There are so many layers to a yoga practice. There’s the tangible asana or postures – the flow of a sequence with the vinyasa transitions/re-sets. There’s the balance of achieving the same depth or expression of a posture from right side to left side. There’s literally balancing on one leg or on the backs of your arms. There’s flexibility and strength and finding consistency between these two separate-but-equal aspects of practice. These are all visible, touchable, explainable things that are fleshed out, focused on, and progress-measured for any given yogi.
And then there are the less tangible aspects of practice. There are mental and emotional challenges or releases; there are energetic realizations. It’s often said, and is true for me, too, that time on the mat teaches a degree of letting go, of surrendering the mind to the physical awareness of being in this moment only, not dwelling in the past or pushing for the future. Depending on the dogma of any given yoga teacher or studio or individual practioner, even, the unseen inner progress (which, granted, eventually does morph into a tangible outer result, like it or not – to quote O2 Yoga founder Mimi Loureiro: “I teach yoga because it makes people nicer.”) is often the most beneficial part of a complete yoga practice. Yoga almost gives you permission to stop, breathe, and discover the best version of yourself there is.
The energetics piece of yoga is truly interesting to me and is the next layer I’m exploring. Does it make a difference if I flip my palms up towards the sky as I sit cross-legged versus flipping my palms down on my knees? One is said to be a lifting energy, the other grounding. Does that work? Is it placebo? Does it matter either way? What about mudras like gyan mudra (connecting your thumb and forefinger when the arm is extended) or taking a chin lock in various seated positions – what does that actually do? It feels more yogic to employ these things, so I do them and I think they make my practice feel more complete, but who knows? To me, using them is almost like learning correct grammar – if you want to seem less pedestrian, you will take gyan mudra in your twist.
Where I have noticed an actual difference, however, is with my savasana mantra, of all things. I’ve written about this several times, but it’s something I definitely think is worth repeating as often as humanly possible. O2 Yoga instructor Carol Ciaravino closed a practice once by asking the class to think “I am” on the inhale and “here now” on the exhale. So simple. So revolutionary. This mantra completely changed my practice. I started using it in every class and the next thing I knew, I was leaving every class feeling as if I were literally an improved human being. I felt focused, grounded, and renewed. And all I did was remind myself to remain present for five minutes at the end of class. How could anything be this easy?
I discussed this mantra with anyone who would stand still long enough to listen and had some especially interesting conversations with my friend Tom about this topic. He suggested an alternative to “I am/here now” by thinking “I” on the inhale and “Am” on the exhale. I experimented with this, too, and for me, “I/Am” was a much louder, bolder statement than “I am/here now.” My mantra felt grounding, calming, and restorative. His felt empowering, bold, and energizing. So when I taught Dedication Yoga last Sunday, this was the energetics option I gave the students – instead of asking them to flip palms up or down, I asked them to pick one mantra or the other, depending on what their energetic needs for the day were. It’s kind of like a yoga revolution – or a yoga evolution. The options – the variations – the modifications – are endless. Do what works best for you and your practice, that’s the bottom line, right? Simply breathing works wonders for me.