It’s common knowledge that yoga originated in India and is thousands of years old. The practice was developed by ancient yogis in order to leave their community and contemplate the meaning of life in solitude. Their intention was to sacrifice and rid themselves of the ego and to stop clinging to the material world which is the cause of much of the suffering. This was traditionally done through ascetic practices.
It was not until Siddhartha Gautama himself gave up all these egoic ascetic practices after six years of wandering through the forest did he actually wake up and attain enlightenment. Though this spiritual element is still a foundational aspect of the practice, these transcendent benefits have long been overshadowed by the pursuit of the physical challenge.
With the recent rise of the “hipster” movement, yoga has seen an enormous surge in popularity. It seems that the old concept of a McDonald’s on every street corner has been replaced with a coffee shop, a craft brewery, and a yoga studio in every neighborhood. This change in preference for a healthy lifestyle is a great evolution for our society. But, a downside is that this new demand for the yogic way of life has changed the emphasis of the practice.
Now, in 2018 yoga has exploded. There is very little criticism of the benefits of the practice and it seems everyone has come to embrace the physical exercise that was once considered “new age” or “weird.” More so, yoga practitioners have diversified the practice and almost an unlimited number of new adaptations now exist. Today you can find pretty much any take on the millennia-old practice you could desire. There are Outlaw Yogis, Butisattvas, and even entire studios dedicated to drinking beer while pursuing various asanas.
What’s great about this is that people who never had knowledge of or access to yoga previously are now being exposed to the practice. This exposure allows them to seek the many benefits of yoga including the physical challenge. However, as yoga has gone mainstream, the original intention of the practice has gotten lost. A yogic lifestyle is no longer about self-awareness. Instead, people are striving for perfection, yearning for the “yoga body,” and trying to master challenging poses.
Ultimately, yoga today has been distorted into a purely physical and competitive activity which detracts from its true purpose – a practice to become aware by disidentifying with the constant mental chatter.
The True Intention Behind Developing a Yoga Practice
While it’s great that yoga is evermore accessible by the masses, what’s not so great about focusing solely on the physical aspects of the practice is that the true intention gets lost. Yoga was originally developed as a way to become aware of thoughts and emotional patterns and to stop identifying with them.
In its purest form, yoga is a method to become aware of the inner voices that prevent us from living our lives free from judgment. It is not the place for our critic to be reinforced and flourish. As a matter of fact, the goal is to disinvite our inner judges from our psyche for the duration of our yoga practice. You see, the whole point of asana practice is to be able to have a strong enough body to be able to sit – quietly. In fact, it is the stillness of the practice that was most revered by early yoga masters. No matter how many times you stick a handstand or get your leg behind your head, you will not reach enlightenment by doing asana only.
When we’re on our mats, our thoughts are intruders. Yoga is a place to escape these demands and just be with the experiences of our bodies. When doubts or worries creep into our minds during yoga, it is best to acknowledge them and dismiss them gently by returning our attention to the breath.
The truth is, yoga is a door to cultivate awareness. Many people get stuck on the physical aspect of the door that they never actually cross the threshold. It’s much easier to identify with the shape, weight, and coolness, of the door and the doorknob in our hands, than it is to actually do the work of turning it and stepping into the space that the door is “blocking.”
The yoga mat is a sacred space for self-awareness and exploration. It is a place to stop paying attention to our doubts, fears, and insecurities and become aware of the mental and emotional patterns we have learned to identify with. Figuring out these patterns, and ultimately how to break them, is the first step in the path to healing.
That is not to say that yoga is a form of escape or a way to ignore the world. Rather, it is a very intentional way of removing ourselves from the negative thoughts that keep us from living our most fulfilled lives. The idea is not to numb oneself or zone out from reality. The purpose of yoga is to practice being present and to accept wholeheartedly whatever is arising moment to moment.
Two tips for using yoga to build self-awareness
It is undeniable that yoga is a physical workout. Whether your approach is to hold poses for extended lengths of time or to briskly pass through asanas in a quick flow, the shape and health of your body will undoubtedly respond to a regular practice. Any integration of a yoga practice is a healthy choice and will have innumerable benefits for the practitioner. However, the person who only uses yoga for the physical aspects is missing out on the majority, if not the best, benefits of the practice.
Purely physical yogis are sacrificing the deeper connection between mind and body. They are forgoing the chance to explore personal and psychological patterns and are losing the opportunity to establish and cultivate a relationship with their inner awareness. Perhaps the biggest loss, though, is the fact that those who only use yoga for physical reasons will never break free from societal expectations and learn to love their true selves.
However, when we focus on the true purpose of yoga, it is easy to see beyond the physical benefits. A yoga practice will certainly improve the look and health of your body, but the true benefit is coming to become aware of you are and know, accept, and love yourself unconditionally.
Keep reading to learn two exact steps to utilize yoga for its true purpose
1. Focus On The Breath
This is a phrase you’ll hear in almost any yoga class you attend. The instructor tells you to flow with your breath. To be in your breath. To deepen your poses on the exhales. When your focus is only on the physical side of the practice, these phrases can be misunderstood as a method for perfecting the pose, deepening flexibility, or becoming better at yoga. This mentality is where people get stuck in achieving and striving instead of finding the inner peace that is the true point of the practice.
Instead, the breath is a method for deepening awareness. When you focus on the breath you are encouraging yourself to perceive your experience rather than becoming stuck in your inner thoughts. The breath is a vehicle for deepening self-awareness and accepting ourselves without judgment. Practicing breathwork gives you a chance to observe and notice – without reacting to – your thoughts and external sensory stimulus.
So instead of focusing on the physical, here are the steps to follow to use the breath to deepen self-awareness
- STEP 1: Bring your attention to the back of your throat (around the sinus area)
Slowly, and intentionally, begin to breathe from there. Notice how the breath starts and moves through the throat and how the chest rises and falls with the breath.
- STEP 2: Pay closer attention to the inhale – making a soft Darth Vader like sound
Listen to the sound you are making when you breathe in and out. Allow this sound to become your focus and allow the breath to be your focus and do not pay any attention to your thoughts.
- STEP 3: Take 5 long deep breaths – paying attention to the sound before you start to move into your physical yoga asana practice
See if you can place 75 -80 percent of your attention on the sound of your breath
- STEP 4: Start moving – do your asana practice – but keep your attention on the breath
Notice when the mental chatter starts – and return as soon as you can to noticing the breath -by listening to the breath.
2. Break The Achievement Cycle
You are conditioned from the outside world, and even from some yoga instructors, to achieve the perfect pose, to stick your headstand, to nail your binds… It is these critical thoughts of not being where you should be physically that keep you stuck in an emotional reactive pattern of wanting and grasping for external things to bring you happiness. The key, and the true intention of yoga is what you do with these thoughts when they occur.
It is impossible to prevent thoughts from entering your mind. Thinking is always happening, and even the most experienced yogis and meditators will have thoughts. But when you train your brain, you can allow the thoughts to be there and not pay attention to them. The best way to do this is by directing your attention to the sound of the breath. Then the thoughts will be in the background.
Yoga gives you the opportunity to take a break from “feeling not good enough.” When you recognize your need to be successful, you can begin to figure out where this need comes from and how to satisfy it in healthier ways. So, instead of striving for perfection, follow these steps to break the achievement cycle.
- STEP 1: Acknowledge the physical difficulty you are experiencing
Are you feeling not strong enough, not flexible enough….
- STEP 2: Determine the emotion tied to the physical experience
Does the pose scare you, frustrate you…
- STEP 3: Calm the Central Nervous System
Override your desire for fight or flight and experience exactly where you are in the pose by tuning in to your breath
- STEP 4: Accept Yourself right now
Acknowledge where you are physically, accept your achievement of the pose, let go of any desire to improve/perfect. Love yourself exactly where you are.
Your Next Steps
It is undeniable that you will benefit from practicing yoga. The way you move your body will improve, your flexibility will increase, your organs will function more efficiently, and your muscle tone will look better. However, this is only a fraction of the benefits of a regular yoga practice. And, I would argue that these benefits fail to compare to the way yoga impacts your sense of self.
In fact, with deeper intention, a regular yoga practice can do more than improve your physical health. It will improve your overall well-being. With yoga, it is entirely possible to learn how to accept and love yourself exactly as you are moment to moment. If you’re looking to deepen your self-awareness and being to love yourself unconditionally through yoga click here to schedule…
Gretchen Suarez is a licensed psychotherapist, yoga, and meditation teacher. Her unique skills have helped many people become more aware of their negative beliefs and have learned how to live their life with less judgment and more freedom.