Despite trying to avoid negative self-talk for many years, I can still occasionally catch my negative and critical inner voice. I don’t know about you, but I would never talk to someone in the way I sometimes talk to myself. While practising yoga, for example, this inner voice tells me that my slow practice makes me very boring, and with a faster yoga practice it is eager to comment that I must be very superficial…
During the past months I have been trying to be more aware of my yoga practice’s running commentary, and to introduce more kindness. Yoga is a process of becoming more mindful: we become more aware of our body, our breath, and also our mind. This blog suggests some ways in which we can quieten self-criticism while practising yoga, and transform our inner speech into a positive and supportive voice.
One could argue that critical self-talk is necessary to improve, and that complacency will get us nowhere. But it doesn’t have to be so black and white; we can find a happy medium between perfectionism and complacency. The drive to perfectionism isn’t the only way to improve, and surely positive encouragement will make the path of self-development more pleasant. Especially in yoga, improvement means a journey towards more acceptance, more awareness, more ease in our body, and it is not about being able to stay very long in a balancing pose, for instance. There is no perfect pose anyway … the body is more interesting than that.
Rather than being a tool to feel bad about ourselves, practising yoga can help us create wellbeing and inner peace. When we simply follow our breathing, there is joy. When we concentrate on the sensations in the body and our breathing, the whirlwind of the mind falls still and there is joy. According to one of the main philosophical texts of yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which are dated between 500BC to 300 AD, quietening the mind is the whole purpose of yoga. I would suggest that being aware of our inner voice is the first step, transforming any frustration into a more positive attitude is the second step.
Wisdom of body and breath
Quietening the mind is also essential because in our yoga practice we are trying to listen to the wisdom of the body and the breath. Our mind does not always know what is best. When we allow the mind to control everything, we forget to use the body to find different ways of releasing tension and stress.
When we listen to our body, rather than beating ourselves up about what it can’t do, we don’t only avoid injuries, but we can also progress more easily. The body does not respond well to tension, wilfulness or force.
When my children were small, books about how to educate children, how to talk to children, etc. taught me a new way of praising. Instead of saying, for example: “that’s an amazing picture, good boy”, we had to teach ourselves to say, e.g. “I really like the way you drew this line and how you used that strong colour there, you are good at using colour”. I can assure you this way of speaking did not come naturally. It took more effort because in the middle of activity I actually had to pause and look. And there is always something positive to see.
In a similar way, we can always find something positive in our yoga practice. Positive self-talk does not equate blind positivity. We don’t need to tell ourselves “you are so fantastic, never mind what you can’t do” but we can say: “I managed to concentrate and balance for 4 seconds and I feel tall and still. This feels lovely. I can practise this every day. It could strengthen my feet and improve my balance.”
So, for the coming fortnight, I invite you to practise a tree pose every day. It is in balancing poses that I see most frustration in my students. When you fall over, there may be a sense that you are not good enough. There is indeed something very frustrating about falling, and something challenging about balancing on one leg (see my previous blog about balancing here). Tightness is another area of discontent. We usually have a picture of how flexible we want to be, or how we once were, and the physical limitations of muscle tightness are not pleasant. However, what is important is to keep going. Just be mindful and accepting of where you are right now, knowing that we never stay the same.
The tree pose combines flexibility with strength and balance. Try to practise this pose with attention and joy. Here is how:
-Firstly, you can hold on to something, or have a wall or chair nearby. This is useful when you are afraid to fall and also when you just start practising. With time, perhaps, the wall can be nearby but you may not need it anymore. But remember, there is no better or worse, just the practise, which is helping you.
-Shift your weight over the left foot while lifting the heel of the right foot. Keep the right toes on the floor while getting used to carrying all the weight on the left leg.
-Feel a sense of length along the left side of the body, so you avoid bending into the left hip.
-Once your standing leg is happy on its own, and the right leg can come up lightly, place the right foot below or above the knee. This is where tree pose requires some flexibility. Many people trick themselves by bringing the knee all the way to the side, so it seems that the hip can easily rotate outward. What really happens is just a rotation in the spine. In order to keep the spine aligned, make sure both hipbones are facing forward and allow the knee to be wherever it needs to be.
-Keep the lower back long: especially if you tend to arch your lower back, slightly tuck the tailbone/engage the lower abdominal muscles.
-Place the hands together in front of you or above your head, wherever it feels nice and the shoulders remain relaxed.
-Breathe. When you exhale, imagine you can breathe out through the standing leg into the foot and beyond, as if you are creating roots underneath your foot with every exhalation. Inhale lightly, feeling the length, and the crown of the head gently pulled upwards.
While you practise, notice all the positives, don’t get frustrated when you fall over but talk to yourself encouragingly. Breathe and enjoy!