual aspect to it. During asana practice, people often focus on an intention or mantra. You can choose a different intention for every day of practice, or focus on the same one. To hone in on the right intention, you can ask yourself: what’s going on in your life that you want to focus on? What do you need most from this practice today?
Once you’ve settled upon an intention, spend some time at the beginning of your practice focusing on it before moving into asanas. After your flow, take a moment to return to this intention—what does it mean for you now? How has your perspective changed during the course of practice? If you chose an intention that was outcome-oriented (such as losing weight), try not to become too attached to whether or not your goal is reached. Instead, notice how practicing yoga makes you feel and whether or not that’s good enough. Then carry that feeling with you throughout the rest of your day.
Feel the breath
In this practice, you are the teacher. As your awareness moves deeper into the subtleties of your breath, you will discover that there is nothing to achieve or accomplish. It is simply a journey of noticing and exploring sensations. Yoga is often described as a process of self-discovery and self-realization through which we learn to connect with our body, mind, and spirit while accepting everything that arises in each moment. Self-inquiry can be multi-dimensional and include layers of noticing your physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, patterns of thinking, feelings about past experiences or expectations for the future—all while paying attention to how it feels to breathe freely through your nostrils.
Let go of judgment and expectations
A yoga teacher I once had said that the practice of yoga is essentially letting go. She said we needed to let go of expectation, judgment, and self-judgment. This can be challenging. As a student, you may enter class with expectations about how you will look or feel or what handstands you’ll do in headstand. You may want to achieve a more advanced posture than you’re capable of doing right now. The teacher may not guide your mind and body as you expect them to. In fact, they may do something very different from what your idea of yoga “should” be, which can surprise and unsettle us when we have expectations about how things should happen.
Similarly, when it comes to judging ourselves during practice (or any moment in life), we must learn to let go so that we can be free from its painful effects: Self-criticism doesn’t help us grow; it only causes suffering. We can keep ourselves stuck in old patterns by constantly criticizing ourselves for being “too stiff,” “not flexible enough,” or “not strong enough.”
Judging others is also easy and common in a yoga class setting because we tend to focus on our perceived inadequacies and the comparative superiority of other students (this happens less when we focus on our own breath). Yoga studios are often full of beautiful people who are seemingly more flexible than you and more able to balance upside down on their hands than you — all in tiny pieces of cloth that reveal some part of their bodies that makes them look just so much better than yours does. It’s normal to feel intimidated by this scene, but it’s also important for us to remember that everyone was once a beginner yogi too! Even if someone looks like they’ve been practicing for years or decades longer than you have, they started out exactly where you did — probably with some degree of uncertainty and awkwardness… possibly even with some embarrassment!
Welcome new possibilities
The heart of yoga practice is about awakening and uncovering your true self. In practicing yoga, you welcome new possibilities for feeling better physically, mentally and emotionally. Your true self is far beyond what you currently know of yourself: it extends infinitely in all directions. Yoga practice lets you explore new ideas regarding who you are or can be; it lets you expand your sense of Self to include not only the infinite universe but also the divine mystery at its core. Asana, breathing techniques and meditation all work together to help you discover the spiritual potential within yourself so that you may move forward through life with greater ease, peace and fulfillment.
Bring the focus back to your body and breath when your mind wanders
>The goal of this first step is to acknowledge your thoughts and emotions, then let them pass so you can bring your awareness back to breathing.
You may also find it helpful to observe the way your thoughts are framed—is it in the past or future tense? Many times, we will find that our thinking exists in a state of projection, without being grounded in the present moment. A mantra such as “I am here now” can draw you back into a focus on the present.
This entire process is a great demonstration of how attempting to hold something still and focus on it brings about its opposite. The same happens when we attempt to quiet our mind. Rather than trying to force ourselves out of these restless states, yoga teaches us to surrender and allow our minds and bodies to move freely through various states while always returning our attention back to breath and body alignment.