If you have ever taken a yoga class, you have probably experienced the following:
While holding a pose, you come face to face with intense physical sensation. Energy is generating warmth and the breath becomes harder to follow. The mind wonders, How much longer? The urge to escape builds as you fight to stay present. Taking another breath, you work to fully experience the intesity and soften into it - finding acceptance of what is.
This is the practice of yoga. Now, remove the mat.
A wise yoga teacher once stated, "We practice yoga on the mat for the life we live off the mat." It took me a few years of practice to really get what he meant.
I remember the moment it clicked for me. I was attending a three day intensive yoga training. Each day I walked into the studio - music, lighting, and decor all providing the perfect setting for tranquility. I unrolled my mat and spent several hours in yogic bliss.
On the drive home, another vehicle recklessly cut in front of me and all of my stress-management tools went out the window. I blew my horn, sputtered choice obscenities, and felt a rush of anger and adrenaline. I suddenly became very aware of being off the mat.
Practice helps us experience intense waves of sensation, watch them change and then recede. But step off the mat and that ability seems like a faint memory, if not forgotten. It is important to see the connection between the physical experience of yoga, as well as the emotional and spiritual one. We gain the ability to hold postures, but we also strengthen our capacity for unpleasant emotional experiences.
How can we remember to implement the beautiful gifts that yoga gives us? In the moment, it can be difficult. But this is why we practice.
Breathe - Use the breath when uncomfortable sensations or emotions arise. Breathing takes us from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes relaxation. As you breathe into the sensations, they relax and change.
Feel - When a stressor arises, notice the emotional and physical sensations that follow. Try to fully experience them. Notice any resistance you might experience and breathe into it.
Relax - Pinpoint the physical sensations and try to soften your muscles and relax any tension. There will be tension in life, but we can cultivate ways to find space and soften around it.
Watch - You might have been encouraged in yoga class to imagine watching yourself in the midst of a challenging pose. Find space to step outside yourself. Notice what’s happening with non-judgmental awareness and compassion.
Allow - Practice acceptance of the moment. Know that nothing lasts forever. Just as we strive to allow painful sensations to arise and pass on the mat, we can do the same in life.
This off the mat practice helps us to ride the waves exactly as they are. It's mindfulness, it's acceptance, it's compassion. And most importantly, it is the relationship with the reality of each moment that enriches the experience of life.