By Brian Berkovitz
Let's get this out of the way at the outset: There is no right or wrong way to practice yoga. It's ultimately what you want it to be and achieves what you want it to.
But let's also be honest: Yoga's arrival into the mainstream has also come with less-than-beneficial undercurrents.
For many, the practice of yoga has come to mean spending exorbitant amounts of money on classes in upscale studios and outfitting oneself with the latest name-brand apparel. For many besides, it’s also come to mean body shame.
The message that “your body isn't right for yoga” isn’t just the product of advertisements depicting unattainable ideals and the sight of your classmates striking impossible-looking poses. It comes from on high.
Following last year’s recall of too-sheer yoga pants, Lululemon’s founder and then-CEO, Chip Wilson, told Bloomberg, “Frankly some women’s bodies just actually don’t work for [our pants].” (He resigned soon after the comments.)
This followed a July 2013 post on Lululemon’s Facebook page: “Our product and design strategy is built around creating products for our target guest in our size range of 2-12. While we know that doesn't work for everyone and recognize fitness and health come in all shapes and sizes, we've built our business, brand and relationship with our guests on this formula.”
In light of all this, it can seem that the central spiritual elements of yoga have taken a backseat to commercialism and striving for “perfect” bodies.
It’s certainly easy to see yoga simply as a form of exercise. It looks like exercise, it feels like exercise, and it provides all the attendant boons of a dynamic and rigorous workout.
The hard work, though, is in dialing back those familiar patterns to make room for the deeper, longer-lasting blessings yoga brings.
Of course, no one is qualified to tell others what personal practice should amount to. If a “better” body is your goal, go for it. If a yoga studio is your favorite place to pick up dates, so be it.
The following slideshow simply trains the lens on what yoga could be: A means for self-acceptance; for taking a holistic approach to your health; for retaining composure in the face of everyday stress.
Here are 10 tips for tuning out the noise and keeping your yoga practice grounded.
Remember: The breath is your lodestar. When the connection slips, gets strenuous or choppy, back off. Take the pose back to its basic root, fold to child’s pose -- whatever is needed to recover a smooth, deep, controlled breath. Without absolute attention on the breath -- an endeavor that for most requires the full breadth of one’s will -- it's not yoga. It's calisthenics.
Many poses are enhanced with a specific Dristhi, or a soft, focused gaze. For example, in triangle pose, the Dristhi is optimally on the skyward hand. Respect these nuances. Remove the urge to check out your neighbor, the pretty painting on the wall, or anything else besides the small space you embody.
Recognize that limberness, flexibility, strength, endurance—all forms of physical gain -- are only stepping stones to the potential returns of a regular practice. This means abandoning false standards, such as placing strictures on yourself to meet every practice with advanced poses, or to 'get better.' That, too, will simply come. Cultivate acceptance, nurturing, and surrender while you still have a choice. We all age, after all. Though you may be capable of more, if an easy pose feels good sometimes it’s best just to enjoy it.
Respect savasana, or corpse pose. Some see the typical ending pose as a formality, something to be breezed through or ignored. Stay in as long as you can. (Be honest and take stock: Will 15 extra minutes truly throw your day out of whack?) The stillness that one gathers while in corpse pose seals the entire preceding practice; it’s the true and subtle reward for all the hard work of strenuous sequences. At its best, it’s an observation of and conversation with one’s inner thoughts and intentions.
It's much more than the roughly 60 minutes' mat time. It’s approaching daily interactions and decisions with calm, calculated, compassionate measure. It's not about removing passion and becoming totally even-keeled (although some argue it is). Take an extra half-minute to chat with your barista or pay an old friend a call. Connect with others.
When possible (that is, when you can comfortably move in and out of a pose), close your eyes. This keeps your precious energy focused inward rather than on others. Without the balance-boosting benefits of sight, the mind creates fresh pathways to calibrate the body as it moves through space. Over time, you can begin to truly listen to your joints, ligaments, tendons, fascia, and muscles -- all the minute firings that happen when balancing or holding a pose. The benefits for this one are enormous.
Use the positive influence of your practice to bring real change to unhealthy habits, detrimental relationships, destructive thought patterns. The net here is so wide it's almost silly trying to cast it. We’re all so different, as are our goals and setbacks. But everyone could gain from counting their blessings; and yoga cultivates self-trust, as well as inner voice. Be brave when that voice speaks up and strive to act on bringing about the kind of life you want to live.