Guide Your Practice

The definition of yoga is “union.” This union might be breath and body; it might be body and spirit. Regardless of how we define it on a deeper level, this basic definition reminds us that yoga is more than just a movement practice. Yoga is a practice that transcends a typical workout: it’s whole body, including the subtle body (the breath and spirit) and the mental body (the mind).

When you attend a yoga class, you’ve probably noticed that your instructor offers an “intention” for the practice. Usually, an instructor talks about this intention at the beginning of the practice, throughout the practice, and then again at the end. Adding an intention to your movement practice gives it more depth and meaning. Sage and I have talked about this concept a few times on this blog already: here, she discusses how intention changes as we age. And here, I talk about the difference between intention and goals.

Once you’re clear on what an intention is, the next questions are more pragmatic: how do you find an appropriate intention? And how do you use it to guide your practice?

Finding an intention

Intentions can come from anywhere. I enjoy reading poetry, and when I find a poem that speaks to me, I set it aside to use in a practice later. If you enjoy poetry that has elements of spirituality, some authors to check out include Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Hafiz, and Rumi.

Yoga philosophy makes another great source for inspirational intentions. If you feel nervous about diving into ancient Sanksrit texts, have no fear: there are many good, modern translations. The most foundational is probably The Yoga Sutras, which provides short, clear instructions on living a yogic life. There are several excellent translations of the Sutras available, and it may even be a fun practice to read through them, using each one as an intention.

While philosophy and poetry have their place, your intentions don’t always have to be derived from a place so lofty, either. My favorite intentions are often focused on one word. If I arrive on my mat overwhelmed, the intention for the practice might be “peace.” If I’m exhausted, the intention might be “energize.” If I come to my practice mad at my husband (I’m sure you’ve never practiced yoga mad at your spouse!), my intention might be “calm” or “love” or “let go.” These simple intentions can be the easiest to grasp onto when you’re first adding them into your movement practice.

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Intentions might come from spiritual or yogic texts, books of poetry, or even Oprah.

Using an intention to guide your practice

Once you’ve determined an intention that is speaking to you, what does it look like for that intention to “guide your practice”? If the root of your intention is a poem or philosophical proverb, you might begin your practice by reading it again. From there you could lie down or sit quietly for several breaths, allowing your mind to focus on the themes that the intention brings up for you.

Sometimes, the intention will guide specific movements. If my intention is “balance,” inevitably I’m going to add in some poses that challenge and encourage balance, like Warrior III. If my intention is “trust” or “love,” I’m probably going to do poses that are heart-opening, back-bending poses, like camel pose. That’s not to say that all intentions will have a obvious pose association, but some might.

As you move in your practice, make space to return to your intention. You could rest in a pose like child’s pose and hear your word or intention in your mind as you breathe. You could take a longer break in a seated pose and re-read the sutra or poem that is guiding your practice. Make space as you move to return to the emotional, mental, and spiritual part of yoga by reconnecting to the idea you’ve chosen as your foundation.

Finally, return to your intention once more after a rest in savasana, perhaps in seated meditation. You might even decide that you want to come back to your intention later in the day (right before bed is a nice time) or later in your week. An intention isn’t so much a lesson as a flavor, and the best intentions continue to flavor your day as you move off the mat and into the world.

—Alexandra

Coming Soon: LIFELONG YOGA

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Contract signed!

If you missed our announcement on social media earlier this week, here’s a recap: Sage and I are co-writing a book, Lifelong Yoga, which will be published by North Atlantic Books in the summer of 2017. It’s Sage’s seventh book (!) and my first, and we couldn’t be more excited about collaborating and writing together.

Lifelong Yoga is a book for anyone who wants to continue or begin a yoga practice at any stage of life. The emphasis, though, is on how yoga can be a boon for the changes we experience as we move into our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. It looks at yoga as a complement for an already-active life and sees yoga as a tool for living a long life of health and vitality. You can expect a lot of what you find on this blog, only in even more detail and with more explanation. We’ll have chapters devoted to the common ailments of aging (and how yoga can help!), sequences that will help you solve problems (“What’s the best yoga before a golf game?,” “How can I prepare for a weekend with my grandkids?”), and photographs of the most useful poses for healthy aging.

To reflect where we’re going—the book—you’ll notice that we’re shifting away from using “Yoga for Aging Athletes” to describe our work. Our social media sites have already changed, and in the upcoming weeks, we’ll update this blog to reflect our book title, too.

We’ll keep you updated on progress and let you know when the book is ready for pre-order. Meanwhile, I have some writing to do! And I just thought of my next blog post: a useful sequence for recovery after a long day of sitting at a desk.

—Alexandra

 

Intentions, Goals, and Aging

Racing Wisely CoverIn my book Racing Wisely: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Performing at Your Personal BestI suggest using both intentions and goals to plan your training and racing. While we’re all familiar with goals—running a certain time, lifting a certain weight, beating a certain opponent—intentions are more nebulous. In Racing Wisely, I define intention as the private, personal, often unmeasurable reason why you compete.

This sprang to mind when I read Gina Kolata’s New York Times piece on slowing down with age. The limitations of age force us to focus less on goals, or to adjust the goals based on age-grading charts like the one mentioned in the article, and more on intentions. We are less interested in training and competing for glory and more interested in the experience of being in our bodies as they move. This movement becomes less directed toward achieving a particular outcome and more toward the inner sensations and broader mental and physical benefits of exercise.

A similar pattern emerges among yoga practitioners. After several years of practicing, many of which may have focused on achieving increasingly sophisticated poses, we generally turn away from externally measurable achievements and toward the gentler expressions of poses, along with careful attention to the experience of being in a breathing body. Kolata’s article ends with her source’s suggestion of running watch-free. Can you bring the same approach to your mat? Can you emphasize intention over goals?

—Sage

Your Resolution: Yoga

 

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Photo credit: Ariel Adams

The brain works like this: each time we do something—a behavior, an activity—neural links form. And every time we do that same thing again, those neural connections get stronger and our action becomes a habit. In yoga, the concept samskara refers to these deeply ingrained patterns, both the ones we’re happy to repeat (daily workouts, for instance) and the ones we’d be happier breaking (daily donuts, perhaps.)

We want to repeat activities and behaviors that make us stronger. But we can all identify some habits we’d like to change. That’s where our yoga practice comes in. A regular yoga practice brings calm, more mindfulness, better posture, better breathing… and so much more. In fact, a regular yoga practice can create the space we need to cultivate vidya, or clear thinking, that will help us continue to make positive changes in our lives.

This new year, make regular yoga your resolution. You don’t have to do a long practice every day. Instead, aim for a single pose or a short sequence every morning or evening. (This blog is a helpful resource, and Sage’s Everyday Yoga offers tools for a simplified home practice.) If daily yoga feels intimidating, no problem. Commit to once a week. Even doing yoga once a week provides stress reduction and more flexibility. Yoga just makes you feel better. In 2016, do more of it.

—Alexandra