Whether you’re a yoga aficionado or just starting out, there are three things every practitioner should pay attention to every time she rolls out her mat. Let’s find out what they are, and why they’re so important.
Connect to Your Breath
Yoga is so connected to breath, you could almost say they’re one and the same. Your breath guides you in and out of a yoga pose, determines the length of your movements, allows you to go deeper and find ease in tension, keeps you balanced, and allows you to focus on the present moment.
Often, when something becomes challenging, people tend to hold their breath and wait for it to pass. In yoga, breath is what guides you through it, no matter how long the hold, how difficult the pose, or how hot it is in the room.
Even advanced practitioners sometimes forget to focus on their breath, especially if they’ve been going to the same class for a while. It’s easy to shift the focus to your body and analyze your alignment, or the fact that your thighs are shaking. Your thoughts might wander—especially if you’re dealing with a stressful situation. But if you can bring the attention back to your breath, it will keep you in the present and mindful of your actions (and reactions).
Connect with your breath as you settle in before a class officially begins. Focus on the fact that this is your time—that you’ve carved out these 45, 60, or 75 minutes for your own well-being. Close your eyes and find a comfortable pose. You can sit cross-legged, stand in hero pose, or even lie down and just let your body relax on your mat.
Wherever you are, place one hand on your abdomen, the other on your chest, and just observe your breath. Note how your body moves rhythmically with it and become aware of your chest expanding. Is it barely moving or blowing up like a balloon? The majority of people go through their day breathing very shallowly, not allowing the oxygen to penetrate their abdomen and fill it up with fresh nutrients. Focus on doing exactly that and exaggerate your inhales and exhales so you really feel the air passing in and out of your lungs.
Once you’ve completed a few cycles of deep belly breaths, it’s time to get into yogic (Ujjayi) breath. Start by gently constricting the back of your throat to create a slight resistance to the passage of air. It should be smooth, but strong and energizing, and sound like waves rolling in and out. You can use it to warm-up or cool-down, depending on where you are in your practice.
Ujjayi shouldn’t be shallow, so if you implement it into your practice, it’s a great way to make sure you’re breathing deeply and fully. Try to focus on it throughout your entire class, especially when you find yourself in a challenging pose or your mind starts to wander. The sound will bring you back, and your intention to focus on it will deepen your practice.
Your breath should guide (not follow) each of your yoga moves. This means the length and duration of each move should last as long as your inhales and exhales. In a group class, it can be hard to pace yourself according to your own tempo when a teacher leads you through each sequence. However, when you’re at home, it’s a great way to learn where you are and track your progress. It’s not an easy task, but as guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said, “Practice and all is coming.”
Find Your Focus (Drishti)
Finding a focal point throughout your practice is important for two reasons: to keep you in the present, and strengthen your balance. There’s nothing worse than watching others shift and move around when you’re trying to balance on one foot. Such commotion distracts your center and makes it harder for you to remain still. The same thing happens when you try to close your eyes—you might fall out of a pose before you even realize what’s happening.
Both of these happen due to a lack of focus. It’s completely possible to remain balanced with your eyes closed, but you need to find your inner focus and literally gaze into your closed eyelids. It might sound weird, but that’s how important it is to focus during yoga.
If you want to quickly test this, come into a balancing pose and find a point to look at—a dot on your mat, a towel lying in front of you, or even your own eyes in a mirror. Stare at the same spot and don’t allow your eyes to wander. Is your balance getting better?
Focus (known as drishti in Sanskrit) is amazing for balancing poses, but it’s intended to be with you during the entire practice. It helps you develop a deeper level of concentration and makes you pay attention to your alignment. It also allows you to tune into the inner sensations you experience in every pose, so you’re practicing with absolute awareness.
The following are some of the most common drishti points:
- Fingers (especially thumbs): When you gaze upward.
- The tip of your nose: When you gaze forward.
- Your navel: When you’re in cat pose.
- Between your feet: When you’re in downward-facing dog pose.
Try to implement drishti during your next yoga class and notice how your practice improves.
The “Do No Harm” Principle
Every time you’re on your mat, it’s a different day, situation, and set of circumstances. Sometimes, those differences are drastic—even from a Monday to a Tuesday. The “Do No Harm” principle promotes being kind to yourself, your body, and your entire being because you never really know how life affects you.
Some days you might feel amazing, full of energy, and ready to tackle every pose! You might get deep into every Warrior pose, and feel like you could live forever balanced on one leg. Other days, you might be out of breath after the first 15 minutes, your thighs might start trembling halfway through, and your balance might be on vacation.
So many things influence the way your body feels—the amount of sleep you got the night before, how well you digested your last meal, the time of day or year, or even how difficult it was to find a parking spot at your yoga studio.
All these things contribute to your overall state. Treat every practice like a separate entity—don’t compare it to a session yesterday or two months ago. Be mindful of how your body feels at present, and all the hints and signs it’s sending you. Don’t go too deep if the poses don’t feel good, and don’t try to force anything if you feel pain or too much tension.
Your body’s trying to tell you something, and it’s best to listen. You don’t want to risk getting injured. Let go of judgment, frustration, negative self-talk, or anything else that might make you ignore your body’s signals.
“Do no harm” and take care of your body—you’ve only got one!
Yoga is a wonderful practice, but it’s a constant one. Each time you’re on your mat, you’re growing, learning, listening, and assessing. If you can stay connected to these three important things, they’ll help you take your yoga journey to a whole new level—even if you’ve just started your journey!