When I teach Beginners' Yoga, I always begin by asking students WHY they have come to yoga; what they are hoping it will do for them. Usually I get answers like ‘I want to be more flexible’, ‘I want some ‘me’ time’, ‘I need to learn how to relax’ or ‘I need to strengthen my core’. Practicing yoga can certainly help people do those thing - but it also has the potential to transform our lives in profound and unexpected ways. Let’s unpack some of the more subtle gifts of yoga!
THE GIFT OF SELF-OBSERVATION
“The ability to monitor our emotions and thoughts from moment to moment is key to understanding ourselves better, being at peace with who we are and proactively managing our thoughts, emotions and behaviours.” - Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence (Why It Matters More Than IQ)
Whenever you step onto a yoga mat or sit on a meditation cushion you are engaged in a practice of self-observation: watching your body move through space; watching your breath move in and out; observing the nature of your own thoughts, and moment-to-moment changes in bodily sensations.
All of your self-observation practice on the mat eventually spills over into everyday life. When you get really good at practicing self-awareness, you get to know yourself. That includes knowing what you desire for your own well-being, for the well-being of others and for the well-being of the world. As you become more adept at the art of self-observation you also begin to notice when your actions don’t align with your deepest desires - and you begin cleaning up those inconsistencies so that your thoughts, words, feelings and actions are in harmony. In this way, mindfulness leads to more harmonious living.
TRY THIS MINDFULNESS PRACTICE:
THE GIFT OF SANKALPA – LIVING FROM THE HEART
Many yoga classes begin with setting an intention; a focus for the practice. For example, you may work with an intention to leave class feeling 'balanced' in your body, mind, emotions. Then the class is spent practicing breathing techniques, postures and meditations that support this goal. In a similar way that you can create an intention for your practice and follow through on making it a reality, you can also set an intention for your life.
‘Sankalpa’ is the Sanskrit word for intention. When you create a sankalpa, you identify your heart’s deepest desire and commit to living your life in a way that is focused on what you have decided is most important. Think of it like taking a personal vow to support your highest truth. A Sankalpa can inspire you, create focus in your life and remind you to keep your eye on the prize.
When you put an intention/sankalpa into words and recite them often, you become your own source of inspiration and guidance. You also create a powerful tool for silencing the voice of your inner critic. We all have one, and he can take over your thoughts and stop you from pursuing what you want in life with negative, discouraging self-talk. Having a sankalpa at the ready gives you a helpful script for talking back to turning off that critical inner voice.
How do you create a sankalpa?
You could simply think about something you would really like to have happen in your life that is not currently happening. It could be related to work, relationships, finances, health, spirituality – whatever is most important to you. When you have identified what your deepest desire in this life is, you’re ready to craft your sankalpa. The sankalpa statement you create for yourself should be:
-short (so it’s easy to remember)
-present tense (as though it’s already true)
This helps to flip the script on negative self-talk and focus on speaking to yourself in a way that is positive and loving instead. Here’s an example: many people think about their relationship with food and alcohol around this time of year – and what they DON’T want to do over the holiday – namely, eat and drink too much. Replace any negative mental chatter with a positive, intentional sankalpa like, ‘I make healthy choices.’
Short. Positively framed. Easy to remember. Leaves you feeling good about yourself. No negative self-talk. No beating yourself up.
Some other examples of Sankalpa statements:
-I am a positive presence for others
-I create opportunities for success
-I am enough.
Having a Sankalpa at the ready helps you to catch your inner critic and silence him quick. It also helps you to catch the behaviours you engage in that don’t align with what you have decided is actually important to you. THAT is where change begins.
Our thoughts become our actions and behaviours. When you catch yourself about to engage in a behaviour that doesn’t align with your heart’s deepest desire for yourself or for the larger world, you have a choice in that moment – to act out of impulse or to act intentionally and build a bridge to the reality you have decided you DO want to create.
Repeat your sankalpa to yourself when you wake up in the morning and reconnect with your positive intention throughout the day to remind yourself to live from your heart and align your actions with your aspirations.
THE GIFT OF PRESENCE
I love this quote from renowned yoga teacher, Rod Stryker. He says that after practicing yoga for a few years “either you will begin to change for the better or you will stop doing yoga.”
Yoga encourages positive transformation by encouraging you to be present in the here and now. There is a saying that goes ‘anxiety lives in the future and depression lives in the past’. When we spend too much time worrying about things that have not happened yet or ruminating on the past, we steal from our enjoyment of the present moment.
People who live in the present moment are generally happier, calmer, more relaxed and more appreciative. The ability to let go of heavy over-thinking is a gift. The ability to see and experience life and relationships without preconceived ideas is a gift. Being present puts us in touch with openness, creativity, playfulness and possibility.
For many of us, unpacking these larger gifts of yoga begins with the physical practice. If you begin your journey into yoga with the intention to become stronger and more flexible and you stick with practice, you WILL become stronger and more flexible. If your intention is to get in some time alone or to learn how to relax, you WILL. One of the simplest and most powerful gifts of yoga is that it empowers us to shape and transform ourselves and our lives simply by bringing our thoughts and actions into alignment. As we get skillful at doing this, we are also emboldened to bring bigger, more beautiful intentions into reality - transforming ourselves and the world around us.