Living Yoga: Taking It Off the Mat

When we step unto our mat, we call it a practice: we are practicing yoga. So ask yourself: what are you practicing?

Yoga is, and can be, a lot of different things to different people. There are people who see it as a workout; there are people who see it as stretching; there are people who see it as a way to relax and unwind; and then there are people who see it as all of that, and as so much more than that.

When I practice yoga, I am practicing how I want to be in the world. Yes, I can practice to get a nice butt. Yes, I can practice to stretch my overly tight hip flexors. Yes, I can practice to let go of stress. I can also practice how to be mindful, how to be aware, how to be intentional, how to be open, how to be curious, how to be loving.

I practice yoga to become the best version of myself and the truest version of myself, when I step off the mat.

Today at the gym, I had this incredible ‘aha’ moment of why I practice yoga and why I decided to do my yoga teacher training. I was doing squats (like I do pretty much every Thursday), when I noticed a pain behind my shoulder blade. I’ve felt this same pain before, but always kind of brushed it off as just sore muscles, and sore from doing upper body exercises. But I hadn’t done any of those today, just squats. So I started thinking about it and my boyfriend (and workout buddy), said he noticed that my elbows move when I squat, and maybe that was why.

In that moment, something significant happened.

First, I accepted his constructive criticism on my form, which he will tell you, I am not very good at. I could see his hesitation in even suggesting that I wasn’t doing something right. I typically do not handle criticism well, unless I’m well prepared for it. I have this constant battle between my mind and my emotions. My mind says, “Constructive criticism is great. I want your feedback. I want to improve.” and my emotions go haywire (and maybe my ego) and say, “What are you talking about? My elbows aren’t moving. My form is fine. How can you attack me like this?”

But this time I didn’t go on the defensive. I had an initial reaction of “I’m not doing that” and then I stopped myself. Instead, I said “Interesting, tell me more” (Thanks Asia!) and this simple phrase created an opportunity to explore what I was doing and why it might not be working.

I explored the movement with an awareness that I didn’t have before. I redid the squat, paying attention this time to my elbows. It turns out they didn’t move, but my body did. Interesting. I asked myself why. Why didn’t my elbows move in line with my body? People probably thought I was crazy as I kept repeating this initial squat movement with an invisible bar, trying to understand what my body was doing that I hadn’t been aware of.

And that’s when it clicked. I had a light bulb moment. As I leaned forward into the squat, my shoulders rounded, ever so slightly, but enough to mess up my alignment. When I consciously bent only from the hips, keeping my spine neutral, my elbows and body stayed aligned.

A month ago, I probably would never have realized this. The movement was so subtle, and the movement to correct it was so subtle that I probably would have overlooked it, if I had even been able to make the connection between shoulder pain and squats in the first place. Not to mention, I probably wouldn’t have even explored it because my elbows weren’t moving.

This is why I practice yoga. Changes that happen on the mat are great, but it’s the changes that I see in my life and in my relationship with myself and others, that matter most. I don’t care if I can ever touch my toes or do a headstand; I care what happens when I step off the mat and move in the world.



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