In nearly every major city, yoga studios are popping up promising hotter, more humid rooms with athletic and powerful flows that will sculpt your rear into a rock-hard yoga butt. Thin, flexible people in contorted poses flood our social media feeds and are smeared on the pages of yoga magazines. It seems in some ways, yoga has transformed into just another militarized exercise regimen advertised in a way that makes us feel bad about ourselves.
Practicing yoga isn’t an automatic ticket to body love. Just like any other exercise, yoga can be abused and used as a punishing tool to fuel war with your body. Oftentimes, it may seem like avid yogis are loving their bodies with a disciplined and vigorous practice, but are inwardly fanning the flame of a less-than-great body relationship.
But by tracing this practice back to its roots in the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text explaining how to practice, we can see that the core principles of yoga promote balance and overall wellness of body, spirit and mind to encourage self-love.
Keep these yoga concepts in mind while you practice to make sure you’re using your yoga to nourish, not hurt, your relationship with your body.
This yama (outward way of living) is often translated to celibacy or chastity. Instead, think of it as moderation. Doing things in extremes, either too intensely or not intensely enough, leads to imbalance, and this includes your yoga practice. Brahmacharya can help you find the sweet spot with the frequency and intensity of your practice while paying loving attention to your body.
A great way to start is by asking yourself: what kind of yoga do I want today? Do you crave a sweaty session of vigorous vinyasa? Or do you need to take it easy with a restorative yin class? One is no better than the other; the only wrong answer is to go against what your body is telling you it wants.
Do you feel guilty about missing a yoga class? Do you end up scoping out the person next to as they practice, silently comparing their poses to yours? Or do you believe there’s just no point if you’re not exhausted by the end of your practice?
Ahimsa translates to non-violence, reminding us to be compassionate toward ourselves regardless of the situation. When you compare your practice to the person on the mat next to yours, you are committing a tiny act of violence against yourself. When you push yourself beyond your limits just because of ego, that’s violent, too.
To keep ahimsa in mind, emphasize the opposite of violence: peaceful understanding. Treat your practice with tenderness while being patience with yourself. Make grace and ease you sankulpa, or intention, moving through the poses without strain or force. If you don’t make it to your practice a certain day, don’t beat yourself up over it.
Just acknowledge that it was more appropriate for your body, mind or spirit to skip a physical practice that day. Simply acknowledging that compassionately is a part of the yoga practice! Your mat is and always will be there for you.
So often, our yoga can be contorted into a competition. We find ourselves sweating it out, huffing and puffing to stay in a pose because someone else in class is still in it. We get frustrated and angry when we can’t hold Warrior III for as long as we did last week. We convince ourselves that if we can only achieve that one lofty pose, like handstand, we’ll somehow become a better person.
The thing about yoga is, just like life, there’s always a harder, more challenging pose to move on to. There is no finish line to cross. This can be overwhelming and frustrating, or we can use santosha to take the edge off.
Santosha, or contentment, teaches us to be satisfied with where we are and what we have. In yoga, santosha reminds us to be appreciative of what our bodies can already do, how strong and able we already are. This allows us to love our body as it is right now: not ten pounds from now, not 3 jean sizes from now, not a yoga pose from now.
In the yoga sutras, ishvara pranidana can be translated to dedication, devotion or surrender–one of the most challenging aspects of yoga. This type of surrender doesn’t have a negative connotation; it does not signify defeat. This type of surrender signifies an inherent strength, a surrender to the part of yourself that is infinitely more wise than your conscious mind can comprehend.
How do you bring ishvara pranidana into your yoga? Surrender to an intense hip opener and let gravity do its work. Surrender to the fact that your balance in half moon might be a little off today. Surrender to the idea that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now, on and off your mat.
Yin and restorative yoga are perfect for adding a little bit more compassion and surrender into your practice. Most postures are supported by props and held for long periods of time, sometimes for up to 5-10 minutes.
During this time, your body is able to relax into the pose and reap the full physiological benefits. Pranayama (breathwork) and yoga nidra (guided meditation) are often used in yin classes as well, offering a restful practice that rejuvenates the full spectrum of your being. Experiment with how you can soften within your own practice, and see it reflected in how you love your body up.
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