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 self-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.