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3 Pillars to Guide Your Yoga Practice

Posted by Ellen Haines on
3 Pillars to Guide Your Yoga Practice

3 Pillars to Guide Your Yoga Practice

I believe that the best thing we can do as yoga teachers is share our own practice and the things that have made a difference in our own lives. ⁣⁣When a yoga teacher knows themselves, has taken the time to develop their own practice, and brings those unique experiences into their teaching, that uniqueness is precisely the thing that makes their classes so special. 


There are 3 cornerstones or pillars that permeate every class I teach. These learnings hold great meaning in my life and are at the core of what it means to practice yoga from my perspective. The result of all three practiced simultaneously should bring connection; with ourselves and with others. This is the intention for my own practice as well as for my students, when I’m teaching.⁣⁣


The first pillar is integrity.


I view asana (yoga postures) as tools that teach us how to live life off the mat. I believe that how we do one thing (like yoga), is how we do all things (life). And this is where integrity becomes important.


In the context of asana (structurally/physically) or the yoga poses themselves, this simply means, show up - body AND mind. Each time you step on your mat, commit yourself to the practice as best you can, accepting that every practice will be different from the last. Move intelligently and with awareness. Be honest with yourself about what feels beneficial in your body. Don’t put your body into compromising situations (regardless of what your neighbor is doing or what you’re teacher is asking you to do). Do challenge yourself.  Do move towards the situations which may be uncomfortable, where you may fail. Those situations are where the magic happens, that’s where you grow. 


In the context of yoga, (which spans far beyond postures, movement, and physicality), this simply means to practice putting your best foot forward. Living yoga means integrating the principles of yoga into our thoughts, words, and actions; it means taking yoga beyond our mat. Did you know that the first 2 limbs from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the yamas and niyamas, say nothing about postures or exercise? Instead they focus on how a yogi must strive to act in the world and towards themselves. To me this can be summed up as Integrity

This means:

  1. Uncover who you are and the values you aspire to
  2. Keep your intentions and actions genuine and take responsibility for them
  3. Do right by yourself and others. 
  4. Honor your word. Be honest and transparent. 

Most importantly, can you be a positive force in people’s lives?


The second pillar which guides my teaching is breath....and not just breath, conscious breath.


This may seem obvious as this is a cornerstone of any yoga class or training but the reality is that many students practice without it. In fact, breathing is so natural that no matter how advanced we may be, we all forget to breathe consciously from time to time...especially when we’re hot, sweaty, holding revolved half moon, and the instructor’s count tempo is so slow she might as well be counting backwards. 


Why is conscious breath so important? Have you ever noticed that when you breathe consciously you tend to feel more relaxed, calm, balanced, and connected (i.e. the goal of yoga)? The reason for that is that conscious breathing actually activates a different part of the brain compared to unconscious breathing. The unconscious breathing part of your brain is tied to survival (as in, don’t suffocate and die) and the conscious breathing part of your brain is tied to your emotions. This explains why we don’t just always feel relaxed and calm just by breathing. No, we need to actually be aware that we are breathing and pay attention to it in order to get the balancing, calming effects. 


Conscious breathing not only brings focus and relaxation but at a certain point the practitioner will learn breath control. Once this skill is unlocked, you can begin to use your breath in your practice to: 

  1. Propel you through challenging postures and transitions
  2. Bring fluidity into your movements
  3. Invigorate your body
  4. Build heat for detoxification
  5. Aid in physical tension and muscular release 


Aside from the emotional and physical benefits, breath has always been the barometer, so to speak, which lets me know when I’m pushing things too far. It’s the most gentle and wisest teacher. Your breath will always tell you when to back off and it will help you maintain a state of integrity in your practice (reference pillar #1).


The final pillar is focus.


For me, focus has always been one of the most challenging things. Breath and integrity can be trained with discipline and time. Focus is a different story and varies from day to day. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been practicing for nearly a decade. On challenging or stressful days I still find my monkey mind bouncing around from thought to thought over the course of my practice. My awareness and breath are what pull me away from the distraction and back into the present moment. Again and again. 


I think about everything like what I might do next weekend, what I’m going to eat after class, where the girl next to me got her leggings. I think about my day, the conversations I had, my to-do list, the thing I forgot to do that I was supposed to do. I even think about how I should stop thinking. Let me just say - - - this is normal.


The mind’s sole purpose is to think. That said, practicing concentration on your mat will help you find a deeper connection physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually so it’s worthwhile to pursue. Remember, the things we do on our mat always translate back into our life so if you can develop focused, present attention on your mat you will feel that ripple out into every aspect of your life. 


Beyond that, I believe that over time, this practice of concentration helps peel away all the layers of clutter that distract us from things that actually matter. Like the type of person we aspire to become, what makes us truly happy, and how to live a life which is in alignment with our goals and dreams. 



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