Yoga Off the Mat: Coming Home to You (or How to go to a Yoga Class)

De-Stress - Yoga Off the Mat - coming home to you cover pic.docxFinding the right place to Simply Be

Doesn’t this seem like an odd title to you – don’t you just turn up to a class? Well yes, if you’re approaching this ancient discipline with an open mind and heart, but somewhere in the vastness that is the health and fitness industry, our understanding of yoga beyond a good stretching ‘workout’ may have got a tad lost……..

Yes, the yoga postures (asanas) help us reveal our healthiest natural body alignment, posture, flexibility and core strength, but this is not the first aim of yoga. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written around 400 CE, sutra (‘thread’) 1.2 states, “Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field” or “…stilling the mind fluctuations” (Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah). Moving towards a meditative state in all practise and indeed life, is seen as a way to move towards ultimate connection with the universe around us – Samadhi.

But hold on, doesn’t this seem a little overblown when you just wanted a bit of a stretch and to tone up your arms?

janu sirsasanaSimple is best

If that seems a bit overwhelming, bear in mind that the more simple this can be, the better – connection really means being present in the moment and in yoga, we practise observing the nature of each breath to just be. The postures were added later on to help facilitate this; by opening the body we help it release into the movements it is designed to do and even feel the resistance in those with less ‘natural’ configurations.

We move away from forcefulness to allow more and more flexibility and strength. In this way the poses as you see a more experienced practitioner doing them are hopefully the bi-product of their journey of letting go of the ambition to get there – the very thing that tenses us up and gets in the way of lengthening muscles, balance and staying calm in a challenging posture.

tucking under bottom over liftNot doing and undoing

This may seem contradictory at first, after all we live in a society where we have been programmed to keep doing to get where we want or are told we should be going. But this is the reason that yoga has become so popular recently, not because it tones up the belly – plenty of things do that – but because it helps us get back to a place we instinctively need to be, simply being and breathing and the postures are just one aspect. Yoga or union/connection is actually a mindful and expansive state of being, not a practice. The tools we use like asanas, breath awareness (pranayama) and mantra are there to help us find that state and a yoga teacher’s main role is to help you find that state, not put your foot behind your head.

On this journey, your teacher is also your guide to help switch off those continual voices in your brain and they can instruct you how to get into poses, but it is only you who knows what is happening internally. If you are feeling confused, anxious or comparing yourself to the person on the next mat, it is unlikely that you will be anything but distracted and focussed on what the pose ‘should be’ as the goal. It often takes us many, many hearings of an idea to truly feel rather than think it, so even if the teacher is saying ‘stay focussed on your breath’ that doesn’t mean you necessarily will. At least if we bring an intention of self-compassion and exploration along, we have more chance of feeling a pose unfold, rather than just making shapes with little awareness.

ubbaya padangustasanaFeeling over thinking

So don’t give yourself a hard time – we are so used to our critical brains commenting on everything we do that we can forget that nothing is that important. Does it really matter if you can stand on one foot or not? Let’s face it, you’ve got through every day before not doing that. And every single time we practise a posture is different, that forward bend may have seemed easy last week, whilst today’s tightness is not something to force against, but a great reminder to simply breathe and accept where you are now – use a full and releasing exhalation to tune in and just let that pesky mind stand back and observe. Your brain may always want you to go quicker, stronger, better but step away from it and your body gets the chance to slow down as it needs.

So yes, you may start to tone up your legs and bum, but you have the chance to experience so much more if you switch off your expectations. There is a sense of peace, stillness and space to be had if you are prepared to help your mind and body let go of some of that accumulated baggage.

Yoga Class Considerations:

  1. Find the class that is right for you – beginners courses can give a good grounding and give you the space to explore safely without feeling competitive with the bendy person next to you.
  2. If you have knee, back, neck or other body issues that concern you, call and talk to the teacher first – to be confident they have the anatomical knowledge to support you safely and give you options to practise without creating tension or force. You may also find a dedicated teacher specialising in remedial classes in your area.
  3. Check that your teacher is trained with a school accredited by the Yoga Alliance or British Wheel of Yoga – the more experience and training they have the better, but also years of personal practice mean a cultivation of the inner experience that yoga is. All the better to help you understand.
  4. Try lots of different classes and styles – this is both good to keep your mind open but also to see which you respond to best and ensure that you find a balance between action and stillness. Just be sure that is the form that doesn’t switch on that ambitious, chattering mind though……..
  5. If you are drawn to doing, try a class that challenges you to do less!


This article was first published in Om Magazine, you can see pdfs here: page one and page two

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