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Yoga on and off the mat

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Kate and I go on a lot about yoga being more than just a practice, but a lifestyle. What can we say, it’s a passion of ours. But what does it truly mean to practice yoga on and off the mat?

To answer this we’d first need to explore what yoga actually is. Is it the physical practice, is it literally stepping on a mat, is it meditation, yoga philosophy or spirituality…

Short answer, it’s all of the above and more.

Did you know that the word yoga actually means “to join” or “to yoke”, also commonly referred to as “union”. So if we’re talking about a union being the essence of yoga then it makes sense that this would involve all aspects of life, right? A union of both physical and mental, emotional and moral practices.

“Yoga is an ancient art based on a harmonising system of development for the body, mind and spirit.” ~ (yoga.org.nz)

When we think of yoga the most common aspect to pop into the western mind is the physical practice, stepping onto the mat and into downward dog. In fact, there is almost an unhealthy attachment to what we can and can’t do on the mat. Your standard of practice is gaged by your inversion and arm balance ability, and social media is just a huge catalyst for this.

I spoke recently to a student who was considering doing her yoga teacher training but didn’t feel as though her practice was strong enough. She didn’t want to appear to be of a lesser standard than the other teacher trainees. I explained that her physical practice was stronger than mine and I’ve been teaching for over 7 years, but in fact that’s not the point, there’s so much more to yoga than that. She’s since finished her training and commented that it’s changed her understanding of yoga considerably, actually putting far less emphasis on her physical practice.

So why can’t it just be about our physical practice? Well, it can really, if that’s your motivating force behind practicing yoga. Why isn’t my physical practice stronger then, particularly for having taught for so many years? I’ve dedicated the last 5 years to having children and therefore popping up into headstand just hasn’t been high on my list of priorities.

That’s the amazing thing about yoga, which parallels much of life – it ebbs and flows.

Your residing practice is (or should be) a reflection of what you need at that time. Whilst as a teacher sometimes it pains me to see a highly strung individual walk into a Power class when deep down I know a Yin class would do them the world of good, it’s not my journey.

To me yoga is anything and everything that you need it to be. At the moment, leading into having my third child, breath & meditation are my main focus. I know there will be a time down the track where my asana (physical) practice will again become forefront. But not without the underlying philosophy behind yoga that ties it all together.

I recently wrote a blog exploring the Yamas for mamas (Niyamas for mamas coming soon!), which make up part of the philosophy behind yoga. These “guidelines” refer to various aspects that deal with life both on and off the mat, and I applied these specifically to #mumlife. This is just an example of how we can consider the greater spectrum of yoga rather than focusing on one element, such as our physical practice.

So again, let’s revisit this multidimensional system that is yoga. Asana (physical practice) pranayama (breath awareness & practices) meditation, mudras (gestures) chanting, moral precepts, visualisation exercises and the study of philosophy.

So you see, it’s huge! To think that the physical practice is all there is to it is naive. To think that you have to include all elements to be truly doing yoga is ignorant. Yoga is an individual practice and journey, that is key.

I also recently read an online thread where a yoga teacher was suggesting we should be encouraging our students to be vegetarians because that is the true path of yoga…ugh, that’s a conversation for another time.

I would, however, argue that there are aspects that should be included in your practice, for example asana without consideration of the breath is actually missing a fundamental element of the physical practice.

In addition to that, the only other element that I think is paramount to any form of yoga practice and should not be ignored is the ego. A driving emotion in almost every aspect of our lives, it has the ability to affect all aspects of a yoga practice too.

The ego has the power to have us striving to match the person next to us in class, or launching into a pose before we’re ready, pushing through an injury, judging ourselves and others, sitting in frustration rather than meditation, or living outside our authentic selves. However, living without the ego is challenging and a journey in itself. It’s certainly an area of my life that is of constant focus and awareness.

Mamas, when it comes to yoga the path is yours and there is no right or wrong way to practice.

The golden rule is to keep an open mind and learn to listen to your body & mind (perhaps the less chatterful part). Let your practice ebb & flow with your life, be guided by your intuition and not your ego and you’ll travel the right journey for you.

This is why Kate and I are so passionate about the practice of Yoga Therapy. It truly looks at the whole person, it doesn’t follow a one-size-fits-all model, but it empowers the individual. It doesn’t require following one particular lineage either, but is guided by all.

If you truly want to engage in the practice of yoga on and off the mat then explore it all. Consider not only how you feel flowing through poses but how this translates and makes you feel day to day. If the mind is busy in meditation then look beyond the practice and into life’s distractions. Listen to and honour your body each time you step on the mat, taking the same care in every other moment of the day.

Don’t make you’re practice something you have to schedule in, make it the way you live every aspect of your life.

Kate and I will be popping onto the blog with lots of ways for you to explore yoga on and off the mat, so stay tuned…