The aim of yoga is to still the busy-ness of your mind – but if your life and relationships are a mess, it’s impossible to have peace. So, yoga starts, not with poses, but by cleaning up your relationships – with yourself, with others and with the world around you - so you can create the conditions for inner peace to arise. Moral and ethical practices are the foundation of Classical Yoga. The first principle of practice is ‘ahimsa’, which means non-violence or do no harm. Beyond just refraining from causing harm to others, you can think of this as a practice of actively nurturing or peace-building in your own body, mind, heart, and relationships. Here are some ways that you can explore ‘ahimsa’ from the inside out:
TALK NICELY TO YOURSELF
“Make sure you’re in a conversation with your body, and not an argument.”
I got this brilliant piece of advice from one of my very first yoga teachers. She was probably watching me try to wrestle myself into a deep forward fold … and failing … and looking miserable about it. Folding in half felt completely impossible in my body, but other people in yoga class seemed to do it with ease. And I thought I should be able to do it too. I hated forward folds – that is, until I got out of the habit of arguing with my body and started having conversations with myself instead. A dialogue with myself in a forward fold goes like this:
ME: (with eyes closed; not paying attention to anyone else) Hey, hamstrings. How does this pose feel for you?
HAMSTRINGS: This is kind of intense. You’re making me really uncomfortable. Can you back off a little?
ME: Of course! (shifting a little out of the depth of the forward fold) Is that better?
HAMSTRINGS: OMG. Yes! SOOO much better. Thank you.
ME: I love you like that, hammies! If there’s anything else you need to be comfortable, let me know. I’m listening.
You probably know the iceberg analogy … You can see 10% of an iceberg above the surface of the water. The other 90% is submerged. Like an iceberg, 90% of what is going on in a yoga pose is invisible to the naked eye. The invisible part of your practice also happens to be the most important part: your attitude and intentions.
If you’re at war with your body’s limitations or bullying yourself into the poses, you’re missing 90% of your yoga practice, and the most fundamental principle: ‘ahimsa’. There’s no bullying in yoga.
Folding yourself in half or forcing your ankle behind your ear is more likely to take you down a path to your physiotherapist’s office than it is to take you down a path to inner peace. Be careful not to place too much stock in the shapes of the poses. You get better at what you practice, so it’s most important that you practice includes adopting an attitude of compassion and curiousity towards yourself.
TAKE A SAVASANA
Your mind is the most powerful tool you have in your possession. Everything begins as a thought in your head. Many of us carry the belief – consciously or unconsciously, that we are not enough. The predominant cultural messaging we live with is that we need more – to do more, to get more, to be more – more money, more Instagram followers, more success, more thin, more beautiful, more fit, etc… so we can finally be enough.
Instead of trying to get somewhere else or become a new and improved version of yourself, Savasana asks you to find comfort and peace in who you are right now: to lie down, look inside yourself; disentangle yourself from the external messaging that you’re somehow inadequate, and engage with yourself for long enough to notice that you are enough – just as you are. You have everything you need in the present moment. You are already whole. There is nothing you can add to yourself that will make you more complete.
Your breath is always with you – which is fortunate – because it’s also a super simple & powerful tool for shifting your state of mind. And you can use it anywhere, anytime. Long exhalations are soothing for your nervous system and calming for your body and mind. Try this:
Close your mouth and inhale through your nose as you count to four. Then exhale for a count of 8. That’s it! Easy peasy! Long exhalations stimulate your body’s relaxation response.
APPROACH CONFLICT WITH CURIOSITY
Once upon a time, I went to school to become a mediator. Plans changed. I went on to study philosophy. In those 8 years of study, I learned a lot about arguing, and how to skillfully engage with people and ideas I don’t agree with. In mediation class, we used a textbook called ‘Getting to Yes’ to guide our practice in resolving conflicts. That book had some of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever read for resolving disagreements peacefully:
I’ve been using these strategies to help peacefully navigate my way through difficult conversations for my entire adult life. Many people haven’t had practice or instruction in how to deal productively with conflicts (I see you, internet!). It’s helpful to keep this in mind and forgive ourselves and each other when we get it wrong.
Disagreements are part of life. Just about every subject worth discussing (politics, religion, public health policy, the best way to raise children, etc) carries the risk of conflict. But there's also usually some common ground. And it’s important to be willing to find common ground - so that you can engage in a productive conversation. In the words of world debate champion, Julia Dhar, ‘If we are more focused on what makes us different than the same, then every debate is a fight.”
When you find yourself in a hard conversation where someone holds a different position than you (on vaccinations, for example), it's important to:
Even if no one changes their mind, you’ve likely glimpsed one another’s humanity, and learned about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That makes it harder to make someone an ‘other’ or an ‘enemy’. And that alone has value IF you are interested in practicing peace.
To learn more about the art of constructive conversations and negotiations, I recommend reading Getting to Yes. Or check out these talks with world debate champion Julia Dhar.
RADIATE PEACEFUL VIBES
Bolster your decision to practice peace by radiating good will to yourself and others through meditation. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Visualize yourself and say:
May you have peace
In your body
Repeat those words, sending goodwill out to others
Instead of attempting to wrestle your body, mind, or other people into submission, a lot of peace-building activity boils down to trading in an attitude of coercion for one of curiosity. Peacefulness is a way of approaching life without violence or prejudice, and without thinking of others as ‘enemies’. It’s a way of approaching conflict that is collaborative and values relationships. Practicing peacefulness isn’t easy. It requires tremendous patience, compassion and skill. Like any skill, you can get better at it - with practice. If you want to make peace in the world, start practicing from the inside out.
We’re emerging from pandemic isolation and re-integrating into social life. That means dealing with the strange and bewildering world of other people again. If you’ve ever met other people, you know they can bring out the best or the worst in you. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the original guide to practicing yoga written 2500+ years ago, has some sage advice about the timeless problem of dealing with other people.
According to the Yoga Sutras, there are 4 basic kinds of people you'll need to deal with in life:
In Swami Satchidananda’s commentary on this Yogic teaching (Sutra I.33), he says “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
Keep in mind that the whole aim of yoga is to quiet your own mind. The only thing you can control about other people is the way you react to them. So, for the sake of your own sanity and serenity, yoga suggests that you adjust your attitude towards people in one of 4 ways, depending on who you're dealing with:
Happy People: be friendly towards them
Unhappy People: be compassionate
Virtuous People : delight in them
Wicked People: treat them equanimity/indifference
Satchidananda says that “If you use the right key with the right person, you will retain your peace.”
1.Dealing with happy people.
Key Attitude – Friendliness (Maitri)
Even 2500 years ago, there were people that weren’t happy about seeing other people happy. Some things never change. It's also a pretty common problem. You might be able to recall moments in your life where something great happened to someone else (they won a lottery, got a promotion, took a dream vacation) and instead of being happy for them, you felt the sting of frenvy: the feeling of being jealous or envious of a friend's good fortune. Maitri (friendliness) is the cure for that awful feeling.
The weird thing about jealousy and envy is that they don't trouble the other person, they only trouble you - and disturb your own peace of mind. When you catch yourself feeling this way, try replacing jealous thoughts with friendly ones, like “I’m happy that you’re happy.” Repeat. It might feel really unnatural at first, but with practice genuine feelings of happiness begin to grow. You can expand that into a full-on meditation and send practice being happy for your own happiness, then radiate that feeling outward toward every happy person you can think of. Repeat the following phrases, throwing as much sincerity behind them as you can muster up:
I’m happy that you’re happy.
May your happiness continue.
May your happiness grow.
May your happiness keep growing and expanding.
The best part? When you swap jealousy for happiness, you become happier! Win-win.
2.How to deal with unhappy people
Key Attitude – Compassion (Karuna)
Unhappy people. Ugh. They sure have a way of spreading around their dis-ease. Patanjali’s key to dealing with unhappy people is to show them compassion.
I was enjoying coffee on a patio a few weeks ago when a woman sat down at the table next to me and launched into a stream of consciousness rant about everything that’s wrong with the world according to the morning news. If you've read the news lately, you know there's a lot that's wrong. I really just wanted to enjoy my beautiful cup of coffee … on the patio … in the sunshine … and enjoy the moment after 16 months of pandemic-ing. I wished she would just. stop. talking. Her unhappiness was disturbing my mind. Then I remembered this teaching on compassion for unhappy people – the “Just Like Me” compassion practice – and decided to give it a try. As she was talking, I reminded myself of all the things we had in common:
This person wants to connect with others, just like me.
This person cares about other people, just like me.
This person worries about the state of the world, just like me.
This person wants to be content with life, just like me.
This person is learning about life, just like me.
And so on...
Then her husband came with coffee and sat down, and our conversation came to an end. The amazing thing is that this practice really did soothe my mind. By the time she was finished talking at me, I felt a lot less irritated. I used the compassion key – and it actually unlocked a sense of serenity with the situation.
Thank you for another winning life hack, yoga!
Here’s Pema Chodron explaining this wonderful teaching.
3 .How to deal with virtuous people
Key Attitude – Be Delighted By Them (Mudita)
Appreciate the way they use their gifts and talents for the benefit of the world, and try to imitate their great qualities. Don’t hate on the David Suzukis and Oprah Winfreys of the world for being ‘do gooders’; don’t try to drag them down or poke holes in them. Everyone has flaws. Don't let that stop you from recognizing the good in people. Appreciate virtuous qualities when you see them in others and aspire emulate them in your own life.
You don't have to do any of it perfectly. Just do something good and right because it's good and right. When you do, you've contribute to the overall amount of goodness in the world. Be delighted with yourself and everyone else that is striving in any way to make the world a kinder place. Yay, you!
4. How to deal with wicked (non-virtuous) people
Key Attitude – Treat Them With Indifference, Equanimity (Upeksha)
This is a tough one. How do you get to a place where morally bankrupt people do NOT disturb your mind? They sure disturb mine, but I'm working on it and inching my way slowly in that direction.
First, let's understand that if someone really doesn’t care about the way their actions affect other people, there is very little you can do about them. So, focus on yourself.
As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”
When you cultivate an attitude of equanimity, you can still be moved by injustice in the world and motivated to make things better. BUT, you prioritize hanging on to your serenity in the process. Mindfulness meditation practice is a wonderful way to build your skill at noticing thoughts and emotions without getting swept up in them. So, when you encounter people that trigger strong thoughts and reactions, instead of responding reactively, you can just NOT TAKE THE BAIT. Mindfulness teaches you how to sit back, take a pause, and choose peace of mind instead.
Try this meditation for Cultivating Equanimity with Diana Winston:
These four key attitudes (friendliness, compassion, delight and indifference) are known as the Brahmaviharas. Keep these keys in your pocket always. When you use the right key with the right person, you unlock the possibility of serenity in your relationships with others.
"How long should you hold a yoga pose?"
Someone asked that question last week in yoga teacher training.
Meet Amar Bharti Ji (above).
He says he’s been holding his right arm up in the air since 1973. His story goes like this: Amar was an average middle-class family man. Then, one morning in 1970, he woke up and decided to dedicate his life to Shiva. He left his job, family and friends to dedicate himself to his spiritual practice.
Three years later, feeling he was still too connected to mortal life, Amar decided to make a sacrifice - his right arm. He raised it as a sign of his devotion - and never put it back down. Amar's sacrifice means his arm is no longer functional. He experienced years of excruciating pain. But the pain has now passed - and his arm is atrophied and frozen in this position.
Most of us would probably agree that 48 years is waaaay longer than we’d care to spend in any yoga pose. But you probably also have different goals for your practice than Amar does. So, how long should YOU hold a yoga pose? IT DEPENDS. On what YOU want to get out of your practice.
Do you want to relax? Build strength? Increase flexibility? Get a quick energy boost? Find enlightenment?
The key to getting the most out of your yoga practice lies in matching the goal you’re trying to achieve with the right kind of practice.
And the kind of practice you do will determine how long you hold your poses.
So, a great place to start answering the question 'how long should you hold a yoga pose?' is by identifying your goals. For example:
But before we dig any deeper into the benefits of different kinds of yoga practice, we’ll need to take a quick detour into some movement science. Here's a short video that walks you through the 3 basic styles of stretching we use in yoga practice and how they affect your body/mind.
1. Dynamic Stretching
2. Active Static Stretching
3. Passive Static Stretching
Benefits of Long Hold Times in Static Poses
Restorative Yoga, Yin Yoga and Iyengar Yoga are a few examples of practices that are famous for using long hold times – but they do it in dramatically different ways to achieve completely different outcomes.
In Iyengar Yoga there’s a strong focus on alignment and on holding active static poses. This style of practice helps you:
I asked one of my early yoga teachers, Nesta Falladown, a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, how long you should hold a yoga pose. She had a long list of 'it depends' in addition to the ones we've already covered. She says:
“it depends on experience in practice, age of the student, how they
feel at the time of practice, what it is they need on that particular day,
what their state of mind is, weather, the level of difficulty of the asana,
the state of the breath …” She goes on to say that ' A short answer and good guideline is
to start with shorter holdings and build up. Start with 15 seconds
or less if stamina is not strong.
BKS Iyengar suggests holding:
She recommends reading “Light on Yoga” or “Yoga: A Gem for Women” for more specific detail on how to perform each asana from the Iyengar perspective.
If you specifically want to increase your flexibility, the current ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) exercise guidelines are to do static stretching:
Yin Yoga focuses on long holds of passive static poses and gentle stretching. This style of practice helps you:
Restorative Yoga focuses on holding passive static poses for long periods of time. In Restorative, you’re aiming to get into a position that’s completely comfortable and just relax - without stretching or strengthening anything. Restorative yoga:
Benefits of Short Hold Times in Dynamic Poses
Vinyasa Flow and Ashtanga-style yoga practices use dynamic stretching, which helps you:
Sometimes you’ll experience several of these styles of movement within a single yoga practice. This often happens under the umbrella of ‘Hatha’ Yoga. And, of course, every yoga practice with a Restorative Savasana.
So, how long should you hold a yoga pose? It depends.
Whether you’re challenging yourself to lie down and relax for 20 minutes, to hold a plank for 30 seconds, to get to the end of a 70-minute dynamic Vinaysa Flow - or to hold your arm in the air for the rest of your life as a sign of devotion – the point is to meet YOUR goals and transform YOUR limits, whatever they may be … and however long it takes.
These stretching and flexibility guidelines are in Table 5.6 of ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 11th Edition.