You love yoga. We love yoga. And this guest post from Kelly DiNardo, author of Living the Sutras (which she’ll be discussing on our podcast in the very near future), freelance journalist and owner of Past Tense yoga studio in Washington, D.C., shares four unique ways you can get even more out of yoga. Yes, more.
We’d never get between you and your downward dog. But for all the mind-body benefits of yoga — less stress, better sleep, greater flexibility — we tend to focus on the body, the physical side of the practice. Here are four ways to boost the other half of that equation, get more out of your practice — on and off the mat — and develop a healthier yoga routine.
1. Set an intention.
Focusing on something helps us find ease and steadiness in our shakier moments, whether it’s our thighs shaking in chair pose or the butterflies before a big presentation. Setting an intention at the start of class or the start of our day helps us cultivate a point of focus. It’s the thing we bring our mind back to when we’re struggling and uncomfortable.
It’s easy to confuse intentions and goals. But an intention is the underlying conviction that helps shape and define our goals. It doesn’t aim to fix something we think is wrong with ourselves. It isn’t something that we need to make happen or worry we won’t accomplish. An intention can be as simple as a word, but it is something or someone that embodies and represents our values.
- Our goal may be to lose 20 pounds. Our intention is to be healthy.
- Our goal may be to find a new job. Our intention is success.
- Our goal may be to start dating. Our intention is love.
An intention refocuses our attention and grounds us in the present moment with clear eyes on our path.
Think about how the breath changes when we’re happy, relaxed, angry, sad, or stressed. When we’re happy and relaxed our breath is long and smooth. When we’re angry, we breathe rapidly. When we’re afraid, our breath is shallow. Sometimes we hold our breath. Sometimes it’s erratic.
The good news is that studies have found changing our breathing patterns — from deep, belly breaths to shallow breaths or vice versa — could bring on the associated emotion. This means that changing our breathing patterns can help us regulate our emotions. Other studies show the trickle-up effect the body and our breath have on the mind: research has shown breathing practices can calm us down, reduce anxiety, decrease depression and lower stress.
In yoga, we use pranayama or breathwork to move inward. The mind follows the breath. When the breath is easy and steady, it creates the same opportunity for the mind. It can be as simple as extending the exhale even a few counts longer than the inhale. When we do, the vagus nerve (a winding nerve that runs from the neck through the diaphragm) tells the nervous system to chill out. Our heart rate drops, blood pressure lowers, the blood vessels relax and our whole body physically calms down.
3. Practice consistently.
People almost always come to yoga to change something. The specific change may be different — stress levels, back pain, flexibility — but we want to change something. And part of what makes change painful is our all-or-nothing approach. I’m going to lose 20 pounds by taking up a seven-day-a-week workout plan and cutting out sugar, carbs and alcohol. It’s too much, too difficult, too painful to maintain. Lasting change is slow and consistent.
David Bailsford is a modern-day master at slow, consistent change. In 2010 Brailsford took on coaching Great Britain’s professional cycling team. He believed if he could improve every aspect of cycling — the riders’ nutrition, the type of pillows they slept on — by one percent, they would improve over time and be able to win the Tour de Fource in five years. They won in three years, repeated the win the following year and took home a lot of gold in the 2012 Olympics. If we are slow, patient and consistent with the effort required, we’ll make the change.
4. Stay in savasana.
“I’m just here for savasana.” It’s the slogan to a popular yoga T-shirt, but for many of us savasana or final relaxation pose is tough.
The idea is to lie on your back, clear your mind and absorb your practice. But it can be challenging to keep our thoughts from hopping all over the place ,or tempting to roll up our mat and sneak out the door so we can get back to work, the grocery store or our kids. Beyond disturbing your fellow students, here’s why skipping out stinks:
- Savasana brings your heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature back to normal.
- It calms your brain and nervous system.
- It reduces fatigue, stress and headaches.
- It’s training for your mind.
- It’s 10 minutes of “me time” that lets you recharge physically and mentally.
If you struggle to relax in the posture (I do!) try one of these exercises or modifications:
- If you’re physically uncomfortable or pregnant, talk to your teacher about simple modifications that can help.
- One by one, slowly tighten each muscle of your body, starting with your toes. When every muscle is tight, take a big inhale and squeeze every muscle even further. As you exhale, release completely and relax on your mat.
- Cover your eyes with a pillow or towel to block out light and minimize distractions.
- Use a drop or two of lavender oil on your chest or at your temples to help you relax.
- Focus on a mantra. I like to turn off the inner chatter with the phrase “Let Go.” I say it with my breath, inhaling “Let” and exhaling “Go.”
Make your exhale a count or two longer than your inhale. It can be as simple as inhaling for a count of three and exhaling for a count of four or five.
What will you try today to get even more benefits from yoga? —Kelly DiNardo