Practising yoga off the mat 

To be able to ‘take your practice off the mat’ is one of the biggest intentions of our practice on the mat. The lessons we learn on the mat prepare us for the challenging situations we face as off it. In others words, when we aren’t doing asana, or practising mindfulness. 

 

They help us to consider our thoughts and decisions, and teach us about appropriate behaviour. In addition, they offer guidance for setting boundaries, and building healthy relationships, among other things. During busy periods, holidays, celebrations or other commitments, many of us can’t stick to our routines. So, during those busy times, practising yoga off the mat is a great option for so many of us who get less time to ourselves. But let’s look at how we can actually practise yoga off the mat, even when we’ve got our hands full. 

Busy spells + less practice = emotional changes

We all experience times where our other responsibilities take over. Maybe work requires you to travel, you’ve got family gatherings, or friends who need you. Birthday presents need buying and the washing machine needs fixing, and you’re running out of groceries… 

 

Whatever it is that requires your time, less time on the mat can feel a little unsettling. For many, their yoga practice is something we do alone. And that’s even when you practise in a class. Many of us depend on this ‘me time’ for creating balance and peace in our lives. So, it can feel challenging to lose it. 

Less time on the mat might cause you to feel: 

  • unbalanced
  • unstable or unsettled  
  • ungrounded
  • anxious
  • frustrated
  • irritable  
  • guilty
  • sad

All of these are normal, and you’re definitely not the only one. Despite what society might tell you, these feelings are nothing to be ashamed of. 

Getting support from another yogi, a friend or family member can do wonders. But what about simply finding other ways of practising yoga off the mat?

Your yoga does not always have to depend on asana practice, meditation or mindfulness

In particular, the Sutra by Patanjali, the Yamas and Niyamas, are an example of this. For instance, they teach us to deal better with our own thoughts and behaviour in social situations. All of these are tested during busy times, or when we spend more time than normal with other people. 

Practising these things when it is not possible to practise as normal, can provide a remedy for any negative emotions. For example, those could be feelings of imbalance, anxiety and irritability. 

Yamas: their meaning and application to real life 

The Yamas represent ‘the right way of living’. Specifically, these refer to types of self restraint and ‘ideal’ behaviour. For that reason, people often describe them as morals or ethics. Also, they could refer to the way we speak to and behave around others. They particularly affect our relationships. So, you can see them as a ‘don’t do’ list for nurturing your relationships with others, the world, and yourself.

  • Ahimsa (non-harming or non-violence in the way you think, speak and act)
  • Satya (truthfulness)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (right use of energy)
  • Aparigraha (non-greed or non-hoarding)

Niyamas:  their meaning and application to real life 

The Niyamas are positive activities. So, they can be having responsibilities, or being observant, thoughtful and considerate. Similarly, they teach us healthy habits and discipline. The Niyamas help us find contentment and ways of feeling liberated. I see them as tools for creating an idea and a responsible lifestyle. But also for reaching spiritual enlightenment. In contrast to the Yamas, many describe them as the ‘to do this’ list. 

  • Saucha (cleanliness)
  • Santosha (contentment)
  • Tapas (discipline)
  • Svadhyaya (study of the self and of yogic texts)
  • Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to a higher being, or contemplation of a higher power)

All of the Yamas and Niyamas are social ethics, moral, or rules for behaviour. Whatever your background or opinions are, your interpretation of them will differ. Learning about them in, for example, your YTT is great. However, it can’t stop there. 

To practise yoga off the mat, you need to reflect on the meaning of the Yamas and Niyamas. How you can live by them? What does ‘non-harming’ (Ahimsa) mean to you?

For each of the 10 in the list, give yourself a moment to think think of real life examples. That is to say, in every day activities, like your job. A translation is not enough! So, give an example of how you would not hurt anyone, anything or yourself in your job. 

Practising off the mat could look like this

  1. Situation: At a family meal, everyone’s eating meat.
    Immediate reaction: Say ‘you shouldn’t eat meat! It’s bad!’
    Practising yoga off the mat: React by practising Svadhyaya – study of the self and yogic texts. And Satya – truthfulness. Explain to them calmly why eating vegan is an ethical choice for you.  
  2. Situation: Your sister says ‘I hate your last Instagram post’.
    Immediate reaction: You get defensive.
    Practising yoga off the mat: You practise Ahimsa – non-harming or non-violence. Also Brahmacharya – right use of energy. Instead, think ‘the important thing is my community will find my post useful’.
  3. Situation: You’re at a party that’s too crowded and loud.
    Immediate reaction: You get irritable, and people think you’re rude.
    Practising yoga off the mat: Take a deep breath and appreciate by focussing on the fact you’re surrounded by your loved ones. That is to say, practise Isvara Pranidhana – surrender to, or contemplation of, a higher being/power.
  4. Situation: Some the food is burned.
    Immediate reaction: You cry, consider it a disaster, and don’t eat anything at all.
    Practising yoga off the mat: Despite the burned food, instead you choose to have an equally good time. You practise Santosha – contentment – by appreciating the rest of the food that is edible.
  5. Situation: Your grandparents give you clothes you know you’ll never wear.
    Immediate reaction: It’s awkward and difficult to show appreciation because deep down you don’t like them.
    Practising yoga off the mat: Recognise this as an opportunity to give them away to someone else that will enjoy them. As a result, you’re practising Aparigraha – non-greed, non-hoarding – and Asteya – non-stealing. 

Reflecting on practising yoga off the mat

As practitioners and educators of yoga, it’s really important you to reflect on the Yamas and Niyamas. In other words, you need to know what these guidelines for ideal behaviour mean to you. In addition, you must consider how you can integrate them into your lifestyle. Not only because we can stay faithful to the real teachings of yoga, especially if we teach in the west. But also because we can apply them directly to our personal lives, and our behaviour as teachers.

To give you a little extra help to get started with this reflection, consider the following journal questions. So that you can see if you already apply the Yamas and Niyamas to your life. You might find you don’t really, in which case focus on what they mean to you personally. For example, consider what real-life situations (might) occur, during which the Yamas and Niyamas could come in handy.

Grab your journal:

  • How has yoga changed or affected your life off the mat already? 
  • In what ways do you apply any of these things to your life already? 
  • What (new) lessons have you learned today about the Yamas, Niyamas, or yogic philosophy in general? Which can you take into your daily life the next time things get too busy to get on the mat? 
  • Write some examples of how you could start practising yoga off the mat during the next busy period you experience.

Understanding the Yamas and Niyamas fully will help you give yourself quick reminders when you can’t get on the mat. This can help you in all the areas of life that the Yamas and Niyamas cover. 

 

Further, this type of study helps you to accept other people’s thoughts and behaviour without the urge to change them. As a result, you have tools for communicating with students, colleagues and collaborators who do not always think like you do.

 

Your self-study and the development of your practice off the mat teach you not just to tell others that they’re wrong and need to change. Consequently, you understand your real purpose – Dharma. It probably isn’t to create tension or bad energy. Practising yoga off the mat with the Yamas and Niyamas, you learn to take care of yourself and others better, and cultivate deeper and healthier relationships. 

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