Taking your practice “off the mat” is a meme that many teachers and yogis mention when tying some of the more esoteric concepts from yogic philosophy to daily living. Practices that seem very accessible in class may take some time to knit into day-t0-day awareness at first, but once you begin to understand that “on the mat” and “off the mat” are the same place, yoga’s wisdom begins to flow outside of the yoga studio and into your daily life.
Let’s start with one of the most basic concepts taught in everything from Bare Bones Beginner classes to advanced: observe the breath. The breath is a sensitive gauge that can reveal to us many things about our state of mind. It can also show us if we are pushing too hard (strained, forced, rapid, or tense breathing) or disengaged (sleepiness, boredom, falling asleep in savasana, arrhythmic breathing patterns). So what does it mean when a teacher asks you to “follow your breath” or “observe your breath”?
At the most basic level, it means simply to watch. Become a witness with no judgement, expectation, or desire, simply watch the breath. How deeply are you breathing? What is the texture of the breath? Does it enter and exit the body easily and fluidly, or is there a sense of effort on inhale or exhale? Do you feel the breath in your body, say by the ribs moving sideways to allow space for fully inflated lungs? Are you aware of connecting your breath and your movement, inhaling and exhaling in rhythm with the movement of the body? The breath can become like a tide, moving in and out with a noticeable pattern that over time, may shift to something more subtle (like when in savasana) or more forceful (when applied consciously, such as in a pranayama like bhrastrika breath). You can use the breath as a gauge to see if you are pushing too hard or not connecting.
How does this translate to life off the mat? Notice your breath in emotionally charged situations. When you are angry, afraid, stressed, or sad, can you notice a shift of some sort in your breath? By taking your awareness off whatever emotional current is running thru you to observe the breath, you give the mind some space. Your mind really can’t focus on more than one thing at a time in the sense of true mindfullness, so when you observe your breath in an emotional situation, you can give your emotions some room to regulate as you remove yourself, your “I” or ego, from the situation.
Instead of fixating on the person or situation that is “causing” your anger, you can observe the breath, noticing the change that is occurring in you as the emotion plays out. Giving that emotion some distance can give you room for an appropriate response, instead of an emotionally-fueled reaction.
Another philosophical idea many teachers return to again and again is the idea of accepting what is. When practicing asana, it can be tempting to wish for something that is not: I wish I could do a full split in Hanumanasana; I wish I could get my whole pelvis on the floor in pigeon; I wish I could wrap twice in Garudasana. So when our teacher reminds us to be with what is, we accept ourselves and our practice exactly as we are in the moment. There is nothing else. Wishing something so does not make it so. Wishing a more flexible hamstring or more open shoulder doesn’t make it so, and not only that, but a challenge to our concept of what “right” or “good” is allows us to soften our demands, on ourselves and others. We find that accepting how we are right now gives us space to grow, evolve, and transform. To have a fixed idea of how things should be is limiting and subtly masochistic. We expend energy is wanting to control things to our ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, instead of simply experiencing what is, in its limitless array of possibility and potential.
Off the mat, we can take this same attitude of non-grasping and simply be with whatever is. Even if it’s scary, strange, unexpected, or what have you, accepting whatever it is that is in front of you is a step towards freedom: freedom from expectation, freedom from control, freedom from social and cultural programming.
Another way yoga teachers like to speak about this principle is with the word “surrender,” a word that is difficult for some people to accept because they think it implies passivity or taking on something distasteful or troubling in the name of acceptance. Surrender is best thought of as “surrendering,” or letting go of, ideas of right and wrong, should be, could be, will be, would be, etc.
Over the years, I’ve come to absolutely believe that whatever happens in my life is for a reason. I attract people and situations to me that I need for my personal development and growth. I accept what comes to me because there is no choice–it is here–and look for what lessons are contained in the situation. If you take a moment to observe your “difficult situation,” you will find numerous lessons and opportunities for more compassion and love, for yourself and others.
I will build on these ideas in a future blog post. For the time being, these two oft-heard concepts (or equivalents thereof) are timeless, practical ideas that can be adopted on the mat, or off. Since we spend more time off the mat than we do on, to be in the practice of yoga even when not in the asana practice (asana is only one of eight limbs of yoga) is characteristic of a mature or evolving yoga practice.
How does yoga philosophy influence your life off the mat?