What Really Matters in Your Yoga Practice

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I've been teaching yoga for a little more than three years now, and I've been practicing almost twice as long. The most difficult part of the practice for me has been not the physical poses--though there still are many that challenge me, particularly inversions--but everything else. As someone who has always had trouble sitting still and who battles anxiety, yoga is both therapy and, on certain days, torture for me.

I keep doing it because, quite simply, it's what I do. I encourage my students and friends interested in the practice to do the same. Today I want to share with you a few short lessons I've gleaned from my years on the mat. I share these both as encouragement for you and as reminders for myself, for we're all students with room to grow and learn.

Breathe. Whether you're fully in the pose or taking a modification, your primary focus should be on your breath. Keep it even and deep, with your inhales matching your exhales in length and intensity. Holding the breath is tempting, especially in balancing poses, but the breath is what gives us energy. Keep it flowing to breathe life into your poses. Yoga without breath is calisthenics.

Focus on you. Don't worry about what anyone else is doing. There's often going to be someone who's there to show off, just as there is usually going to be someone who's new or who's doing his or her own thing on the mat. What matters to you is what is happening inside the perimeters of your yoga mat. Stay focused, with your mind and your gaze, and you can tune out everything else.

Turn off your inner critic. You teacher leads you into a pose, then offers optional steps to take it deeper. Everyone else goes for the bind, reaches for their toes, or whatever else it is that takes this pose to the next step. You're not ready, and your mind starts criticizing you. Take a deep breath and let it go. You're there to breathe and to move. To what extent you move doesn't matter. You could take child's pose for the rest of class, eyes closed, breath deep, and you'd still be practicing yoga.

It's about more than the body. Asana (physical practice) is only a small part of the practice. There's no denying that yoga is a workout for the body. When you're sweating, your legs shaking from trying to balance, your arms sore from all the "yoga pushups" it's easy to only focus on physical. The real challenge is remembering that you're there to quiet the mind, and these poses are the hurdles set in front of you as chances to practice calming your inner voice.

Don't qualify your practice. How many times have you left a practice or class and said "that was great" or "that was terrible." What made it great? What made it terrible? Usually, the answer is your ego. You made it all the way through the class without taking child's pose, so it's "great." You fell out of a balancing pose or couldn't kick up for a headstand--terrible! Rather than qualifying your practice, just let it be. The poses--those that are strong and those that challenge you or are beyond your reach--are there as a chance to practice yoga.  And I don't mean practice just the physical poses but practice controlling the breath, quieting the mind, and moving your body with more awareness.

I still have to remind myself that yoga is about more than the physical, that this practice is doing great things for my mind as well as my muscles, that not wanting to unroll my mat is the time I need yoga most. I continue to grow and evolve as a student of yoga, and I hope to continue to pass along what I've learned to you.

Which aspect of yoga is most challenging to you?

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Good to know. Thanks! Report
JWINKSLLC 7/25/2020
Be here now. Resist the urge to ruminate on the past or project into the future. That is what really matters in yoga. Report
DEE107 7/7/2020
thanks Report
PWILLOW1 4/27/2020
I went to one yoga session and I did the wong thing too. Reached too far and was very very sore after. Not my thing. Report
Your links at the bottom of your article are no longer valid.
I have been able to do chair yoga and find it very relaxing! Report
I love Yoga.............Thanks for a great article. Report
Quieting my mind is my biggest challenge. In a world full of electronics that beep every time someone says something, turning off my automatic answer response is hard! That’s why they call it a “practice.” Report
Agreed, enjoy the moment Report
Great article, thank you. Report
Focusing on breathing and quieting the mind are good things to practice even if you don't practice yoga. Great tips! Report
Great article with good pointers. Report
Quieting my mind is most difficult for me. I've only been practicing since last Winter, so many of the asanas are a little difficult for me, but I'm improving. Now if I could just stop thinking a hundred different things, and just move and breathe......... Report
Since making yoga a part of my regular fitness routine I have begun to sleep better and I am not nearly as moody. If I notice myself feeling anxious I will start a flow if I'm in a situation where I can't mindful breathing also gets me through it. Report
This seems to be very timely for me, glad I saw it this morning. Have never tried Yoga because it seems daunting to me. Also, since my ego is alive and well, I always try to do more than I should with any sort of class I go to and end up hurting my 72 year old self - and it takes longer than it once did to heal. Only yesterday spoke with a neighbor about another neighbor who taught restorative yoga for years and now does individual classes in people's homes. Think I'll give it a try. Need to improve my flexibility and balance. Report
Really needed to see this - I love yoga, but I have experienced these same frustrations. Good reminders! Thank you, and namaste! Report
Outside of that, with regards to the practice itself, I am looking for core strength and core stability. And a definite flow in my practice. I actually come close with my current studio (they know I practice primarily at home, a longer than class length comprehensive yada yada.... that's the first thing I EVER bring up) Doctor cautioned against pilates or floor barre for my condition; but to keep up with the yoga; and, of course cardio. Low carbing which also may be against the first limb of a comprehensive yoga (as opposed to posture) practice; but I'm not vegan. My current studio has something called "Restorative Flow", but I DO see young, thin women going in that class, expecting a (non-heated) workout (my home practice is purposely heated, by contrast--but it cannot get hot-like-a-studio heated). I think I will ignore the name and actually try that class ... Report
A studio management that I could "manage up". I am primarily a home yoga practitioner. I expect instruction and not a co-dependent relationship to be undertaken. That would be even if I had the time and the cash, which I don't. Of course, being a fairly well managed diabetic for the past year only helps in that regard. But a savvy consumer should not have to be infirm to get treated well in the commercialized East Coast yoga world. Report
Taming my ego is a workout in itself. I'm always pushing to go deeper into a pose, often to the point of pain. I have to make an effort to be in the moment and to accept my limitations. Report
ah yes, the ego... Report
I struggle with criticizing myself for being weak when I can't hold a pose because my legs or core aren't strong enough. Report
I do find breathing to be a very challenging part of practicing yoga. I'm still learning how to use my breathing to calm my nervous system. not easy when you're fatigued and trying to keep from shaking in a pose. I know that's something that comes with time... a lot of time, but I'm plugging away. I really enjoy yoga. Report
I can't get on my knees anymore, but really do miss yoga. I will try to do the chair exercises. I know that when I seriously practiced yoga, even if I couldn't do a pose "yet", I always, eventually mastered it. Report
Yoga has been a part of my life for many years-I started when I was sixteen. Recently, I developed a repetitive stress injury from my job. While treating it, I had x-rays done of my back. The doctor was actually surprised at how good my discs and vertabrae are. I told him I do yoga..he said, keep on doing it, it's helping to save your back. Later, I went to physical therapy for my work injury. I'm waiting to get my prescribed "physical therapy" exercises..guess what it was??
The pt says to me, I want you to start doing yoga for your therapy.
So Yeah, yoga is now helping me heal my injury.:)) Report
Thank you Stepfanie. Yoga has been a big part of my exercise routine. I had a great teacher who put up with my lack of flexibility and would adjust moves to what I could do. For the one that said they were to old for yoga, You are never to old, as long as you can move, there are yoga stretches you can do. Report
Yes, it's the slowing down, focusing and being still that I struggle with. For some reason, I think exercise is supposed to be more active, but yoga is so refreshing and calming, whether you practice a little at home or regularly in a class.

Thanks for this blog. Report
I'm to old and have no flexibility to do yoga. But great post. Report
Thx. My two experiences with yoga were negative and I blame the teachers for pushing me too far and myself for listening to them. Unfortunately one resulted in a fall hurting my knee and hand....and this was supposed to be a modified pose. No more yoga for me...now I do Pilates. Great, great topic! Report
I,too am a yoga teacher and a yoga student. One of my favorite reminders at the beginning of class is to ask if everyone left the egos at the door. Report
Thank you for this! I am trying a beginner yoga class on Tuesday. This time I am resolved not to criticize myself or compare myself to others. Great tips. Report
If you suffer from anxiety, read the book by Claire Weekes M.D. "Hope and Help for Your Nerves". Report
I've always been too self-conscious to go to a yoga class. Thanks for the encouragement. Report
I start yoga again on Friday and have to remind myself that it is not a competitive sport.

I'd also be thrilled to get into child's pose; with the rheumatoid arthritis it is very hard sometimes, but hopefully after some regular practice, I'll get there again. It was my favorite pose :-) Report
Yoga connects me to the world around me. The physical aspects of yoga are great, but with added focus on sight, smell, taste, and sound, we experience that connection in more than just the physical. I owe a great debt of thanks to the instructor who helped me understand the depth and breath yoga can add to our lives. Report
Thanks for the blog. I've only tired yoga once and liked it, but I felt like such a fool. I'm not very flexible and there were 80 year old men in the class bending like they were pretzels! This actually makes me want to try again. I know people don't judge and that the anxiety is all in my head, but you know how it is. Thanks! Report
The working world and people who "care" tend to be influenced by visual media - a "perfect" body. Yoga practice, especially practice in community, brings me back to "why do I live" (to serve) and reminds me of my innate goodness and contentment.
Wonderful post. Thanks. Report
I also instruct yoga, and i have to remind my students not to compete. So many times i have a person come in who comes to the class once a year and they decide to try to match exactly what the people who practice yoga several times a week can do. Its so easy to pull a muscle trying to completely fold yourself in half when you body doesn't bend that way. I've been doing yoga for 12 years and I can't completely bend in half. I can't spread my feet apart and bend over and touch my head to the floor either, but I'll be damned if half the people aren't trying just because one person in the class is freakishly flexible.
I also have to remind them that while yoga should be challenging it should not be painful. Your arms may shake, but if they hurt, you need to stop, etc. Great article! Report
Thank-you for this blog! What great reminders! I needed the reminders!
The hardest part for me is quieting the mind. I don't have a lot of energy, but do have a lot of (fibromyalgia) pain. My brain keeps getting pain signals and I have to concentrate on using the breath to calm those muscles and the pain signals. So getting my mind to quiet down is difficult but also a necessary part of my arsenal of weapons to fight the pain and so I don't run out of energy reserves in the battle with pain, which will result in over-eating. Report
Our bodies are different from one practice until the next. sometimes a stiff body makes a normal pose feel too much. I have to make an effort to accept my body as it is right this moment and not compare it to yesterday. Report