It can be tough to stop sizing yourself up next to everyone else in the yoga studio—despite knowing that yoga isn’t about comparing your poses to those of other yogis. Here’s how to finally let that go and start focusing on your own practice.
From time to time, we all get distracted on our mats during yoga class. From to-do lists and daydreams to work responsibilities and family drama, our minds drift off while our bodies take the shapes of familiar yoga poses. After all, brain activity is normal. In the same way our physical bodies flow in and out of poses, our thoughts have a rhythm too. One of the gifts of a yoga practice is learning to notice when we’ve become captivated by our thoughts—and then knowing how to reconnect to the present moment and all it holds.
But what about those times in yoga class (or anywhere, for that matter) when your distracting thoughts are consumed with cruel self-talk about your body and its perceived shortcomings, inadequacies, and imperfections?
Inner dialogues fixated on negative body talk breed guilt, shame, and unnecessary comparisons. This makes it nearly impossible to have a positive—let alone peaceful—experience in yoga class. Instead, your time on the mat will be filled with resentment toward yourself and maybe even toward others.
In fact, when you’re caught up in comparative thoughts during yoga, you’re probably everywhere in the room except for your mat: Your eyes are scanning around the room, comparing the size, shape, features, flexibility, and capability of everyone else in the room. You may even get caught up in comparing clothing or perceived popularity, or how much more other yogis “fit in.” Comparing yourself to others is a slippery slope that can go on and on and on, compromising your self-worth, self-esteem, and body image.
If you are often distracted by comparative thoughts during yoga class, here are five practical ways to become more present on your mat.
1. Ground in the moment with your hands at heart center
Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal) is a posture commonly performed during yoga class. Done from standing or seated, we often pause with our hands at heart center to connect with ourselves and the moment; it’s an opportunity for quiet reflection.
When we compare ourselves to others, we are thrown far off center by obsessing about external factors. Use this mudra to pull yourself back to center. Think of it like a reset button—a physical reminder to let go of comparison and return to the moment.
Firmly press your hands together and bring your awareness to the feeling of being palm to palm, fingertips to fingertips. Take a few moments to stay focused on this feeling— your hands pressing into one another—as you take several deep breaths in and out. Count your breaths to help deepen your focus and detach from your thoughts about yourself and others. Stay with this hand position and your breath for as long as you need and remember that you can return to it as many times as you like.
2. Soften your eyes
In yoga, we often talk about keeping the eyes soft to embody a sense of ease and calm in our postures. A hard, narrow gaze translates into tension through our bodies and thoughts. In comparison, when our eyes are soft, our thoughts are kinder. We judge, berate, and demand less. We are more open to the sensory experience of each pose and less concerned about controlling the outcome.
Walk into the yoga room with soft eyes. Do your best throughout your practice to hold a soft drishti (gaze). Practice looking at others with soft eyes, too. You will be less likely to compare when your intention is a soft gaze. Here’s something that may be revelatory: Try seeing yourself with soft eyes, too. Literally soften how you hold your focus and facial muscles, and put your attention on your breath instead of physical forms. When you feel your forehead or jaw tightening, that’s your cue to come back to soft eyes.
3. See yourself as part of the whole.
Comparative thoughts often lead us to believe we don’t fit it in, we are different, and thus isolated. Calling on the definition of yoga (union) is a tangible reminder that we are not separate after all. Rather than picking apart your body, notice other elements in the room. See yourself in connection with the world around you. Appreciate the space; take in colors, shapes, nature, architecture, and the beauty of light. Recognize yourself as part of a larger group—and world. Imagine how much you belong.
4. Use mantra
The practice of mantra is incredibly powerful because words directly influence body image and self-esteem. The more you use comparative language in your self-talk, the greater your shame and guilt will be. On the flip side, the more you make purposeful efforts to feed your mind kind language, the more open and compassionate you become.
Pause before entering the yoga room to set a short affirmation or mantra that you can repeat throughout your practice. It’s best to focus on this before you enter an environment that triggers unkind feelings about your body. Your mantra can be one word (like “trust”), an “I am” statement (such as “I am enough”), or a simple, short phrase (for example, “I am strong and beautiful”). If you have difficulty coming up with a self-affirming mantra, choose one from an existing quote or other source of inspiration in your life.
Your mantra will be your personal power source. Using it will not be a fake-it-until-you-make-it situation. It’s a purposeful practice that will help you learn to relate to yourself in a new and affirming way.
5. When you catch yourself comparing, wish that person well
Cultivating gratitude for your body can feel impossible on tough body-image days. Still, harming yourself with nasty self-talk is not OK—not to mention goes against our yogic practice of ahimsa (non-harming). The practice of wishing someone well is a beautiful way to counteract feelings of resentment and jealousy. It opens us up to our natural capacity to offer love—even to strangers.
Well-wishing is a quiet practice meant only for you to hear. It cultivates positivity within and extends goodness without. To do this practice, notice when your thoughts are ridden with guilt, shame, and comparisons. Pause and take a few breaths to clear your mind and calm the feeling. With soft eyes, place your focus on the person or thing you are reacting to, and quietly say to yourself, “I wish you well.” Repeat the words until you sense a shift, both physically and mentally. Repeat this during your yoga practice as many times as needed to help you foster more ease and presence.
When practiced with compassion and patience, these tips will allow you to be more present in yoga class and less consumed by comparisons that aren’t serving you. These practices will also help you develop appreciation for your own body, because you will have more energy to pay attention to your abilities, gifts, and unique experiences. I’ve used them myself to overcome negative body image in my own life, and I’m hopeful you’ll find them to be valuable as well. Repetition, consistency, and time are essential to letting go of habitual comparative thoughts. Be gentle with yourself, but also committed to showing up more fully for yourself in these ways. You are worth it. Your body deserves your kindness, too.
(Yoga Journal, August 2018)
Practicing Asana with Ahimsa
by Charlotte Bell
Most who practice yoga these days have at least heard of the word ahimsa. We might even have read some of the in-depth literature on it, or practiced incorporating the idea of ahimsa—non-harming—into our lives. Translated as “dynamic peacefulness” by Sutra translator Alistair Shearer, it is arguable that ahimsa is the foundation of the entire practice.
Ahimsa is the first of the yamas, the first of yoga’s Eight Limbs. In the yoga tradition, the yamas, along with the niyamas (skillful living practices) were introduced to children and practiced before learning asana or pranayama, or the meditative limbs. Coming from a foundation of non-harming, budding yogis and yoginis could approach asana practice with the intention of calming and caring for the body rather than conquering it by force.
Even though we may not have started our yoga journey from the foundation of the yamas and niyamas, it’s never too late to incorporate them into our lives, both on and off the mat. With the rise in yoga-related injuries over the past 10 years, practicing ahimsa in asana seems especially pertinent. As we age—which we all are!—practicing ahimsa with our bodies becomes even more important.
Be Here Now
Many, if not most, of us begin our practice with the notion that it will improve our lives in some way—through weight loss, creating healthier habits, increasing flexibility, improving sleep, alleviating back pain, or calming and integrating our bodies and minds. There are lots of reasons, but mostly they have to do with changing the way we are.
What if we shifted our intention to simply taking the time to be with ourselves in a nurturing, non-judgmental way? What if we decided just to be present—without an agenda—with our bodies and minds as they are? What if we set aside the need to “improve” our poses and ourselves, and simply allowed our asana experiences to unfold moment by moment?
While it sounds simple, this is not easy. Most of us come to practice with profoundly conditioned beliefs about our own insufficiency. These beliefs cause us to place unrealistic demands on our practice. It causes us to compare our practice to that of others—a completely irrelevant and potentially injurious practice in that it makes us think we need to conform to standards that our bodies and minds may not be designed to achieve. We’re all different, after all! The “shoulds” we inflict on ourselves make enjoying our practice in the moment impossible. As a colleague of mine says, “Don’t should on yourself.”
It’s helpful to remember that we all come to yoga with different genetics and histories. These create superficial differences among us, but essentially, we are all capable of sharing the peace of being present with our bodies and minds just as they are. This is the essence of yoga practice.
What’s Happening in Your Body?
Once you shift your intention to being present in your body instead of striving for some future pose that’s somehow “better” than the one you’re practicing, you may start to notice some of your habits of forceful practice. For example, notice how you’re using your hands and arms. Our arms are our instruments of doing. We use our arms and hands to accomplish things in our lives. Noting the disposition of our arms is especially helpful in poses such as seated forward bends and twists where our arms are potentially involved in moving us further into a pose. Notice: Are your shoulders and arms tense? Are your arms inflicting the pose on your body? Can you instead let your arms support your asana without tensing them or using them to force your body into your idea of a “better” position?
The simplest cue of all is to give your breath primacy—always. If your breath is shallow, labored, fast or uncomfortable in any way in an asana, you are probably pushing yourself too far. When an asana restricts your breathing, it is not life supporting. If the breath is a carrier of prana, asana that restricts its flow is depleting rather than regenerating your energy. It is therefore an act of harming. Don’t do it! Back off to the point where your breath can flow freely.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are an elegant framework in which to grow your practice. As the first Yama, ahimsa is the foundation of the practice. We can practice in daily life through our relationships and choices, and on our mats by shifting our intentions for practice.
Let go of your ideas about practice “should” be and relax into what it actually is.
BY JENNIFER D’ANGELO FRIEDMAN
Yogis know the poses that “open” the heart, but did you know that regular practice can also help protect your ticker over the long term?
In honor of National Wear Red Day, the American Heart Association’s campaign to raise awareness of heart disease (the#1 killer of women), here are 5 ways that yoga keeps your heart going strong.
And don’t forget to wear red yoga pants on Friday to spread the word!
1. Love how you feel after class? That’s your stress melting away.
Stress may affect behaviors and factors that are proven to increase heart disease risk: high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating, according to the American Heart Association. Chronic stress may also cause some people to drink too much alcohol, which can increase your blood pressure and may damage the artery walls. A regular yoga practice, on the other hand, is likely to calm you down, making you less likely to lean on caffeine, sugar, fatty foods or alcohol to “numb out,” says Hazel Patterson, Urban Zen Integrative Yoga Therapist and teacher trainer at YogaWorks in Los Angeles.
“Moving with the breath, in other words linking expanding movements with the inhales, and contracting or softening movements with the exhales, starts to create a dynamic which calms the nerves and moves that stress energy out of the body,” she explains.
For your go-to bliss-out pose, Terrence Monte, a Managing Teacher at Pure Yoga in New York City, recommends the Seated Forward Bend. To make it even more delicious, place a rolled blanket or towel under your knees, and rest your forehead on a block or other prop placed on your shins.
2. It’s a feel-good workout.
Maintaining a normal BMI (body mass index) can help your heart, according to the CDC, and regular physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight. Yoga, Monte says, is the “best resistance workout on the planet” —meaning it’s easy on the joints and uses your own body weight to build strength. Become a fat-burning machine by building long lean muscle—Monte suggests Plank Pose as all-over strengthener that does double-duty by targeting your core and shoring up your back.
3. It blasts belly fat.
Excess abdominal fat has been linked to increased risk for heart disease. By strengthening the large muscle groups in the body, such as the gluteals and quadriceps, yoga gets your body burning more calories, meaning you are less likely to store them as fat around your middle, Patterson says. “Standing poses like Warrior II held for a little longer than the mind is comfortable with is a great way to build these powerhouse muscles,” she says.
4. It “opens” the heart.
What does it mean to “open” your heart mean anyway? “Asana is the practice of putting your body in challenging shapes. Yoga, on the other hand, is the practice of integrating what you learn on the mat with what you do off of it,” Monte explains. “As you become more mindful about your body, your breath, your language in challenging poses, you become more aware about your own perceptions (read: misperceptions) of the world.”
Rather than the obvious heart-openers (Fish, Camel, Locust ), Monte suggests a pose that’s really challenging to stay vulnerable in, like Chair Pose. “Sit as low as you can with your lumbar spine as long as possible for as long as you can. Notice how your mind, your language, your perceptions change as the intensity increases,” he says.
5. It changes your diet.
A healthy diet (heavy on colorful fruits and veggies, fiber and heart-healthy fish and light on red meat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and processed foods) is critical to heart health, and studies have linked regular yoga practice to mindful eating.
“As you connect to your body, breath and perspectives in challenging shapes on the mat, you connect more to what you do to it off the mat,” Monte says. “Suddenly, if you have to do yoga in the morning, it gets much harder to have that fourth martini, that fried whatever, that extra serving of needless sugar. You develop a sense of respect for this absurdly miraculous body that has developed over millions of years of evolution.”
A new review of studies has confirmed yoga’s benefits on mental health conditions such as depression and ADHD.
Researchers from Duke University analyzed the results of 124 trials on how yoga can benefit people with certain neuropsychiatric disorders, and pinpointed 16 that met their criteria.
Of those studies included in their review, published in the journal Frontiers In Affective Disorders And Psychosomatic Research, they found evidence that yoga provides a benefit in depression, schizophrenia (when done alongside drug therapy), ADHD and problems with sleep. However, researchers didn’t find clear evidence showing yoga had a benefit on people with eating disorders or cognitive disorders.