by Joshua M. Greene
First published in Elephant Journal, April 2, 2016
How often have we left a yoga class — that was intended to calm our mind, relax our body, and rejuvenate our energies — only to find that 10 minutes outside the studio, our mind is once again agitated, our body tense, and our energies confused?
From teaching in yoga studios around the world for the past 10 years, my impression is that it happens more often than we care to admit. But, I have good news: You can do simple things to turn that around and optimize your yoga practice.
1. Start practicing before you get to class.
No matter what style of yoga we practice — Asthanga, Iyengar, Jivamukti, Raja, Kriya, or another — the very first step is the same for all of us: reform behavior. We can’t continue harmful habits and expect our yoga practice to achieve lasting results. It doesn’t work. That’s why Patanjali put behavior (yama and niyama) at the very top of his eight steps. The example given in India is an elephant bathing in a river, then lumbering up onto shore and rolling on the ground. He just gets dirty again. For yoga to last, we have to think carefully about rolling around in the dirt and begin letting go of unhealthy food, harmful emotions, and un-yogi-like thinking.
2. Become familiar with the basics of yoga philosophy.
You don’t have to take courses in Sanskrit to develop a working knowledge of yoga philosophy. An occasional class taught by a qualified instructor, will give you the tools for reforming habits and maximizing your yoga practice. The basic teaching is that you are not the body; you are the immortal self (atma) inside the body. This one basic point of yoga philosophy can transform your practice into something permanently useful. If we walk into class with the mistaken notion that we are the sum-total of our life’s traumas, an hour of asana isn’t going to help. The troubles are waiting just outside the door to pick up where they left off. Everyone has experiences (good and bad), but they don’t have to define us. Study texts that illuminate our deeper identity as the perfect, beautiful, immortal self that animates our body with consciousness. Get to know that real, permanent you, and yoga takes on a whole other meaning.
3. Find a mantra and use it throughout the day.
One way to stay grounded in a yoga mindset is to remain conscious of our higher nature. We may not be able to lay a yoga mat down on the platform of the A-train and do asanas, but we can quietly recite a mantra. But not just any mantra. True mantras are not invented. They come down over generations and contain great clarifying powers. My own experience of mantra is like a gentle background music to my day: something always there, keeping me mindful of myself as a spiritual being.
If we do these simple things, then where can our yoga practice take us? The sky’s the limit.
Advanced yogis enter into states of bliss we can barely imagine, by knowing themselves to be immortal within the body. Chanting mantras in a devotional frame of mind and heart has facilitated healing from sickness and disease.
Living our yoga practice as spiritual beings fosters compassion: we begin to see that same core self even in difficult people around us, and that allows us to be less defensive and angry over their attitude toward us. Relating to them becomes less stressful.
So try yoga heavy, accompanied with the tips for one week, and watch the magic begin.