What yoga “practice” truly is

My teacher Rory Trollen used to repeat, during Yoga Teacher Training: “Yoga practice truly starts when you step off your mat”. This sounded counterintuitive at first. He added: “When you go through daily life, especially family life, with all the challenges that come with it, then you really are at the heart of yoga practice…” (Bear with me and understand by “yoga” both physical yoga – asana, and mental yoga – meditation).

It did not take long for me to absorb and integrate what my teacher was telling me. After going through several episodes of depression and anxiety, I knew well how daily life was a challenge. I also knew how discovering yoga at the age of 38 changed my life. Not because I stepped on my mat every day. But because I stepped off my mat every day. I stepped off, every time more inspired by what practicing on my mat had taught me. I stepped off, and knew a little more what life was about.

Let me take a few concrete examples. Learning pigeon pose, sooner or later, you learn how to watch your own impulses – sometimes they turn to urges! –, and let them be…You also learn to calm your breath and direct your breathing into areas of your body bearing sensations of intense discomfort. Repeating it again and again, staying longer every time, trains your mind and your body for further application into daily life. Next time you are sick or in pain, you may surprise yourself closing your eyes, connecting to your breathing sensations, and visualizing your breath untighten painful areas. Next time you are in an uncomfortable life situation, you may surprise yourself watching your impulses, being mindful of your emotions, and showing patience and resiliency in facing them. You may not be able to transpose what you learnt on the mat into life as easily and quickly as you would like, but if you are mindful and committed, you eventually will.

Another example would be selfab.jpg-compassion. Bad self-talk is a disease of our times, and one of the main root causes of depression. On your mat, though, you learn to develop kindness towards yourself – more often than not for the first time of your life… Your yoga teacher tells you again and again: watch your sensations, only go as far as you are comfortable, by no means hurt yourself… and slowly, little by little, it grows on you. Next time you make a mistake in daily life, you may surprise yourself thinking “That’s ok, I am a human being, and I make mistakes like everyone else, I will try to do better next time.”

Your practice will take an even greater dimension when you are faced with the bigger challenges life inevitably brings. When facing difficulties with your spouse or your kids, when going through a divorce or the grief of a loved one, then Practice with a big letter “P” truly begins. You may feel overwhelmed and lost at first – a bit like being submerged by a big ocean wave, or even a tsunami. During those times, intensify your practice on the mat. Do yoga, mindful breathing and meditation more assiduously than ever and, just like caring for a garden, care for your body, care for your breath, be open and curious of your body sensations.

And most important of all, instead of rejecting the painful challenge, instead of seeing it as something that “should not have happened”, or “should not happen”, see it as a new yoga series. See it as a way to practice what you learnt on the mat, off the mat, “for real”… See it as the concretization of many hours of rehearsal, just like actors before a big play. Seeing it as “practice” will bring a shift in perspective within your upset mind. Instead of feeling powerless in the face of the difficulty, you will start feeling energized with your own presence, and see the difficulty as an opportunity to discover your own (unlimited) strength and inner resiliency.

Of course it is not as smooth as it seems when reading these words: practice in real life is hard and punctuated with many discouragements and step backs. Just like on your yoga mat, when some days you feel awfully tired or sad, or even angry at your yoga teacher (or yourself)… Just like on your yoga mat, when you fail coming into the pose you mastered only three months ago. But if you maintain commitment, mindfulness, and self-compassion, transformation will surely happen.

Just like Sri Pattabhi Jois said: “Do your practice and all is coming”.

This article was inspired by several of my students who are going through tough times right now. I am dedicating this article to them – my thoughts being with them at every second of writing this post. Much love and encouragement.

Yoga to overcome barriers

One of my wishes as a yoga teacher is to make you discover that most barriers you believe you have, in your body as in your mind, on the yoga mat as in real life, are only pre-conceived ideas about yourself and the world around you.

As a child I tried classic dance and felt awkward in my incapacity to open my hips or bend my body like the other girls. I gave up and unconsciously built the belief that I had an inflexible-indomitable-body, belief reinforced by the jokes running in my family and the fact that my little sister was finding classic dance so easy. That self-made belief is the main reason why I did not try yoga until age 38, thinking that yoga was a discipline reserved for super-flexible people.

Well, as a famous quote funnily formulates it: “Saying you are not flexible enough for yoga is like saying you are too dirty to take a bath”. Not only does yoga help develop flexibility of body and mind, but the lack of natural flexibility is a blessing in disguise. For mainly four reasons: first, the lack of flexibility makes you face limitations that seem insurmountable. It naturally pushes you to develop a high level of patience, commitment and determination within your practice. Secondly, you have no choice than use your breath, go inward, live your practice to the fullest to be able to release the numerous existing tensions and move your body further into the stretch. Third, you get to learn to be true to yourself, and accept yourself as you are. In certain classes, I was the only one who could not do certain moves and it was not always pleasant to stand out in such a way…

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I had to learn to be kind to myself, not to hurt myself just for the sake of doing like everybody else, and find solutions to safely come into the pose. I also had to find a balance between pushing my limit a little further while staying true to myself. And now, as a certified yoga teacher, this challenge is ever so increased by the fact that people expect me to master all the poses. Fourth, you discover that through time, with perseverance and dedication, many of the once-indomitable barriers do crumble to the ground. When that happens, it gives you an indescribable feeling of freedom and makes you see an infinite horizon of possibilities. The first time I discovered that, I was bewildered: I just could not believe that my body did that

Now, as a yoga teacher, I see physical adjustments  as an opportunity to encourage my students, with kindness and support, to explore their practice beyond self-made beliefs and physical limitations. I always remember the firm yet gentle touch of my teachers, during my teacher training, while helping me to fold forward, and the blissful sensation I felt when my face finally touched my legs.

I wish to guide, accompany, and inspire my students just the same way. And through yoga, we can all discover that most limits are only limits in our minds.

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What “doing yoga” truly means…

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Yoga is becoming increasingly popular across the world, and now the word yoga is used for a wide range of closely or loosely-related activities. Many people nowadays say they practice yoga because they go to a class called yoga class and/or they set their bodies into yoga poses. However yoga is a subtle discipline, and Instagram does not reflect what yoga truly is.

Yoga is not defined by what you do, but HOW you do it. Going into an advanced yoga pose may be accessible to a gymnast, a dancer, or even a yoga beginner with great natural flexibility. However, setting your body into a yoga pose does not mean doing yoga. It all depends on how you do it. From the ancient texts and from my own experience, the following key ingredients are essential to “doing yoga”:

  • Being focused on the present moment, and gently maintaining this meditative focus throughout your moves
  • Being mindful of your breath (inhale, exhale) and using it (lengthening it, deepening it) to go deeper into the pose
  • Seeing each pose as an opportunity for self-inquiry – exploration of your body and mind with openess, curiosity, and no preconceived ideas of what you can or cannot do
  • Having your attention turned inward: listening to your body (physical sensations, energy…) and adjusting your moves accordingly
  • Maintaining a state of kindness and compassion towards yourself: not judging what you can or cannot do, not blaming yourself, and being attentive not to injure your body

Of course you can go to yoga classes and take yoga poses without “doing yoga”. It actually starts like that for most people, including myself. Even without “doing yoga”, you can get the benefits of a physical exercise which makes your body stronger, increases your energy and relaxes you at the same time. That’s already a lot, and more than most other types of physical exercise can offer you.

However, if somewhere along the way you start “doing yoga”, the benefits will be of another dimension alltogether. “Doing yoga” will help you develop capacities which are key to live a happy life – even when your life conditions are upside down.

You will develop a capacity to live more fully in the present moment, to taste every minute of it. You will discover the power of your breath, and how to use it as an anchor when your thoughts or emotions become too turbulent to keep up with. You will increase your resilience to unpleasant sensations or emotions. On a higher level, you will feel a new sense of connectedness within yourself (body-mind-soul), and also an interconnectedness with fellow human beings and nature. It will not be mentalized, it will just be something you feel. Just like with sitted meditation, yoga, which in a way is a moving meditation, will naturally enhance your capacity for compassion and empathy with yourself, and with others. It will allow you to stop being in the self-punishing mode every time you think you did something wrong, and your life will naturally unfold more gently and beautifully.

That’s worth “doing yoga”, isn’t it?

Getting ready for January classes

In December I have spent a significant amount of time preparing future classes, getting in touch with aspiring students, looking for places where I could teach group classes, preparing, printing and then distributing flyers…

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It was sometimes difficult to let go of the planning activities to come back to my mat. (Someone once said that the most difficult yoga move is to step onto your yoga mat. That is so true…after the first few breaths on my mat I feel so alive that the rest follows.) To step on my mat, I had to constantly remind myself that being committed and regular at my own practice was key to becoming a great teacher. To be disciplined, passionate and committed is called “tapas” in yogi philosophy. I cultivate my own tapas by practicing yoga every day or at least every other day and by always bringing wood to the fire of my desire to practice.

In December, having to manage my time and energy between planning and practicing was an introduction to what is coming next: managing my time and energy between my own practice and the classes I give. Yoga is such an internalized and deep practice that it needs to be constantly nourished, inspired, expanded, through new experiences and new perspectives on teachings. My teacher Rory once told me, to be a good teacher, you basically need to get 50% in and 50% out. This is what I feel, also. As I am preparing classes, I am getting even more eager to attend online workshops, read books and learn new sequences.

On top of my global tapas, I cultivate a specific one which changes every few months. At the moment my tapas concerns uddhiyana bandha (subject of a future post), and once a week I work on my jumping and on hand stand-related exercises. This requires a lot of patience and commitment, and it is sometimes difficult to feel any progress at all, yet it is crucial to keep going. In the past, I have faced many poses which I was convinced I could never do…yet with patience, commitment, and practice…eventually, one day those same poses came to life!

In December, I have also stepped out of my comfort zone… reaching out to people I barely knew, distributing flyers in the street… It was actually exhilarating to feel my own determination to move forward, to be able to kindly reach out to others, and to accept to feel vulnerable. One day, no student came to class: I then joyfully started doing my own practice in the big empty room, unexpectedly savoring every moment of it, and the beautiful space around me.