Friday, July 19, 2013

The Experts Weigh In: The Intention Behind Your Yoga Practice

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Yoga has recently become a buzzword that is commonly associated with health, fitness and relaxation.  Although yoga is indeed associated with all these aspects of wellness, yoga can also be a practice that promotes deep inner growth and change.  Our bodies, minds, and hearts are deeply connected and interrelated.  As we work on one aspect of ourselves  (like our physical bodies), we simultaneously promote change in the other aspects of ourselves - our minds and hearts. I really love the Sanskrit word for "transformation" - Parinama.  It translates as “folding within to offer out”.  For something to truly transform, we must first take it in, sit with it (meditate) and then turn it into an offering from inside out. 

Yoga practice is truly a process of transformation, but how can we cultivate that change in real and lasting ways?

I began practicing yoga 18 years ago when my mom died of colon cancer at age 46.  It was the darkest time in my life, and I longed to find some peace and understanding.  About that time, my college roommate’s sister came to live with us after spending a year in India.  She seemed “spiritual” and “happy” and I wanted some of what she had!  At her suggestion, I immediately immersed myself in all the yoga I could find - which was substantially less in 1995 than what's out there now.  To be honest, I didn’t really understand how these poses were helping me become more peaceful or happy.  In fact, they mostly just frustrated me!  

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A well-kept secret among yoga practitioners is that many of the poses are extremely uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and far from “relaxing” design.  Yet I stuck with it and slowly I did begin to change. Slowly but surely as my tight hamstrings and rounded shoulders opened, my mind also opened.  That gnawing pain inside my grieving heart began to soften, and the anger and resentment I felt at losing my mom so early in life began to melt away with every drop of sweat that hit my mat. Mysteriously, the discipline of aligning and stretching my body into these shapes while quieting my mind and deepening my breath began to transform something deep within me.  Without any understanding of why or how, as I regularly practiced these yoga poses with deep awareness, my heart began to heal.  My perspective on the world and my place within it shifted.  My sadness and loneliness dissipated, and I felt truly connected and whole.  

I recently heard that the only real catalyst for change is crisis.  Although there may be some truth to this, my wish for everyone is that we can cultivate the courage to truly turn within, digest what needs digesting, and create a sweet offering from our own hurts, mistakes, grievances and pain.  There is a beautiful poem on transformation that says, 
            “Last night as I was sleeping,
            I dreamt—marvelous error!—
            that I had a beehive
            here inside my heart.
            And the golden bees
            were making white combs
            and sweet honey
            from my old mistakes.”
            -Antonio Machado, "Last Night As I Was Sleeping"

Yoga can be an important tool for inner (and outer) transformation.  Unfortunately, many classes today are taught from a purely physical, fitness-based approach.  While there is definite value to this, I believe yoga is much more than just a physical practice.  One way for any practitioner to engage in this “inner unfolding” or transformation is to always set a clear and powerful intention before practicing yoga.

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Here are some simple steps for turning your yoga routine into a true tool for growth and change. First, always put your practice into the context of something bigger.   Rather than just settling for a good stretch or workout, sit for a minute, connect to your breathing, and let your mind relax. Contemplate what you really desire on the deepest level.  It may be something simple like “relaxation” or something more complex like “forgiving _______ who hurt me and truly moving on”.  Then, whatever intention arises naturally from your heart, listen to it and use it to fuel your practice.  I like to break down my intentions into one word when possible.  I often am working on transforming my impatience into greater compassion and tolerance.  So I simplify this into a word like “patience” or “acceptance”.  Next, use this word as an inner mantra (inner affirmation) throughout the entire practice.  Often, whatever we are struggling with on the outside will show up during our yoga practice.  When I am impatient with others in my daily life, I also notice myself being impatient with my teacher or my body during yoga.  So I silently repeat “patience” with every breath.  Use yoga as an opportunity to embody the quality you are transforming or cultivating.  Make every single pose an expression of this intention.  

When we take the time to really create an intention and apply it to every single pose and every single breath, our yoga practice truly becomes a vehicle of inner transformation.  We are then able to turn within, churn our experience, and make a sweet offering back out into the world.  In this way we transform not only ourselves, but everyone and everything around us.

Greta Hill is a passionate, inspiring, and highly skilled yoga teacher (E-RYT-500) and health coach who has taught both nationally and internationally. She is known for her dynamic and creative sequencing, clear and precise alignment instruction and down-to-earth approach to bringing yogic philosophy to life on and off the mat! She is dedicated to uplifting and empowering her clients by cultivating a safe space for true transformation to occur.  Greta has been featured in a variety of magazines including Yoga Journal Brazil, Run W, O2 magazine, and Estilo Natural.  A combination of wanderlust and meeting the love of her life led her to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she currently lives and leads workshops, retreats, yoga immersions, Teacher Training programs, and also works extensively with private clientele.  Find out more at

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