Living yoga off the mat

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Yoga is almost like music in a way. There’s no end to it.
— Sting

For many of us, if someone were to ask us what yoga is, we would look around us and say yoga is poses; it’s leggings and handstands; it’s “love and light”; it’s alo and lululemon and arm balances and downward facing dog. Yes, that’s what we predominantly see all over social media and even in some of our classes, but that is not what yoga is. For one, the poses are just yoga asana which is only one of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga and the yoga asana you see today is a far cry from the ancient Indian practice we profess to honour.


The word “asana” means “a seat”. The whole purpose of asana is to prepare the body for meditation. The yoga practitioner would move through a series of simple poses to prime the body for extended periods of sitting, specifically for the purpose of “dharana” (concentration) and “dhyana” (meditation). The poses were a means to an end, they were to serve a higher purpose. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the physical practice you see today and I am as ready as the next person to whip out some impressive moves for Instagram, but the problem is when we think that this one-dimensional view we have is all that yoga is.


Yoga is movement, but it’s also stillness. It’s meditation and breath. But first and foremost, it is how we conduct our everyday lives. Anyone who has ever been to a yoga teacher training will have learned about the eight limbs of yoga, and the very first two are the yamas and niyamas; the ethical code and self-regulating behaviours every yogi should practice. Before the breath, before the poses, before the meditation, and certainly before enlightenment, the very first things we do when we embark on the yogic path is to look at the way we interact with the world. That is the beginning of yoga, and each limb is built upon that. Without the yamas and niyamas, there is no yoga.


For those of you who have not read The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there are five yamas and five niyamas. The five yamas are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (restraint/fidelity) and aparigraha (non-posessiveness), and the five niyamas are saucha (cleanliness/purity), santosa (contentment), tapas (discipline/passion), svadhyaya (self-study) and isvara pranidhana (surrender to the supreme).


That means before the handstand, comes compassion. Before the arm balances, comes honesty. Before the vinyasa, comes acceptance, persistence and surrender. There is no point in being able to put your foot behind your ear if you treat people like shit. There is no point being able to fold yourself in half if you are filled with hatred and bitterness. Nobody cares that you can stand on your hands if you bully and criticise and cause pain. That just makes you a gymnast or an athlete, not a yogi. The time we spend on our mat is sacred. It’s our therapy, our sanctuary, our canvas but it is just a fraction of the time we actually practice yoga. When you go out of your way to help someone, you are practicing yoga. When you show self-discipline in the pursuit of your goals, you’re practicing yoga. When you accept someone exactly as they are, you are practicing yoga.


When we were at yoga teacher training, one of our little in-jokes was to say “you can’t win the yoga”. This is a lifelong practice, there is always more to discover about yourself, there is always more room for growth, there are always ways to be better. Most of the yoga practice happens off the mat. It happens when you interact with people. It happens when you work on yourself. It happens when you learn to accept and surrender to the unknown. There are people who can’t touch their toes who are beautiful examples of what a yogi should be, and there are people who can bend themselves like a pretzel but have never practiced yoga a day in their life. Yoga is a physical practice, yes, but it is also a way of life. It is a way of being. Fancy poses are wonderful, they have their place and teach you so much about persistece, dedication, self-belief and confidence, and they are often what draw people to begin a yoga practice, but where we tend to go wrong is when we believe that this is the end point, when really it is just the beginning.






A steady, comfortable posture meaning no excessive force

Honouring the intelligence of the body and learning to divorce

Ourselves from the idea there is someplace we need to be

We are in flux, always affected by what’s going on internally

Our practice changes all the time, it is fluid and evolves

When we let go of what we think should be, we might find it really solves

The problem of having expectations which never can be met

Because they’re based on whether or not we can do x or y pose yet

And this translates well off the mat, learning to surrender and let go

Of the ideas we hold on to, of the things we think we know

Of things having to play out according to our master plan

We can’t see all of the moving parts, what makes us think we can

Just force things which are clearly saying they don’t want to be?

For what? So we can brag about our flexibility?

This body’s just a vehicle, a housing for our spirit

Asana is the servicing for the soul which lives within it

It’s not about getting your foot behind your ear

It’s preparing for dharana, to be present, to be here

On and off the mat learning to get out of your head

Sitting with discomfort and allowing yourself to be led

By what your body needs, what it’s asking you to give

In these sweaty power poses, yes, but also the world in which we live

Uniting body, mind and breath as you’re moving through a flow

Caring for your outer vessel so you can spiritually grow

As you move through your practice always intending to

Challenge yourself, but honour your body, put down what is not serving you

Asana means “a seat”, as in, preparing to turn in

But the poses have their place as well, they often lead people to begin

What we’ve come to know as yoga, just the physical side at first

But they often find the more they practice poses, the stronger is their thirst

To be part of something bigger, to align with a higher goal

To connect with the divine intelligence of their soul

Asana is what draws many in like a moth to a light

We want to do these crazy poses and think that with some practice might

Learn to hang out upside down or even maybe do the splits

But if we think that’s what it’s all about, then surely we have missed

The whole point – asana’s just one part of a whole yoga system

It has its place, but isolated it loses all its wisdom

Because yoga isn’t confined to the mat, it’s a life philosophy

Asana is a stepping stone to reaching samadhi

It often starts as poses but becomes a way of being

Because the more that you practice, the more you begin seeing

You are stronger and more balanced, more disciplined and open

Yes on the mat, but also in your thoughts and all words spoken

To yourself and to others, it will transform attitude

To be more kind, authentic, patient and living with more gratitude

Asana helps you to turn inwards so you can get to know yourself

And when you love what you are learning, it turns to love for everything else

Developing inner peace and love which starts to ooze out

People recognise the difference and want to know about

What your secret is and how you always keep an even keel

This physical asana which is teaching you to feel

What it’s like to get in touch with the wisdom that’s inside

When you’re on your mat, it’s only you, there’s nowhere you can hide

From yourself and who you truly are, then off the mat as well

The healing may be subtle first so you can barely tell

That your time spent in asana, learning to breathe through the resistance

Is cultivating self-discipline, compassion and persistence

Giving courage to face the truth of what you are really feeling

With non-judgement and curiosity, so you are no longer stealing

From yourself the opportunity you have for truly growing

By suppressing your emotion and never really showing

The real you which comes out when you are on your mat

You’ll see the poses are a small part, and you’ll understand that

We might have come to yoga to become the strongest we can be

But when you take asana off the mat you become a true yogi