Breath is central to yoga because it is central to life… and yoga is about life.”
Sri T. Krischnamacharya, 1888-1989
Developing a Yoga practice, on the mat, translates to a different experience of life, ‘off the yoga mat’. By simply concentrating on consistently taking full deep breaths, you will experience the power of the breath, which the Yogis call Prana (life-force), and feel the impact that the oxygen has on your overall sense of well-being. Now combine this with what you will discover about yourself as you take your breath and combine it with the concentration of each yoga pose. If you commit to developing a consistent yoga practice, over time you will notice a gradual transformation taking place in the way you’re experiencing life.
What do I mean by ‘off the mat’? A brief explanation of Yoga before I answer that question.
The word yoga, in Sanskrit (the ancient Vedic language) means union. By practicing Yoga we are unifying our mind, body and spirit. Because I have been practicing Yoga for many years, my mind is conditioned to heave a sigh of relief once I sit down on my Yoga mat. It’s often challenging to get myself on the mat to start my practice, but once I’m there I immediately feel like I’m coming home to myself. The problems of the outside world usually recede into the background as I concentrate on my breath. The concentration of the mind on the breath allows the external world to recede in importance as our minds become occupied with the sound of the breath, and the witnessing of the breath as it moves through our bodies. The mind chatter begins to quiet down, as we concentrate on letting the thoughts roll by and coming back to our breaths. We call this transitioning from ‘doing’ to ‘being’. I also refer to it as taking a vacation from the constant chatter of my mind.
This is where the union begins to happen. When the mind becomes focused on the breath and the sensations of the body, mind and body unite into an integrated entity. In reality the mind and body are always integrated. We just tend forget about our bodies and overly identify with the thousands of thoughts that our minds produce. Meanwhile, our minds and bodies are in constant communication and intimately affected by each other. When we feel stressed in our minds, chemicals are released that impact what happens in the body. The reverse is true as well; when something hurts in our bodies, our minds can become agitated and our emotional state is impacted.
We don’t think about this in the fast pace of life, but it is happening. Yoga slows things down so that we can begin to witness how the mind goes off, and develop skills to bring it back by concentrating on the breath and the pose we’re doing. This allows us to become aware of the ongoing connection between our mind and our body. A friend of mind, who teaches Feldenkrais, would chide me when I would say, “My body feels this way.” He would say, “You talk about your body as if it’s the separate entity. Why don’t you just say, ‘I feel this way’? Most of us forget about our bodies. Do you ever have the experience of walking down the street lost in your mind (usually thinking about past events or future worries or plans), completely unaware of what you’re experiencing? We all do that, most of the time.
To get back to my question of what does taking yoga off the mat mean? It is applying the very same concentration that you have used in your yoga practice to whatever you’re doing. It is translating the discipline you’ve acquired where you consciously, time and time again, choose to focus your mind on your breath instead of being seduced by the thoughts of your mind (which are awfully seductive). Imagine how empowered you can feel in your life as you apply this discipline to emotionally charged situations that in the past would knock you off balance. Now, instead of the same old reaction pattern, you can take a deep breath and have the presence of mind to slow things down before doing anything. Getting out of our heads when we’re off the mat, makes it possible for us to experience the richness of the everyday moments of our lives, because all of us is present; mind, body and spirit. Try walking down the street and putting your mind on the actual experience; smell the smells, hear the noises, and see whoever or whatever comes into your field of vision. Don’t think about it just experience it, and see what it feels like.
Practicing Yoga on the mat will give you the necessary skills that can subtly yet profoundly change the way you see yourself and your life