6 Ways to take your yoga practice to the next level

Recently I've begun teaching yoga, thinking more and more about what makes yoga a special practice, what aspects separate it from a regular exercise class. When students come into the studio and take my class, I want them to have an experience, fingers crossed a good one. So much emphasis is placed on the shapes your body is "supposed" to make in yoga, but there's so much more that makes up a good practice. Below are my 6 ingredients to take your yoga practice to the next level:

  1. Settling the energy. Before you practice, it's important to begin with some ritual which represents the sacred practice you are about to embark upon, It could be an opening OM, or a special playlist. You may want to burn incense or begin with an opening chant. Yoga teachers usually help open the practice for you but if you're practicing solo, it's still important to do this. 
  2. Set an intention. Intentions help to guide your energy. It's helpful to set an intention for your practice, and it could be as simple as moving your body, or showing yourself some love, releasing tension from the body, or breathing. Whatever reason has brought you to your mat for the day, it can be nice to take time to honor that reason before you begin. 
  3. The Breath. I've heard it said that yoga is really a breathing exercise with some postures thrown into it to challenge you. When the breath is calm, the mind is calm. Our breath is crucial. Breath awareness and breath control is number one priority. If you lose control of your breath, regain control before anything else. 
  4. Body Awareness. Tuning into and connecting with your body is one of the things that makes yoga so special. Yoga means "union" and the emphasis the practice places on the union between mind and body is one of the factors that sets yoga apart from other exercises. Bringing focus to your body alignment and noticing where you need to increase tension or soften can make all the difference. 
  5. Drishti (or gaze). The mind wanders when the eyes wander. Calm the eyes to calm the mind. Focusing your drishti (or gaze) helps keep the mind calm so you can get into that meditative state. Once you've mastered the breath, master the gaze.
  6. Detach from the result. This is so hard to do when you are a beginner and see everyone else doing postures you hope to achieve one day, but beating yourself up, stressing over what you can't do, doesn't help. Have compassion for yourself and trust in the process. Believe that with steady, consistent effort, one day your physical practice will get there, and enjoy the process as much as possible. That is, after all, why we practice yoga anyways right?