Getting on the Mat: Working with the Breath to Overcome Obstacles
Recently I have been putting a lot of thought into how to sustain a home yoga practice - what conditions need to be in place for the practice to succeed, what are the pitfalls and how they can be overcome.
There have been many blogs written about how to create the perfect space in your home to practice. And yes, a quiet, tranquil room or corner, away from distractions, is essential for creating a calm and clear headspace to practice yoga or pranayama.
But what about those internal obstacles that exist within us, that stop us getting to our mat each day? The vrtti or "mind-stuff" that gets in the way of our practice - be it self-doubt, being too busy, being (frankly) too lazy, or being too preoccupied by thoughts of work, hobbies, relationships, our rumbling tummy, conversations from the past, imaginary situations in the future (we're all human right)?
Developing my home yoga practice has taught me a lot about the common obstacles I face before and during my practice, and how to work with them, using the breath in particular. I'd like to share my learnings with you, and I hope they help you in getting to your mat each day and nourishing yourself in practice.
Obstacles are part of the practice
Time for a sutra! The yoga sutras of Patanjali are the oldest known yoga texts and they act as a manual for the study and practice of yoga, not simply as a physical practice, but as a way of life. They are as relevant today as they were over 1,700 years ago when they were first written. Sutra 1.2 reads yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, meaning: "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind."
What this yoga sutra is trying to say is that the reason we actually do yoga is to work with thoughts, reactions and emotions (the "fluctuations" referred to here) and allow them to quieten over time. The practice becomes our teacher and helps us to work with the bigger challenges we encounter off the mat. Therefore it is essential that we take that step and reach our mat even on days when the mind tries to make things tricky for us.
No day is ever the same - but we practice regardless
Handy hint number one: Never wait till that perfect day - the day when you feel not only strong and flexible, but also motivated and disciplined - to get on your mat and practice. If we expect to wake up and be all the things we think we need to be to do yoga, day upon day, we won't get very far with our practice.
Every time we step onto the mat at the beginning of the day, we will feel completely different, because every day is different. Sometimes we might feel calm and focused, but often the "mind-stuff" is going completely bonkers, obliterating the zen-like calm we hoped we would feel at the beginning of our practice.
Now as a practitioner who is familiar with the irregularity of mind, and knowing how it can interfere with my ability to get on my mat, I always without fail, do the following when I come to the front of my mat to begin my practice. I always check in with myself. I acknowledge how I'm really, truly feeling, and I accept it in that moment. Once I have done this, I am then free to begin my practice for real - placing hands in prayer in front of the heart, chanting the opening mantra, switching on my ujjayi breath, and starting to tune into the focused mindset I need to begin my ashtanga practice. I will only do this once I have checked in and accepted where I am in that moment.
By starting with honesty about where we really are, we approach our practice with a much more forgiving attitude to ourselves. We can then allow the practice to nourish and heal us, rather than letting it drain or exhaust us by placing too much expectation on ourselves at the beginning.
Noticing the vrtti
The meditative aspect of yoga allows us to tune into our physical selves and observe the thoughts, reactions and feelings that manifest in our bodies. There are many warning signs that may tell us that we are drifting off into harmful or negative thoughts during the practice - perhaps the breath might become shallow or ragged, or begin to lose its rhythm. Or we might feel the body tense up or a flutter of anxiety in the heart. Over time we become better at reading the physical signs and linking them with unhealthy thought patterns that aren't serving us and are perhaps hindering our evolution both on and off the mat.
One of the most powerful emotions that can hinder a yoga practice is self-doubt. We might doubt our ability to carry on that day, or doubt if we are making any progress at all. We might feel stiffer that day and less able, or a particular pose could feel awful in our bodies, throwing us completely and making us feel like all our good work has been for nothing. The possibilities are endless and our ego (which is as easily deflated as it is inflated) will run riot if we let it!
We may also become distracted by things like external sounds, or by thoughts about what we feel like eating when we finish (a common one for me)! Any number of distractions can come up during practice, and so the focus can be easily lost, potentially jeopardising the rest of the practice.
Dissolving the obstacle using breath
These thoughts, reactions and feelings are all part of the human experience, and we must try to hold space for each and every emotion that comes up. We must not judge our natural human tendencies, and to do so is being a little mean and aggressive towards ourselves and the complete opposite of ahimsa (non-harming), which is one of the cornerstones of yoga!
If I notice a thought or feeling emerge that could be detrimental to my practice, I usually find it helpful to stop the practice and sit with my breath, and remain present with the feeling. Taking deep breaths in and out, still maintaining my ujjayi breath, I ask myself if I would like to continue the practice, or if it is time to stop, and I remind myself it's OK to stop if I need to. This usually removes any pressure that was previously there, as I am choosing to continue rather than dragging myself through the next hour and a quarter against my will. More often than not, the obstacle then begins to dissolve and melt away as I continue with the postures. I then start to enjoy the practice more and feelings of peace, joy, and contentment become a common part of the practice as I relax further into it.
Using the obstacle to transform your practice
Every time you notice a feeling of negativity arise in your body during yoga, not only do you have the chance to dissolve it in that moment by tuning into your breath and staying with the feeling, but you have the opportunity to transform it into an important lesson that you can take off the mat and into your life. The way you approach the challenge on the mat will carry forth into your life and help you meet life with more presence, more courage and ultimately, greater strength and flexibility (just as we are cultivating in our physical asana practice).
I find it almost impossible to write about yoga or meditation without quoting Eckhart Tolle, so I'll finish with a very fitting quote from his seminal work, 'The Power of Now', on acknowledging present feelings and emotions:
"Accept - then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life."