Tip Tuesday: Getting Back to Yoga

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

Perhaps you’ve been there. You’ve been doing yoga regularly, feeling great, enjoying the benefits. Then life gets busy and practice somehow falls to the wayside; your last yoga class a hazy memory. However, you finally make it back to the yoga mat.

And it is rough. Just like getting back on a bike, the muscle memory of how to do it is there, but it is a wobbly ride. How do you keep motivated when you feel like you have so far to go?

Congratulate yourself  You did the hardest part which was starting again and putting your intention and effort forward. The other part of congratulating yourself is not qualifying it in anyway.  “I’m proud that I started yoga again, but I would not be having to start over in the first place if I had only stuck with my practice” or “I’m glad I got back to my practice, but I did very badly.” No if, ands, or buts. Just congrats.

Re-frame muscle soreness Muscles get sore because they are learning a movement that is new or unfamiliar to them. You are re-learning movements that are currently unfamiliar. Look at muscle soreness as your yoga muscles getting smarter. Frankly, doesn’t that make you feel more like practicing than it would if you just continued to berate yourself for being tired and inflexible?

Find the win No matter how stiff or out-of-practice you feel, there is something you did well. Start looking out for the small victories: staying connected to your breath in a pose, a slight opening of the hamstrings that allowed you to go a little further, or maybe you lifted that foot off the ground for just a second to balance in crow.

Remember the lightbulb moments Do you remember when you first started yoga? If it was anything like my experience, it felt clumsy and unfamiliar and challenging just to keep my left and right sides straight. Yet through the struggles, there would be these exhilarating moments of improvement. Today the poses I am most satisfied by are the ones that have been the hardest for me to learn. Starting over is a bit like being a beginner again. Know that the clumsy stage will come, but so will the lightbulb occasions when you “get” that pose again.


Image credit: perfectoinsecto

Being ok with failure

I was listening to an old episode of This American Life the other day. The episode was about an orchestra teacher turned ad-hoc scientist who worked with a scientist testing a promising new idea for a cure for cancer (side note: a truly fascinating story, not surprising for this show).

One thing I identified with in the story was the orchestra teacher’s frustration with the high level of failure in science. You spend all this time setting up controls and testing variables, testing and retesting a hypothesis. The vast majority of the time, the experiment doesn’t work out and it means starting all over  and/or refining an experiment and trying again. For the non-scientist, this lack of success is incredibly discouraging. It feels like a lot of work for nothing.

But for the scientist, this is just part of the job. You have to be ok with experiments not working out most of the time. There must be a degree of acceptance that lots of trials and mostly errors are how it goes and breakthroughs are rarely quick processes. If you defined your happiness and competence at your work based on how each experiment works out, it’d be hard to get any motivation to keep trying.

Certainly there are other professions where this concept is true. Grant writing comes to mind, as does sales and activism. I am not a patient person by nature nor am I good at accepting that I’m going to fall down a lot of the time especially when I’m learning new things. I’ve always wondered how on earth people stick withsuch frustrating odds. What keeps people going?

I’m learning through my yoga practice and teaching that the answer to this question has to do with being dedicated to a larger purpose that isn’t dependent on a specific outcome. For the scientist, the love of the process and commitment to a theory or idea or  particular investigation can be the driving purpose behind conducting each experiment. In yoga we set an intention for the practice. The intention is not a goal like balancing in handstand, but rather a dedication of our practice to a higher reason for our doing yoga, be it connecting to our breath or a re-commitment remaining present in each moment, each pose. As a teacher, this means staying true to the reason why I teach yoga and being prepared, but also accepting that not every class is going to be a rousing success.

When I find myself zeroing in on my failures and focusing on how far I have to go, I’m instead trying to take a scientist’s view of the situation. Our endeavors are experiments that we’re committed to with our eyes on a larger intention. If we’re sticking to that, failure becomes part of the process and not a measure of our self-worth and achievement.


Top 10 Ways to Get Yourself on the Yoga Mat

yoga mat

I’ve always maintained that the hardest yoga pose is starting. Forget handstand or splits; the toughest pose in unrolling your mat and starting to practice. After years of doing yoga, I’m amazed that it is still like pulling teeth to get myself to practice at times. I pretty much always feel better after a yoga session, yet I’ll continue to have this resistance. So I’ve just had to discover clever ways of getting myself to the mat in spite of myself. Here’s my top ten tips and tricks I’ve found for getting back on the yoga mat:

1. Let go of time “rules”  I used to think that if I didn’t practice for at least 90 minutes every day that I wasn’t a dedicated enough yogi, doing enough or doing it right. If I didn’t have at least an hour, I just wouldn’t do any yoga at all. But when I take the attitude that any yoga is better than no yoga, practice happens much more frequently. Even a few minutes can make a big difference in your energy level. Maybe it’s just a few rounds of sun salutations or some forward bends.  Giving myself permission to be imperfect and not practicing “x” number of minutes has been a huge way of being more compassionate to myself–and improving at least my mental practice as a result.

2. Find a buddy  Find another yogi to practice with. Having someone who is relying on you to carpool to a class or show up to your house to practice together increases the likelihood that you will get out of bed and decreases the likelihood you will bail. Plus it’s just way more fun sometimes to have another person to be breathing and sweating along with you. If you don’t have a buddy at hand, try meeting other people at yoga class. You can also try the Craigslist activity partners section where you can post your yogi want-ad.

3. Get thee to a class The sangha or community aspect of yoga is a powerful thing. A good yoga instructor has a way of inspiring you to go deeper into your practice and challenge your imagined limitations. By practicing as part of a class, you get reconnected not just to yourself, but to the larger universe around you. And frankly, sometimes I just want be told what to do and be guided through a practice. Also, if you’re a cheapskate like me, once you’ve put down money for a class pass, that will motivate you to get yourself there to get your money’s worth.

4. Turn on a DVD. Or podcast. Or video stream. There’s a ton of free or low-cost yoga podcasts and online videos. A quick iTunes search alone will give you a bunch of options. Netflix is a great way to test-drive yoga DVDs so you can see if you like one before purchasing it. Have a handful of video classes of various lengths so when you’re in need of inspiration or just need a set routine, all it takes is pushing the play button. The bonus? Checking out different video options available gives you a chance to sample different teachers and yoga styles.

5. Mix it up Speaking of different styles, sometimes you need to try a new one. If you’ve been doing the same old routine or video or just aren’t feeling as engaged in your usual class, try something new. Try a different style of yoga, go to a teacher whose class you’ve never taken before or visit a new studio. Sometimes a change of pace is needed to get you re-interested and energized about practicing.

6. Have your gear at the ready I keep a yoga mat in my trunk along with a towel. Lay out your yoga clothes the night before. Place your gym bag out by the door. Don’t let not having a mat or the right clothing on hand keep you from practice. Similarly, if you’re practicing at home, roll your mat out ahead of time and clear aside any space you need ahead of time so when it’s time to practice, all you need to do is step on the mat.

7. Make a music mix Yoga doesn’t have to be done in silence. Yoga music is not limited to Krishna Das or sitar music (though I actually happen to like both of these). I love putting together a playlist of fun music that I reserve for my yoga practice. This gives me something to look forward to the next practice. Putting the music on ahead of time will lift me from lethargy to bopping into my practice. I have been known to move through sun salutes in rhythm, sing along in headstand, and pause between poses to shake it like a polaroid picture. Music has a way of focusing me and bringing back the fun and playfulness part of yoga.

8. Stop being serious Seriously. That playfulness I mentioned was completely foreign to my home practice for the longest time. Stop the vinyasa to sing along to Michael Jackson? Do another handstand for the fun of it? Unheard of. It was rare that I ever deviated from a precisely prescribed sequence of poses with the proper breath count. Discipline is one thing, but rigidity and exactitude are ways to guarantee you won’t feel like unrolling the yoga mat. Give yourself permission to have fun with it. Laugh at yourself when you fall out of a pose. Do a pose completely out of sequence just because it feels good. It has taken me YEARS to start to give myself the permission and flexibility in my practice and I’m certainly still working on it. BUT, it’s the fun, free-flowing classes that are the most rewarding and tend to be where I’ll have a breakthrough in a pose.

9.  Keep a brain dump nearby Sometimes I resist doing yoga because my brain is spinning from all the things on my to-do list and everything I ought to be doing instead of practicing. Have a notepad and pen nearby when you start to practice. If you remember something you have to do or have something you keep thinking about, write it down. Have a great idea while you’re in downward dog? Put it on paper. I find that when I put my persistent thoughts in writing, it gets them out of my head and gives me the brain space to focus onto my practice–and not forget about those creative sparks that sometimes strike while in a yoga pose.

10. Note your epiphanies On that note (pun intended), write down those cool insights you have in practice. Did you nail that arm balance you’ve been working on for years? Discover that you were able to hold a pose way longer than you thought you could? Realize something about yourself or gain some new perspective on a life situation? Record these epiphanies. Then the next time you don’t want to practice or feel discouraged, go read your epiphanies.

How do you motivate yourself to unroll the mat?