If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ve probably had this experience: You’re holding a pose and the tension is more than you can take. Your muscles are reaching their pain and stamina threshold, but the instructor reminds you to breathe into the sensation. And, when you do, you notice that you can tolerate the tension and hold the pose a wee bit longer. Sometimes, the tension actually subsides, and you’re able to deepen the stretch.
Here’s what happened: You experienced a stressor and, rather than resist it or get bent out of shape over it, you rode the wave of sensation and watched it change and then recede.
If you’re human, you’ve probably also had this experience: You leave the sanctity of yoga class, and life starts throwing you stressors. Maybe you’re late for an important meeting because you’re stuck in a major traffic jam, or maybe you get a call from your teenager, who’s just crashed your car. All of a sudden, the stress-management tools you learned in yoga class are a distant memory, if not completely forgotten.
You may be increasingly skilled at practicing yoga on the mat, but when it comes to practicing yoga off the mat, you’re still a bit clueless. It was in this spirit that I walked into a Kripalu R&R Retreat workshop titled “Off the Mat,” taught by Aruni Nan Futuronsky.
“What works on the mat works off the mat,” Aruni reminds us right away. “If it works on the mat, it also works in traffic, with your teenager, and with your boss.”
When stressors arise, Aruni says, we can choose to “ride the waves,” and the prescription goes like this:
- Breathe: Just like in yoga class, breathe when uncomfortable sensations (fear, anger, sadness, and so on) arise. “Breathing takes us from fight, flight, or freeze—the sympathetic nervous system,” Aruni explains, “to the parasympathetic nervous system [that promotes] relaxation. Just like on the yoga mat, as you breathe into the sensations, they relax and change.”
- Relax: To illustrate her point, Aruni has us take a breath while making a fist. “Try to soften your muscles and relax around the tension,” she says, reminding us that there’s going to be tension in life, “but we can cultivate ways to soften around it. As we do that, the tension shifts rather than our entire being constricting around the constriction.”
- Feel: Aruni encourages us to feel our feelings, to notice the sensations that arise in our bodies. “Feelings are not the problem,” she says. “It’s what we do to try to control them that digs a hole.” So, when a stressor arises, try giving yourself permission to feel whatever comes with it. “Let the experience move through you,” she says.
- Watch: You might have been encouraged in yoga class to step slightly to the side, figuratively speaking, and watch yourself in the midst of a challenging pose. That can be helpful in life, too. “Witness consciousness is the capacity to notice what’s happening without judgment, the ability to observe with radical compassion,” Aruni says.
- Allow: This can be tricky for those of us who like to be in control, but just as we strive to allow painful sensations to arise and pass in yoga class, we can do the same in life. “We can’t control other people, situations, or things,” Aruni says, “but we can develop passionate nonattachment. We can relax into the experience rather than trying to force it. It will always pass.”
This off-the-mat practice can help us struggle less and savor more. “We develop the capacity,” says Aruni, “to be in relationship with reality in a way that moves us forward through life.”