With yoga on every street corner, you almost feel on the outer if your inner world isn’t being toned. Everyone seems bent on finding the Pretzel inside.
Most depictions of yoga from promo flyers to YouTubes offer the Human Paperclip as inspiration. But where does that leave the lawyer fossilised by 16-hour days or the chronically fatigued mum? How does the average, flex-free, joint-jarred, physically disproportionate student overcome that invocation, to grasp the subtler gifts of yoga?
Over a 15-year, once-or-twice-a-week journey as a student, the glitter in my path began to sparkle. That may sound like a slow-train to nowhere-in- particular, but little by little yoga’s revelatory influence dramatically altered my life perspective and path.
As the Philosophy of the Mat unrolled, I learned the sanctuary of that rectangular space and how to use it to sustain me.
Philosophy of the Mat
On the mat, at first, I struggled and forced, often leaving depleted and disillusioned. But with acceptance, patience and growing self responsibility, the mat became an expansive place where I could lose all sense of time and place, and the worries I’d heaped upon me.
Rules of the Mat 1+2: One. You need to explore several classes to find the right match of tradition and teacher, the one that opens your body and mind the way you imagined yoga might. Two. Ignore Flexy Pants who flops effortlessly into postures. Your body, and the emotional and mental layers that inform it, are unique. So too is your yoga journey. Immerse yourself in your own space… fully.
Acceptance: When your hamstrings refuse to fold perfectly in half from a standing position, welcome Acceptance. No amount of forcing your limbs into submission, or allowing the inner critic to judge, is going to progress you quickly, or safely. Accept your limitations on the mat and work gently to see whether they are blockages that may be freed with regular, self-nurturing attention.
Patience: You know it, something worth having takes time… From the Sanskrit “yug”, meaning “union”, “yoga” invites you to unite the mind, body and spirit (the inner self, the divine within and without). This profound union is accessible to the patient student, which is why yoga persists over millennia ― since 5000 BC and still counting. At first, the union lingers in moments. Ultimately, it can underpin your state-of-being, informing all you do. All you need is openness to self-exploration.
Self Awareness: Those crooked and recalcitrant parts of you provide a golden opportunity to grow in self awareness. The real management of my own journey of stress-induced chronic illness began by applying yogic philosophy to life off the mat. Embracing yoga doesn’t mean you won’t get sick but it equips you with a vast tool kit to navigate the ups and downs of life. Hm … how so?
Instructions to focus on a particular muscle, or to bring the breath to your big toe, offer the first steps toward self awareness. We spend 99% of life focussed externally on people and tasks. Your teacher asks you, repetitively, to move internally in order to become acutely aware of the messages your body, emotions and state-of-mind are pumping out. Once we learn to truly witness and act appropriately on those messages, we manage ourselves and pilot life’s journey more smoothly.
Self-Responsibility: Your teacher may be an expert guide, but the final arbiter on the mat is you. Can you be strong enough to take a breather, rather than force a posture or repetitions for pride’s sake? If you show up for a commando-style class undernourished and overtired, then awake leaden and strained the next day, who is responsible?
By all means, challenge your body to become lighter, looser and stronger, but consider that beyond physicality is a labyrinth of thoughts, attitudes, habits and emotions to tame, should we choose, through exploring our inner Pretzel.
Try a mantra to keep on track next class:
“What do I feel, where do I feel it?”
“My breath guides my limbs.”
“My body opens slowly, gently.”
Take one thing from your favourite class and practice it for a few weeks ― that’s a 5-minute daily yoga practice. (Ask your teacher if it’s ok to bring a pen/paper to write it down.) As a dear mentor, Lucille, always says: “If you can’t find five minutes for yourself, who’s running your life?!”.
Lisa MitchellLisa Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor who specialises in holistic wellbeing.