One of the best bits about being a yoga teacher (other than I can legitimately wear stretchy yoga pants all day) is that I get to work with awesome humans. I have the joy of helping them find practical tools and solutions to help become even more awesome, through their journey with this little ole’ thing called yoga.
But when folks are stepping an (often un-flexible) foot onto the yoga mat for the first time, it can all feel pretty daunting. Spend some time on your favourite internet search engine and it’s easy to find yourself bombarded by images of bodies contorted into shapes that would make a Cirque du Soleil gymnast hang up their leotard forever, a million and one instructions on how to detoxify your life (compulsory if you want to be a ‘real’ yogi), and more ingredients for things to do with wheatgrass/goji berries/aloe vera sap than you can shake a yoga strap at.
One of the first things I tell my new students (and try to constantly remind the rest) is that yoga isn’t just what we do on our sticky mats. Yes – the stuff we do with our bodies is important, but as someone who is much wiser than me once said – it’s not about touching your toes, it’s what you learn as you work out how to get down there.
There are lots of reasons why it’s important to have a regular asana practice, but it’s also just as important to take time to breathe, give your mind a break, give out kindness, and generally be in the world without being a pillock.
In case you didn’t realise it by now, yoga gives us a smorgasbord of tools, tips, and techniques which we can bring into our everyday habits and actions, if we are so inclined, so that we can use the life we already live to get us a little closer to our authentic awesomeness.
Get mindful with your molars.
A mindfulness practice is, as the name suggests, giving one thing your undivided attention and really paying attention to all the sensations that go along with it. Brushing your teeth is the perfect opportunity. So, instead of spending the time projecting yourself into what could happen in your day, the stuff you’re already dreading, and the conversations you don’t want to have, use these precious three minutes for some mindfulness.
As you start, notice how you’re standing – the feel of the floor beneath your feet, how your legs feel, whether the floor is cold or warm. As you reach for your toothbrush and toothpaste notice how your muscles move to activate your arms and hands. Once brushing, notice the feel of the brush against your teeth and gums, the taste of the toothpaste, the sound of the actions. Notice how the water feels as it swills around your mouth, and the softness of the towel on your face.
Just by cleaning your teeth with mindfulness you’ve given yourself some a mental and dental bonus for the day, before you’ve even stepped out of the house.
Commuting with calmness.
It’s highly likely that at some point in your day you’re going to be travelling somewhere, so why not use these moments to cultivate some calmness? (Of course, if you’re in charge of the transportation device in question then all of these suggestions may not be appropriate for you, but I don’t need to tell you that, do I?)
If you’re on public transport plug, your personal music-listening device into your ears and listen to a super soothing piece of music. Whilst this helps remove any distracting noises, close your eyes and tune in to your breath. Have a go at box breathing – inhale for a count of 4; hold the breath in for a count of 4; exhale for a count of 4; hold the breath out for a count of 4. Repeat that, changing the length of count to whatever feels comfortable for you. (Just make sure each part is the same length.)
Should you be the one doing the driving, you can use this time too. When you’re stationary, notice how you’re sitting; can you release any tension in your hands, shoulders, neck, jaw, and forehead? You too can do the box breathing technique, or even just a simple deep inhale and exhale whenever you get to a red light. Whatever happens, it’s a better option than screaming a rude word into your steering wheel.
Tea Break Tadasana
I’m going to make a huge assumption here, but if you’re anything like me you will be spending regular periods of your day waiting for the kettle to boil. (And if you’re not then we can never be friends.) Guess what? You can get yogic even whilst waiting for your brew.
Use these few minutes to practice bringing your awareness into your body. Stand evenly, with the weight in both feet and a little bit of softness in your knees. You don’t need to close your eyes if your colleagues will think you’ve gone weird; if your eyes are open allow them to focus on one thing and keep your gaze soft.
Take your attention up to the top of your head and slowly begin to scan down. As you do so, really tune into any sensations that are present in your body. Notice any areas of tightness or tension and see if you can send an exhale into those places. Don’t be fixed on any outcome – it doesn’t matter if you bring about any physical change or not. But let the awareness roll all the way down to the tips of your toes.
Be warned – you may return from doing the tea-round so blissed out that your colleagues start to wonder what exactly is in those herbal tea bags you’re using.
Walk the wonder-full walk.
Whether you’re flinging yourself across town from meeting to meeting, or tackling the school run with the elbows-out determination of a no-necked rugby player, whenever you’re walking you’ve got an opportunity to do it with wonder.
There are various techniques you can use, but when I’m walking through the deepest, darkest centre of London I challenge myself to spot as many plants and trees as possible. It could be some flowers on a restaurant table, a teeny tiny green bush outside a hotel, a seedling squeezing up between some paving slabs, or a massive tree providing refuge for a gazillion pigeons and some fearless squirrels.
Making this my focal point means that I prevent my mind from wandering and chattering, whilst also noticing that there actually is more nature in places I least expect it – and that warms my heart. If I’m feeling particularly blue, in my head I send a positive message to the plant I’m looking at. I’ll say something like “good job, little bush!” or “thanks for being so colourful, petals!”.
Here’s the thing – I’m not suggesting that you spend your time talking to trees if that makes your toes curl with awkwardness (although it is a lot of fun) and you can alter this exercise to whatever works for you. Maybe choose to spot as many red things as possible? Or as many things beginning with ‘N’. The point is you’re getting out of your head, into the now, and connecting with the life that’s going on around you.
Get random and radical.
As if you thought mentally chatting with plants was weird – how about this for a radical thought. Can you go to bed at the end of the day, knowing you have been kind? I know. It’s crazy.
Joking aside, going out into the word and living it as a decent, authentic, kind, connected and loving human being is one of the best and most powerful ways to tap into what it really means to be a yogi.
I realise I’m saying nothing new here, but I don’t care. Go into the world and be kind. Every day. Buy a coffee for the person in the queue after you, pick up some rubbish in the street that isn’t yours (but DEFINITELY do it if it is yours), become a blood donor, make a donation to a charity… the list really is endless. But the potential isn’t.