5 Ways to Take Your Yoga Practice to The Next Level

Yoga is a powerful instrument that can bring health, energy, and peace to anyone willing to devote time to a regular yoga practice. Yoga revives your muscles and opens joints, it makes you comfortable in your own body and with time encompasses all aspects of a human life. With a regular yoga practice you sleep better, wake up more rested, have more energy throughout the day, your mind becomes clear and more focused. Suddenly things that created chaos out of your life seem just another interesting challenge. Life in general becomes a lot more colorful.

A true yoga practice involves multiple aspects and asanas are just one of the them. Asanas create a healthy strong body, help develop body awareness, and ensure than your body functions in the most efficient way. Asana practice, however, is not an end in itself, it is just an instrument. The same way a foreign language is an instrument to better communication. While yoga is not about twisting yourself up in a knot, asana practice is crucial to anyone who wants to stay young and healthy.

As a yoga instructor, I meet a lot of yoga students and many of them categorize themselves into ‘levels’ based on how long they’ve been practicing asanas.  Someone who started yoga just a month ago is putting a ‘beginner’ label on himself while a yogi with 5 years of practice is certain to consider himself ‘advanced’. In reality the length of asana practice rarely makes a considerable difference. Once a student learns basic asana names and major alignment points so he doesn’t have to rely on nearby students for visual cues, we all become even in our yoga adventure. Crazy looking arm-balances don’t make anyone an advanced yogi, otherwise all Cirque du Soleil acrobats would be enlightened yogis. Well, they are not, even though all of them are incredibly talented, flexible, and strong.

So what does make one’s yoga practice more ‘advanced’ (deeper)? What takes asana practice to the next level? And how can you get the most benefit out of your yoga practice in 2011?

Today I would like to share 5 rules that made my practice deeper and more beneficial.

Do not eat 2-3 hours before yoga practice – you might have heard this one before but sometimes it is difficult to time yoga classes and meals at proper intervals, and it might seems that a light snack doesn’t really interfere with a yoga class, plus you would rather not think about food the entire practice so you get something small anyway…   While these are valid points, it is best to avoid any kind of food before yoga. Our stomach takes up a lot of extra blood circulation to digest a meal. Digestion requires up to 60% of blood circulation. Any exercise including yoga redirect blood flow away from stomach to extremities which will have a negative effect on your digestion. Another reason to stay away from food before yoga is the depth of asanas. Twists, for example, are very difficult on a full stomach, while peacock (Mayurasana) is close to impossible! You will never know your true range of motion in most asanas unless you try them on an empty stomach. This is one on the reasons that I always practice in the morning before breakfast after a glass of warm water.

Breathe – breath is life. The same way our body is dead without breath, asana is just a physical pose without proper unobstructed breathing. In balancing poses we tend to hold our breath, while Awkward Chair speeds it up after 30 seconds and we just plainly lose tract of it when transitioning from High Lunge into Warrior 3. Doing asanas can be challenging enough even without the breath but staying aware of the breath during a yoga class can be very rewarding! Start by deepening your breath in simple asanas. Let’s take a Supine Spinal Twist. Once you settle into the pose, take your time to relax and give your breathe an opportunity to move freely through your entire body. Move your attention along your body with the breath and if you find any points of tension, release them with an exhale. Keep doing mental scanning rounds for as long as you can comfortably stay in the asana. Try not to lose track of your breath. Let it be complete and full. Start paying attention to the way your body slightly moves with every breath. The movement is most noticeable in the stomach and ribs. Slowly let your attention include other parts of your body as well. Observe your entire body becoming lighter with an inhale and relax with an exhale. The more you relax, the more your muscles will melt into the ideal form for your body in any given asana. Practicing asana in this way can be truly transformational. It requires a lot of patience but takes body/mind connection to a completely new level.

Close your eyes – keep your eyes closed whenever you can comfortably do so. It will help keep attention internally which in turn will make you more aware of the effect of each asana on your body. Eventually it can become a source of a body intuition that will help you find asana variations and transitions specifically suited to your body. This internal guide is the best teacher you will ever find. During your next yoga class try not to look around and evaluate students around you but close your eyes and let your internal teacher emerge.

Be positive – never say I can’t before you try something or get angry at yourself for falling over. You do yoga mostly for yourself and if you fall out of a balancing pose, no one will care besides you. So take the ego out of it. If you feel like doing a challenging arm balance is essential to your practice and you would like to learn it, do it! Don’t look for excuses or avoid trying it in the open. Remember that doing that arm balance is not going to make you a better yogi but it might make you stronger and boost your self-confidence. If you decide to learn a new challenging asana do it as a kid, with curiosity, energy, and a big smile! Ask for assistance, try the asana, fall over, get back up and try it again. Every instructor will be happy to help you and no one will ever judge you! We were all there once and we still are but with some other asana.

Take 5 minutes of quiet time before and after asanas – make it a habit. Give yourself 5 minutes to relax, bring your focus internally, and self-reflect before and after you practice. A few minutes in silence with closed eyes will let you tune in, settle, and empty your mind. All you need to do is just observe your body, the way you feel, scan all major joints and muscles, and breathe deeply. Before practice tell yourself that you will finish thinking about all your projects afterward and try to dedicate the time of your practice only to yourself not your grocery shopping list or a business meeting. In the 5 minutes after Savasana observe the way your practice made you feel and set an intention on how you want to feel once you open your eyes. Our brain is a powerful instrument, it can implement any one of your intentions!

Come to Strala to practice yoga with me!

Post-Holiday Detox Craving WORKSHOP: Rediscovering Health Through Mindful Eating