Next time you step onto your mat, try this experiment. Make the focus of your practice the art of “Smile-asana”: in which the outer edges of the lips curl upward, the eyes relax half-open and half-closed, the wrinkles of the forehead melt away, and the heart surrenders and glows. Sometimes Smile-asana is quite challenging. When you feel anxiety in your practice start to mount, draw your attention back to it, and begin slowly counting your breath: Inhale: one, two, three. Exhale: one, two, three.
Above all other asanas, practice Smile-Asana. Prioritize it, along with your deep, consistent breath. Find the bliss in forgiving yourself. Allow yourself a chance to learn from mistakes. If you fall out of a pose, laugh, and get back up. Give yourself a break. In our materialistic, consumer-driven society, so many forces conspire to make us feel “lesser-than”. Everything around us is based upon striving, achievement, competition, and the idea that when we “get” something in the future — money, a spouse, a job, a reward, an asana — that’s when we’ll finally allow ourselves to be happy.
Our world seems to revolve around competition for followers, likes, status, prestige, money, fame, resources, possessions, awards, recognition, accolades, mates. We question if it’s even possible to live without this subtle but insidious stress level that permeates everything we do. The perpetual rat race of competition starts early and has become automatic. It’s just a habit, like biting our nails. Let’s give ourselves one safe zone, where we are completely free from all that, where our entire “goal”, if there is one, is simply to experience Prana – life force – flooding our system; to breathe evenly and consistently, to find peace, and to taste bliss. That is our Yoga practice. Someday, if we are lucky, and we practice enough, we may begin to experience that freedom off the mat, and in our lives.
Thus it isn’t what we do in Yoga that’s important. It’s how we do it. It’s the spirit of ease with which we approach the practice. So someone doing only a few basic postures, while breathing steadily and deeply and practicing “Smile-asana”, is experiencing the essence of Yoga; more so than an “advanced” practitioner who might aggressively shove a leg behind her head with a grimace on her face.
Indeed, if we are comparing ourselves to others in our class, or even comparing ourselves to how we practiced yesterday, we are causing ourselves disturbance. Why put so much pressure on ourselves? This is not why we practice Yoga. We practice to create a sense of ease and calm in ourselves. It won’t help us to feed ourselves negative thoughts of judgment or criticism.
Instead, we can choose to rejoice in the opportunity to expand and breathe a little deeper than we are accustomed to, to open a little more gently and lovingly, to experience grounding into the floor, so that we can drink in Prana – life force, energy, power – from the feet on upwards, pulling it in from the outer edges of our extremities into the torso, and into the crown of the head. Through focusing our attention singly and fully on maximizing the experience of Prana, with the aid of our calm, even breath, we let go of the knee-jerk inclination to judge ourselves or others in our practice, on or off the mat. Drishti, or the focused meditative gaze, keeps our attention drawn inwards rather than outwards. With these subtle tools, we gradually learn to let go of caring what others might think of our practice, our body, or our yoga pants. We even learn to let go of our own doubt. That’s when we feel the burden finally lifted, and fully experience freedom.
Yoga means “Union”: the integration of and acceptance of our true self, even if that true self is falling all over the place, losing balance, and having a “bad” practice. In truth, there is no such thing as a bad practice. There are days that are harder than others, but everything is temporary and passing. Tomorrow or the next day, you may fly through the practice with tons of energy. So many variables go into your experience on the mat. What you ate or drank the day before, how much you slept or didn’t sleep, emotional turmoil that you may be enduring — the list goes on and on.
It’s pointless to expend energy on judging any part of your practice, for that takes you out of the moment, and robs you of the chance to practice being loving and accepting of yourself, no matter what the circumstances. There are enough naysayers in the world. You don’t need to add yourself into that equation. If we are reviewing our own performance, then we are not experiencing Union. There is a distracting sense of disjointed separateness when the voice in your head is critiquing yourself. So just go back to counting your 1-2-3 breath, in and out. Do Smile-Asana; get out of your own way, and see what happens.
The fact is, we are incredibly fortunate to be among the lucky few in the world who get to practice yoga. Above all – and really at all times – it should be joyous, and fun. We aren’t being bombed, and we don’t have to worry about foraging for food, clean water, or shelter. So why do we furrow our brow with such intensity in every pose, as if our life depends on mastering it? Who are we trying to impress? What is the urgency? We are here to heal and to rejoice — in our breath, the movement of our bodies, and the emptying and calming of our minds.
So let’s start here and now to practice shining. Let’s start here and now to practice glowing. Let’s start here and now to practice loving – others and ourselves. Let’s start here and now to practice opening to joy. Let’s start here and now to practice gratitude. Let’s start here and now to raise our frequency up to the highest vibe we can reach.
Create your Safe Zone. Practice Smile-asana. Find the bliss. Go forth and thrive!