Three Life Lessons From My Yoga Instructor

I have experienced a number of significant life changes in recent years.  One of the most powerful has been incorporating a mindfulness practice into my routine.

At times when life becomes stressful, overwhelming, and just too much to handle, mindfulness techniques give you the tools to let go of anxiety and put pressures in their proper perspective.

One of my favorite mindfulness exercises is yoga, which I enjoy every Saturday morning with my beautiful wife.  Besides the physical and mental benefits, it also gives us a break from responsibilities and a chance to reconnect with each other.

During this weekend's yoga session, our yoga instructor was dropping some serious life knowledge and I thought I'd share my three favorites.

1) "Give yourself permission to relax."

In the days of multitasking and constant interruptions, you need to tell yourself to let go of everything.  "Keller, you can stop thinking about that stuff for 45 minutes.  Just relax."  Sometimes I literally have to hear myself saying those words.

During my introduction to mindfulness, I learned the technique of "thought clouds" where you imagine that your thoughts are like clouds floating by on a beautiful summer afternoon.  The thoughts are there, but instead of immersing yourself in them, you simply observe them floating by.  Next time you look down to an epic to-do list, try the cloud technique.

One obvious way to relax is through play, even though we rarely give ourselves permission to do so.  The idea of play, and the ability to recognize its importance in our lives, is one of the qualities that makes humans so unique.  As author Greg McKeown writes in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality.  Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?

McKeown goes on to quote Albert Einstein, who said, "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge."

My desk, complete with toys for random moments of playtime.

My desk, complete with toys for random moments of playtime.

There is a reason why athletes do calisthenics before a workout.  And there's a reason why vocalists warm up their voices before a concert.  Playtime is like a mental warmup for your brain!

2) "Sometimes you never know where those boundaries are until you test the waters."

One of my favorite parts of yoga is seeing progress over time.  I am not a naturally flexible person.  Spending many years in an industry built around sitting at a desk has certainly not helped.

At the beginning of a yoga session, I often have a healthy six inches between my fingertips and my toes when I do a forward bend.  But by the end of that session, I'm able to touch my toes.

The way you make that sort of progress is by pushing your body to its limit, and then pushing just a little more.  Every time you test that edge, you're showing your body that it can actually reach a little bit further.

We often give ourselves mental limits as well.  Have you ever talked yourself out of an opportunity because it was too scary, or uncomfortable, or different?  In behavioral finance, we call this status quo bias, where people tend to prefer keeping things the same instead of trying something new.  

Just like you can push your body to new levels of flexibility and strength through consistent effort, you can open your life to new experiences by pushing through self-imposed mental limits.

3) "Where you find resistance, send more breath."

Over the last year of doing way more meditation and way more singing, I have spent a ton of time focused on my breath.  Think about your breathing right now.  Sitting in front of a computer or gazing at a mobile device, you're probably doing some pretty shallow breathing.

When was the last time you took a deep and meaningful breath?  How often do you breathe so deep that you feel your entire midsection swell up, and then exhale loudly to release all of that air?  Probably not often enough.

In yoga, one of the best ways to push your body past a resistance point is to "breathe through it."  Take a deep breath in, and stretch just a little bit more as you exhale.

The next time you're overwhelmed by your thoughts, close your eyes, take in a super deep breath, and then release it completely.  Deep breathing helps to bring us back to the now, with a greater awareness of ourselves and our surroundings.  And you may find that some of your best thinking can happen after a simple reset of the breath.

Relax.  Stretch.  Breathe.  Enjoy!


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