Ever wonder why so many people are drawn to the yoga mat? Sure, maybe it’s for a healthier body, more strength, or more flexibility. At least at first… But ask anyone who’s stuck with it for a year, two years, five years and you’ll find that, almost without exception, something else kept them coming back. Something hard to explain but definitely easy to feel.
Patañjali, the complier of the Yoga Sutra, and often considered the godfather of yoga, describes yoga as the ability to avoid future pain by understanding why and how we suffer (Sutra 2:15, Heyam duḥkham anāgatam: The pain that is yet to come can be avoided). How is this possible? Through awareness.
We cultivate “bad” habits like smoking, over-indulging, drinking to excess, etc., when we attempt to avoid pain. These habits initially make us feel better, make us feel as if we can deal with whatever is going on in the moment because we have this help, this crutch.
But all we’re doing is avoiding a situation by relying on an unhealthy system. Once we begin the practice of yoga, we not only become aware of our habits, but we become aware of why we have those habits. And being aware? That’s the first step.
The second step? Dealing with the pain of the moment, whole-heartedly and fearlessly. Well, that’s the goal anyway. But in the meantime? We practice. We practice our yoga, we practice focusing on our healthy habits and let the old ones whither.
Will it work right away? Maybe, maybe not. That’s why this is called practice after all. We don’t berate ourselves for our imagined failure; we just keep practicing and move on.
Speaking of practice, let’s get to it. Here are a few tools to help you on your journey.
Pranayama, or the yoga of the breath, is a great way to slow down, take in the moment, and increase our lung capacity while decreasing our stress. Any deliberate attention to the breath can be considered pranayama, but try Ujjayi Pranayama, or the breath of the conqueror:
Inhale through your nose, then exhale slowly through your mouth. Make a whispery hah sound, so that you feel the breath gliding over the back of the throat and the roof of your mouth. Try this a few times, then close your mouth. Now, inhale and exhale through your nose, making that same hah sound, still feeling the breath across the throat. Ujjayi is often referred to as “ocean breath” because of the sound it makes. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll see why.
Begin with 3 minutes of pranayama, working up to 10 to 15. When you’re finished return to your normal breathing for a minute or two, just observing the body and mind.
Supta Baddha Konasana:
In order to cultivate bravery, to let go of fear, and to release unwanted habits, we need to open the heart. There are many, many ways to do this in yoga, but I love the gentle nature of restorative poses for this kind of work. You can even combine this with your Ujjayi practice, if you like.
Supta Baddha Konasana (or Reclining Bound-Angle Pose) is absolutely gentle, completely invigorating and gratifyingly soothing at the same time. Give it a try:
Gather a yoga bolster, several pillows, or a stack of blankets or towels. Place these lengthwise on your mat, and come sitting right in front of the props, the sacrum resting against them.
Lie back. You want to drape yourself over the bolster, being sure that there’s no pain in the lumbar (lower) spine. If there is, your props are too high. Either remove some of the support or sit on a blanket to raise your hips. You want your head supported as well, not hanging off the end.
Bend your knees and let them drop open to either side. If this is painful, then just let the legs lie long—that’s fine, too. Alternatively, you can place a blanket or block under each knee to take the pressure of gravity off of the hips.
Let your arms splay out comfortably at your sides in whatever way feels good to you. You can feel free to prop these on blankets as well.
Close your eyes and breathe into your heart space. Breathe into the abdomen. Breathe into the front of the throat. Let each breath expand your capacity to feel, to interact, and to know yourself better. Stay here as long as you like.