”Yoga happens beyond the mat, anything you do with attention to how you feel is doing yoga”
One of my favourite ways to start my yoga practice is to ask myself the question ‘how am I today?’
This gives me a chance to notice how I am before I begin and typically includes: scanning through my physical body to notice any prominent sensations; noting any emotions that I might be feeling; and becoming aware of any thoughts that might be circling around in my mind.
By doing this, I'm connecting with myself as I am in this particular moment - not trying to push away or change anything - and also allowing myself to tailor my yoga practice to what I need on any given day, not what I think I need (which can be quite different!).
So, I might come onto my mat one day thinking I'd like to try out some poses that challenge me. But then when I check in with myself I notice that my body is tired and a bit achey and I’m feeling quite emotionally fragile. So now I know I need to ease myself into my physical practice very gently and make time for poses that give me a feeling of safety and support.
Or equally, I might discover that my body is tingling with energy and aliveness and know that today is a day when I can test my edges, try something that challenges me a bit.
Keeping it real
However, I’m feeling, I like to build in moments to pause and check in as I'm going along. These moments give me the opportunity to ensure that my practice is still serving me in the moment and has not been overridden by the voice of what I think I should be doing.
Sometimes that voice especially likes to tell me what a yoga teacher's practice should look like and how deep I should be able to go in my poses. If I follow that voice, chances are I'll have done harm rather than good by the end of my session.
But if instead, I keep finding moments to pause, I can notice how each pose is making me feel and keep responding to the sensations I'm feeling in the present moment. Connecting to these sensations also keeps me connected to the aliveness of the present moment. Rather than thinking, I'm feeling and being.
Some of my favourite poses in which to take a pause are child's pose, crocodile pose and mountain pose. Child and crocodile are a great opportunity to tap into the support of the earth beneath me, to feel held while I'm feeling whatever I'm feeling. In mountain, I have the grounding of my feet balanced with the spaciousness of my body in which I can witness the dance of sensations play out inside me.
For all the reasons above, I love to start the classes I'm teaching with the chance to check in and offer stepping stone pauses throughout the practice.
A daily practice
Taking time to check in is not only beneficial during our yoga practice - it's also a great thing to do during our daily lives. Ever have those moments where you realise you've needed to go to the loo for about the last three hours or when you suddenly realise your mouth is parched because you've been ignoring your need for water?
Our thinking minds like to take charge so if we're trying to achieve a particular task we often ignore the feelings in our bodies. But by reminding ourselves to take regular check-ins we can not only see how we are but also ask the question 'what do I need?'. Then we don't get to the point where we're feeling unwell because we've been ignoring our basic needs.
Plus, these moments where we drop down from our thoughts and into our bodies can nourish our creativity. A gap in thinking about a problem can often offer us the solution we've been striving for.
Breaking bad habits
The practice of checking in also helps us to break unhelpful patterns of behaviour. It's easy to keep repeating the same mistakes if we never really take time to notice the after effects. We eat a packet of biscuits then distract ourselves with something else, drink a load of wine and stay up late watching Netflix, but never really stop to notice how we feel the next morning.
Awareness of the feelings that certain behaviours produce might not change the behaviour instantly but it's certainly the starting point. I remember that when I gave up smoking almost 10 years ago, I started by really noticing the taste and feeling of each inhale. When I paid attention, I actually started to find it quite disgusting and I could feel the harm it was doing to my body. It wasn't long before I'd given up completely.
Checking in keeps us in touch with the reality of how things are, not how we think they are, which is often quite different.
Try it out for yourself
In order to make checking in a practice in your life, try asking the question 'how am I?' at intervals throughout the day.
It might be that an answer pops up straight away in the form of a thought but often this is based on how we expect to feel rather than what's actually true in the moment. So notice this voice but then drop the question down into your body. Scan your attention through sensations in your body without judging them as good or bad - instead see if there are any messages your body wants to give you.
Then ask what you need in this moment and see if it's appropriate to meet it in some way. So if you need water, hydrate; if your body is stiff and achey, get up and move about a bit; or if you realise you're tired, have a rest or make a note to get an early night.
These things might sound small but they all add up to our general state of wellbeing. They help to connect us to what's real in the present moment rather than living through habits that may no longer serve us.
Equally when you're practicing yoga, incorporate these pauses into your practice. Drop into your body to feel sensations and notice any messages your body wants to give you. Take a moment to feel your aliveness and the wonder of being a human in a body in this particular moment with all its complexities.
In this way, we start to live in a way that’s serving our deeper needs. We stop overriding the messages of our bodies and treating them like machines. We move into a state of greater balance, connection and wholeness, one check-in at a time.