Note: this script is the counterpart to the audio file below.
Listen to this script now.
This audio session will ask you to consider: When you roll out your yoga mat, what is your intention? Why are you choosing to practice yoga? And can this intention make all the difference in what you experience in your yoga practice?
I have something in particular in mind, as we face the paradoxical optimism and self-recrimination of the New Year’s resolution. From a yogic perspective, most resolutions are a trap. They reinforce the idea that you will be healthy and happy sometime in the future, when you finally improve what is wrong with you. It is all too easy to take this attitude and turn your yoga practice into a self-improvement project. If your intention for a yoga practice is only to improve your body, yoga class can turn into one long experience of “not flexible enough, not strong enough, not thin enough, not good enough.”
Yoga is meant to bring you back to the experience that you are already good enough, and that you can know peace and joy in this body, in this moment, no matter how much a pose challenges your hamstrings. You don’t need to get better at a pose to have an experience of inner strength and calm in the pose. That is true even for raw beginners, for people who are injured, and for anyone who experiences challenges in a yoga practice.
How do you have this experience—the experience of an inner state of yoga—while you practice the outer forms of yoga? How do you root out the more common experience of “not yet good enough” when the poses become goals, rather than opportunities to practice peace of mind?
This audio session will give you a few ideas for how you can bring the experience of body appreciation into your personal practice and your classes.
Set an Intention
The first step is to set a conscious intention to appreciate your body, even celebrate and care for your body, each time you step on your yoga mat. Yoga practice gives you exactly what you ask from it. It can indeed give you more flexible hamstrings or stronger abs, if that is your intention. It can also give you a sense of being at home in your body right now, however perfect or imperfect is it by any external standards.
It is helpful to put your intention for practice into words. You can start with what your actual intention seems to be. If you approach yoga with the idea that it will help you physically, go ahead and start your practice by turning this intention into a mantra: “May this practice lengthen my hamstrings, and strengthen my core.” Say in your own mind or say it out loud. Notice how it feels. Whatever your intention is, put it into words. “May this practice help me handle the stresses of everyday life with courage and confidence.” “May this practice restore the health of my body.” Take a moment“.how exactly would you put your typical reason for practicing yoga into a one-sentence wish for yourself?
Then, try adding an intention to appreciate your body, exactly as it is. For example, “May this practice also help me to realize that my body is already perfect, in this moment and in each pose.” Or, “May this practice awaken my gratitude for my body, in this moment, exactly as it is.” Or, “May this practice remind me that my body is a supportive and welcoming home, and I can rest in it, exactly as it is.”
Notice how it feels to say this internally or out loud. If you find yourself arguing with or rejecting the mantra, that is an especially good sign that this will be a helpful and interesting practice for you to explore. Simply setting this intention at the beginning of your practice will infuse your practice with a sense of appreciation and gratitude for your body. When you meet physical challenges, you will be reminded that you can choose the mental experience you are having.
Another strategy is to try is turning the entire practice into a body gratitude meditation. As you hold each pose, notice how the body is supporting you in it. Thank your strong legs and grounded feet in a warrior pose, rather than focusing on how tired your quadriceps are. Thank your strong back and open heart in a backbend. Thank your hamstrings, hips, and calves for being willing to receive the intense stretch of a forward bend. And so on. Rather than making each pose a checklist of things to do better, you make each pose an opportunity to observe the good in your body. As a teacher, you can say these things out loud, and guide your students in this practice of body appreciation.
You might take a moment now to think of a pose that challenges you, either in flexibility, strength, or balance. Can you imagine being in the pose, and feeling what is challenged? Can you turn this into a feeling of appreciation for your body’s willingness to be in the pose, support you in the pose, and receive the benefits of the pose? How can you thank your body in this specific pose?
What Does Your Body Need?
Finally, always include some self-guided time in your practice, with the explicit intention to honor your body. Teachers: Whether you teach one-on-one or large classes, pause before savasana and ask, “Is there anything else your body needs in this moment?” Give students anywhere from one to ten minutes to practice any poses, stretches, or movement that honor their own bodies’ needs. If you practice at home with a DVD, press pause before relaxation and ask yourself: What does my body need? If you practice in group setting where self-guiding during class is not the norm, you can use the time before class officially starts to do some gentle self-guiding.
Together, these three adjustments can transform your experience of yoga practice. Set an intention at the beginning of your practice, guide the mind toward appreciation, not self-criticism during the practice, and seal the practice with an opportunity to ask your body what it needs. This kind of intention may turn out to be the best New Year’s resolution you make.
Thank you for joining me today. For more ideas and inspiration for your personal practice and teaching, visit Inner IDEA at inneridea.com.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD, teaches psychology, yoga and group fitness at Stanford University. Contact her at [email protected] or www.openmindbody.com.