A Method To My Mat-ness – Part One

The Yamas

How you do anything is how you do everything.

The tendencies and habits you have in life will often show up on your mat during your yoga practice.

If you always tend to hurry in life, slowing down on your mat might be difficult. If you don’t like to sit still and prefer to be constantly busy, it will likely be hard for you to remain still on your mat. If you are a very goal-oriented person, the idea of being process-oriented on your yoga mat will probably be a struggle. If you procrastinate to avoid discomfort or difficult situations, you might avoid the poses that you find uncomfortable. If you are easily distracted, always doing five things at once, then when you practice yoga, you might find it challenging to pay attention to details. The list goes on. 

Keep in mind. These are not negative judgments. Habits develop over time, we all have them, and our patterns make us who we are – the good and the not so good. What your yoga practice does, if you are open to it, is point out your habits and help you determine the ones that work for you and the ones that perhaps need to be adjusted – all in the interest of being your best self. 

And while there are 8 Limbs of Yoga, many jump right to the 3rd Limb, Asana (the physical practice), and stay there. And that’s ok. However, yoga at its core is a path, a set of principles to help us all reach our highest development as a human. And, if you are interested in that, guess what? It’s possible to do both simultaneously – engage in the physical practice of yoga while benefiting from the mental practices. And if you’ve taken my class, you are already practicing these principles on your mat – whether you realize it or not!

The 1st Limb, Yamas, and 2nd Limbs, Niyamas, are guidelines that help us find external and internal harmony. By applying the principles of the first two limbs during your yoga mat practice, you begin observing your habits and tendencies. In doing this, you initiate the first step to taking these practices with you off your mat – the true meaning of living your yoga and living a life of personal fulfillment that benefits society.

Read on for the 5 Yamas – what they are, why they are important, why I teach them, and how to apply them on your mat:

Do No Harm But Take No Shit 

Non-harming is, in obvious ways, self-explanatory. 

It applies to how we treat others and ourselves with our thoughts, words, and actions. 

However, it does not mean being neutral or not protecting ourselves. That in itself is harming. It means that when another hurts us, we learn to stand up for ourselves, but we let our response rise above the harmful action. When someone else is hurt, it also means not staying silent. 
The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that it is not enough to not commit injustice, be we also must not tolerate it. This is the yoga of action.

I should also mention that non-harming trumps all the other principles. You cannot practice the others without applying this one first.

How To Practice Non-Harming On Your Mat:

There is a fine line between challenging yourself and being “violent” (using force or pushing too hard) when it comes to your mat practice. We call this “playing your edge.” The trick to knowing the difference? Your breath! If you find your breath becoming short and choppy, or you’re holding your breath, there’s a good chance that you’ve gone past healthily challenging yourself. This is what makes your yoga practice different than traditional exercise. When this happens, take child’s pose until you can get back to a steady, free-flowing breath. Take it a step further and observe your thoughts when you take a break – can you do it without negative judgment?

Take your focus away from how your pose looks and redirect it to how it feels and your response to how it feels. Try to find gratitude for what you can do and not what you can’t do.

Work From Where You Are, Not From Where You Want To Be

Being honest does not mean that you get to use your words unfiltered and “tell it like it is.” (We all know that person, right?!) It does mean that before you speak, you ask yourself if your words are necessary, are they kind, and is it the right time? It also requires you to ask yourself the motivation for your words. When we have a difficult conversation, how we choose our words matters. Applying non-harming to our words helps avoid them from becoming weapons. 

How to Practice Truthfulness On Your Mat:

Try to assess each pose honestly. Your pose will only be as strong as the foundation you build for it. Find your alignment from the ground up and notice if there are particular times where you find yourself compromising the foundation of your pose to get to a place you think is “better.”

By being honest and building your practice step by step, you will discover a practice grounded in strength and compassion. 

Growth Comes From When Things Are Hard, Not When Things Are Easy

This Yama is about being generous with your thoughts, words, and actions. It is not only based on “things” – I’ll take a giant leap of faith and assume anyone reading this does not have a shoplifting problem – but on experiences and opportunities. We can steal from ourselves when we avoid opportunities to learn and grow by avoiding hard work for fear of failing. “Failing” has a negative connotation. In reality, it is through hard work that we grow. We learn from failing if we allow ourselves to see the lesson.

We can also steal from others when we constantly interrupt or shift conversations to be about ourselves. We can steal time from others if we are always late.

We can steal the future from all when we take from the earth but don’t give back. 

How To Practice Non-Stealing On Your Mat:

Practicing in a group requires mindfulness of our actions within this environment. Showing up late, leaving early, going noisily to the restroom during class, speaking out – all of these actions “steal” the intention of the experience from the other students. You are responsible for the energy you bring to a group class.

Also, notice times on your mat when you tend to hold back; whether it’s a fear of falling or perhaps a fear of looking silly, try to get out of your head and back to your breath. Bring your focus back to building your pose step-by-step. And allow your practice to unfold as it should. You are giving your practice the opportunity to grow. If you want to fly, you need to be willing to fall.

Not Working Too Hard And Not Working Too Easy

Non-excess is the practice of learning not to waste our energy, whether it’s with thoughts, words, or actions. And we cultivate a sense of sacredness in everything we do. Moderation in all aspects of our life – including our thoughts! So while the obvious things would be work, food, sleep, etc. A big part of the practice is the energy put into specific thoughts. Think about all the time spent thinking about things you can’t change or have no control over. That’s wasted energy! 

How To Practice Non-Excess On Your Mat:

If your breath is loud, harsh, and heavy, there’s a good chance you are not in that perfect place between working too hard and working too easy. Not to mention how disruptive it is for the rest of the class. The act of applying the steadiness of ujjayi breathing is what helps you to find balance in your practice. Also, use your larger muscles rather than relying on smaller muscles to do the work – like keeping your lower abdominal muscles engaged (uddiyana bandha) or activating your upper back muscles while in plank or chaturanga. 

Next, pay attention to places in your body that you tense or grip – like your toes or jaw. I like to call this “energy that does not serve a purpose.” First, you have to notice the habit, and then you can take the next step of breaking the habit. Maybe if you can break the pattern on your mat, you can start breaking the habit of all those unproductive thoughts off your mat!

Let Go Or Be Dragged

While this does apply to not accumulating more “stuff” than we need – no one likes a hoarder! It’s also about not coveting what isn’t ours – perhaps being jealous of another’s life and wanting it for ourselves. You know, the grass is always greener syndrome! It is the practice of looking inside ourselves and understanding who we are and what we are is already enough. 

It’s also about letting go. 

Non-attachment does not mean we do not care; it simply means we do not allow people, experiences, or things to own us. People and things will come in and out of our lives. Can we find gratitude and opportunity in change instead of clinging to how things once were? 

The practice of aparigraha also asks us to examine ideas, opinions, or beliefs that have developed from our social placement and conditioning. We need to be open to shifting these ideas in an effort to bring justice and more good out into the world.

How To Practice Non-Possessiveness On Your Mat:

Try to be aware of “hoarding” space when you practice. 

Not just how you place your mat but how you set things around your mat – is your towel/sweatshirt thrown aside taking up space, or is it stored and out of the way? How do you move on your mat – are you “swan diving” your arms into another’s space or adjusting your movements to be more considerate?

At the same time, “other” awareness does not mean allowing yourself the become distracted from your practice. Even when practicing in a group, imagine you are practicing alone. Avoid letting your eyes wander. Try to set your gaze on a specific point – we call this Drishti. This will make it less likely for you to covet another’s practice and compare yourself. 

By setting your gaze and continuing to apply your breath, you will allow yourself an opportunity to “let go” and find gratitude that whatever the moment presents is enough. 

Stay tuned for the Niyamas, the 2nd Limb of Yoga, and how to apply them on your mat…

And remember, your real practice begins when you step off your mat.