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Stepping onto your yoga mat may feel liberating after wearing restrictive shoes all day. You might wiggle your toes and feel life flowing back into your feet. Throughout the rest of your practice you probably notice similar sensations; muscle engagement, constriction in some areas, flexibility and mobility in others. Most students have an easy time picking up on the physical aspect of their practice, but there are actually many other pieces of your yoga practice that you can tune into while on your mat.
Yoga means “unity”, so it should come as no shock that you reap the most benefits when you allow all aspects of your body to come alive on your mat. Besides leaving your yoga class, home practice or private session feeling worked out, you should also feel calmer and more relaxed. You might even have a new sense of focus to take with you throughout the rest of your day.
One of the best ways to find focus and balance on your mat is through sight. By working on creating a focused gaze, or what’s known as a Drishti in Sanskrit, you will be able to feel, focus & find balance. A focused gaze is beneficial in all yoga poses, so feel free to try this throughout your practice. Start out by finding something to rest your gaze on that is stable and unmoving. A spot on the floor, a block, or a piece of art will work great. Your gaze might change throughout your practice depending on the posture you are in, and that’s ok – it’s important to find a focused gaze that keeps your head and neck aligned. By keeping your gaze on one point, you can begin to turn your thoughts inward.
To help keep this focus that you have worked for, it is important to become aware of the breath. There are many different schools of yoga, each with its own teachings, but one element that is common across the board is the role of the breath. Becoming aware of your inhalations and exhalations can dramatically change your yoga practice. There is a never ending list of ways to incorporate the breath into your practice, but since we are focusing on the senses, it is important to mention the Victory or Ocean Sounding Breath. (Also known as Ujjayi in Sanskrit) During the Victory Breath, your inhales and exhales actually become audible. This breath is something that you can work on and improve over time.
With many beginners, they are the only ones who can hear their breath, and that’s ok. After practicing for a period of time though, it is very common for the breath to be heard by others close by. Victory Breath helps build heat within the body and aids in finding & maintaining focus. Victory Breath is available to everyone, and it’s easy to try. Start out by placing your right hand in front of your face. Pretend your hand is a mirror, and with your mouth open, try to fog up the mirror. (We’ve all done this as kids!) Now, close your mouth and do the same thing, but this time exhale through your nose. Try this a few times, and practice restricting the back of the throat on your exhales; you might start to notice that your breath is now audible. Do the same thing on your inhale – restrict the back of the throat and see if you can create a low rumble with your inhale.
Another way to start becoming more in tune with yourself during your practice is to notice what your hands and feet are doing. In many poses, we are holding or moving through postures that require total body muscle engagement. Let’s use Tree Pose (Vrkasana) as an example. There is a lot of stuff happening in tree pose – you are balancing, strengthening and working on flexibility. But what are your hands and feet doing? Are your toes griping the mat? Are your hands just hanging out? By using push points, you will get even more engagement out of your muscles and find more space within a pose. Pressing into the big toe mound, the small toe mound and the heel of the foot will help you root down so you can find length in the spine. Raise your toes up towards your face, and then slowly and mindfully lay them back on the mat and spread them apart, taking up more space and ensuring they are not cramped. Pressing the hands evenly into the mat (or each other if in prayer) will help with balance and keeping the chest open. Make sure you press into the knuckles, focusing on the fingertips. Allowing weight to fall into the heel of the hand will cause stress and discomfort over time, so focus on the knuckles.
Becoming more aware and present on your mat can be just as challenging as a physical posture, so don’t get discouraged if it takes time to feel the connection or see the benefits. Change happens just by attempting something new.
Morgan Gertler Pirog
Writer/Dreamer: Creating Things of Enduring Value
Morgan is a believer that positive thoughts will lead to positive actions. She found yoga several years ago and was immediately drawn to the unification of body, breath & mind. Her other loves include her husband, her pit bull mix Jagger and mermaids.