A lifetime of success on the mat. It’s a noble goal we yogis can all aspire to, though it may look a little different for each of us. Your idea of success could be anything from mastering the Ashtanga primary series, to simply doing the best practice you can, each and every time. Whatever it may be, one thing is certain: we all want to be down-dogging for as long as our bodies and minds are able.
To last a lifetime, our practice must be nourishing for the body, engaging for the mind and fulfilling for the spirit. The beautiful thing about yoga is that it can supply all of these things and more – as long as certain fundamental principles are followed. They’re often quick to be disregarded by eager beginners, and sometimes neglected by more experienced yogis. To stay true to yourself and your practice, follow these core tenets for yoga success.
1. Practice with awareness
Usually, when we’re told to be aware of something, it’s because there’s construction work on the road ahead or we have food on our face. In these cases, our awareness is directed to things that are outside our normal perception. Things we cannot see.
Awareness in yoga is much the same, but it’s a self exploration. Centered at the core of any yoga practice, it’s all about what’s going on in the parts of your body and mind that you can’t see, but you can feel. Whether that’s the sensation of the breath, the tension in your muscles, or simply the raw emotions that those things bring up.
From the outside, yoga may look to be just a series of poses that we move through. And without awareness, it arguably is. First we bend this way, then we twist that way, but it’s never just about going through the motions. Everything you do in your yoga practice should be intentional. The physical postures are important tools in our yoga practice, but we must always keep in mind that they are just tools, they’re not the end result.
Beginner yogis can often get too wrapped up in trying to look like they’re in the right position, without stopping to feel if it’s right for them. At best, we can simply miss out on the benefits of the pose. At worst, we could really hurt ourselves. It’s vital that we always pay attention to the signals our bodies are giving us throughout our practice, both positive and negative.
On the other hand, experienced yogis have quite the opposite problem. Once we’ve done a particular flow or practice hundreds of times over – and we can do it with our eyes closed (literally) – then we can often find ourselves looking ahead to the next posture, and forgetting to experience the one we’re in.
Maintaining a “beginner’s mindset”, no matter how advanced you are, is one way to stay connected with your practice. If we always practice with awareness, we can stay curious and engaged, even in the familiar.
2. Control your breath
The breath. We can all agree that it’s important for, you know, life. What may not be so clear is just how much the quality of your breath matters, and how much it can positively influence our body and mind – both in the moment, and for years to come.
Consider the word pranayama. A word used to describe the various yogic breathing practices. The word prana translates to “life force” and yama means “control”. So, when we see controlling the breath as our means to control our life force, it’s clear just how powerful a practice yoga can be.
Swami Sivananda believed in the power of the breath and was once quoted as saying, “A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years.”
When we’re in the thick of a difficult yoga practice, we can easily slip into a shallow breathing pattern. Particularly during poses that stretch or compress our lungs. In fact, inexperienced yoga practitioners can often forget to breath altogether. Which seems bizarre, given that it’s essential to life, but that’s often the nature of concentration.
Sometimes we can focus so hard on one aspect of our practice, to the detriment of others. But in yoga, your breath is your fuel. Deep, nourishing breaths are what’s going to get you through those tough poses and restore your burning muscles. So, always control your breath, regardless of what you’re doing in your practice. Whether you’re pushing through a tough vinyasa, or winding down in a quiet meditation – your breath is your greatest tool.
3. Maintain proper alignment
Some rules are meant to be broken, but when it comes to yoga, proper alignment isn’t one of them. Not if you want a lifetime of yoga practice, that is. The physical postures have been developed over many years to bring about maximum benefit, whilst also protecting the body throughout the practice.
Sacrificing alignment to get into a pose is all risk and no reward. It’s like ignoring the assembly guide and taking your own approach to building a model aeroplane. It’s never going to come together as you like, and there’s a good chance you’re going to hurt your fingers in the process.
That being said, there’s nothing wrong with personal exploration within your practice. There’s no dictatorship on the mat. If you want to experiment with a little extra movement or a change in tempo, then that’s most likely fine, as long as the protective aspects are still in place. After all, we already see different interpretations of poses across the various styles of yoga, but the fundamentals are always the same.
4. Engage your core
“Engage your core” is something we hear a lot from our yoga teachers. Mostly when you’re doing something difficult (hello Boat pose!) but it’ll help you find stability in almost every posture. Most importantly of all, it’ll protect your spine in the process.
After all, our spine gets a lot of action in a typical yoga practice, and yoga can be dangerous business if we don’t give it the respect it deserves. Twists and folds will gently manipulate the spine, and the likes of Wheel pose – well, not so gently. Even poses like Warrior II put a demand on the spine as we rise up and find stability.
You may be surprised to hear that your core is more than just the vanity muscles poking through your belly, making “engage your core” a more complex instruction than you might first think. It’s a collection of muscles and tissues from your abdomen, groin and lower back. Basically, all the stuff that’s used to manipulate your spine.
So, depending on the pose, you may need to engage different core muscles to effectively protect yourself. Though, as a general rule of thumb, pulling in your stomach throughout is a good practice. Over time, and with more experience, we can begin to isolate and engage muscles more efficiently.
5. Accept your body and its limits on the day
Every day you’re a different person. Your hair is a little longer, you have fresh new blood in your veins, and your body and mind can be in a completely different place (both physically and metaphorically).
Testing our body through yoga helps us get an idea of what we’re capable of, and where our limits lie. It’s vital that we do this in order to find growth in our practice, but we’re tracking a constantly changing beast here. You may have pinned it down yesterday, but you can’t guarantee it’ll be in the same place when you go back there.
You know your body better than anyone, but it’s important to always evaluate how your body feels on the day, before deciding how far to push it.
One side may be tighter than the other, and you may not get as deep into the splits as you did yesterday, and that’s okay. Every day is a new opportunity to explore, and a reminder not to take anything for granted.
6. Have fun!
Yoga often comes across as serious business. It’s to be expected from classes with lots of deep breathing and even deeper squats. Try looking around the studio during a Warrior pose, and you’ll likely see an army of angry warriors looking back.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If we’re to keep up our yoga practice for a lifetime, we have to enjoy the process. Staying engaged can be a challenge in a practice that values repetition so highly, but a lifetime of yoga practice is a substantial amount of time spent on the mat. In the end, it’s your time and your practice. If you’re not enjoying it, then that’s a whole lot of self-inflicted misery.
Check in with yourself regularly to enjoy the experience and smile (the cue to raise the sides of your mouth towards your ears is always helpful), and be sure to make time for the kind of yoga that brings you the most joy. If that’s 30 minutes of rolling around on your mat in Happy Baby pose every Monday evening – go for it!
Putting it all together
There’s a lot going on during a yoga practice that we can’t see. It’s easy to think that the most challenging aspect of yoga is pulling ourselves into these complex positions. And it’s certainly a part of it. But when you consider how we’re maintaining awareness of our body position, alignment, muscular engagement, breath, emotions, and more, all the while trying to have some fun, it’s a lot to take on.
Which is precisely why we have a lifetime to practise. As you begin to master one aspect, you can give more attention to others. If you enjoy the process, it’ll come naturally. So practise often, practise intentionally, and practise safely, and you’ll enjoy a lifetime of success on the mat.
About the author
Dan Jones is the digital marketing freelancer behind Black Lotus Marketing. He’s passionate about helping individuals and brands connect with their audience through authentic content and communications.
A committed Vinyasa Flow practitioner, when he’s not working on his yoga practice he’ll probably be working on his yoga website. Most likely from a coffee shop… or the beach.