Many don’t know that there is more to a yoga practice than pretzel-like twists and gravity-defying balances. In fact, the Yoga Sutras, a 2,000-year-old text that compiled the teachings of yoga, does not dwell on the physical practice. Instead, the sutras explain that the goal of yoga is to steady the mind in order to live a healthy, purposeful, joyful life. Of course, quieting the chatter of the mind can be difficult, so the sutras also present tools for how to do just that. Here are three with application in modern life.
1. Set an intention
Focusing on one point or idea helps us find ease and steadiness in our shakier moments, physically or mentally. Setting an intention at the start of our day helps us cultivate a point of focus. It’s the thing we bring our mind back to when we’re struggling and uncomfortable.
It’s easy to confuse intentions and goals, however. An intention is the underlying conviction that helps shape and define our goals.
Our goal may be to lose 20 pounds. Our intention is to be healthy.
Our goal may be to find a new job. Our intention is professional success.
Our goal may be to start dating. Our intention is love.
An intention refocuses our attention and grounds us in the present moment even when the path is long.
To set intention, list three to five goals you’re working on and then describe the underlying intention. Distill the intention to a single word. For instance, your goal may be to volunteer more. Your intention may be to meet new friends while helping others. You could distill your intention to the word “community."
2. Cultivate the power of positive thinking
We choose where we direct our attention. For example, if you’re at work plugging away on a report and a coworker comes by with a question, you are able to direct your attention to your coworker and answer it. When you’re done, you can choose to go back to your report, take a break or check email. You are in control of where your attention goes.
We can use control with our thoughts as well. When we are caught up in negativity or anger, we can direct our attention to the opposite, to something more positive. We’re not trying to stop negative thoughts; we’re trying to replace them with something else. For example, if you are told not to think about a white bear, it’s likely you will imagine nothing else. You need to replace the image of the white bear with something else. If every time the white bear pops into your head, you imagine a green dog, you will eventually avoid the unwanted white bear. In the same way, we can’t eliminate our negative thoughts, but we can replace them with positive ones.
Yoga asks us to replace anger with love and compassion, violence with peace, grief with gratitude, sadness with happiness, fear with trust. To replace the negative with the positive, however, we must first pay attention to how we feel. It’s an ongoing practice and effort. Just like working to ignore the white bear.
How to do it: Call to mind someone who regularly frustrates, disappoints or angers you. What have they brought into your life that you are grateful for? How have they brought you happiness? In what ways can you be grateful, compassionate and peaceful with them?
Think about how the breath changes when we’re happy, relaxed, angry, sad or stressed. When we’re happy and relaxed our breath is long and smooth. When we’re angry, we breathe rapidly. When we’re afraid, our breath is shallow. Sometimes we hold our breath. Sometimes it’s erratic.
The good news is that studies have found changing our breathing patterns – from deep, belly breaths to shallow breaths or vice versa – could bring on the associated emotion. This means that changing our breathing patterns can help us regulate our emotions. Other studies show the trickle-up effect the body and our breath have on the mind: Research has shown breathing practices can calm us down, reduce anxiety, decrease depression and lower stress.
In yoga, we use pranayama or breath work to focus our thoughts. The mind follows the breath. When the breath is easy and steady, it creates the same opportunity for the mind. It can be as simple as extending the exhale even a few counts longer than the inhale. When we do, the vagus nerve (a winding nerve that runs from the neck through the diaphragm) tells the nervous system to chill out. Our heart rate drops, blood pressure lowers, the blood vessels relax and our whole body physically calms down.
How to do it: Make yourself comfortable and, without altering the breath, notice its rhythm, depth and any irregularities. After a few minutes, practice the “ha" breath, which supports diaphragmatic breathing. Inhale slowly and smoothly through your nose. Open your mouth and exhale with a whispered haaaaaaa sound, until completely empty. Pause and stay empty for three counts. Repeat for 10 rounds with resting breaths as needed. When you’re finished, let your breath return to normal and notice any differences.
Kelly DiNardo is coauthor of the new book Living the Sutras: A Guide to Yoga Wisdom Beyond the Mat.