There are times when you know just what to do, and life seems to rise up and support you and your ideas. And then there are times when it is all a little murky, and you might feel a bit lost. Thankfully, you have your yoga practice to come to—a time to tap into a deep connection with yourself and remember who you really are and what is most important to you. Nothing could be better.
When you bring the spacious awareness you experience in your yoga practice to your whole life, you’ll experience the kind of presence that will make you stop in your tracks, engage your senses, and find joy in daily life. But for most of us, accomplishing that is easier said than done. Often it requires a conscious effort to examine the status quo, push in new directions, and find fresh approaches to evoking that same sense of grounding, connection, and happiness we find on the mat.
Here, then, are 10 possibilities to help you get there. Put these ideas into practice one at a time, or try several at once. You might want to welcome one of them into your life as an offering to the New Year. Whatever approach you choose, here’s to feeling more alive, more present, and more aware of what makes you happy.
1. Get Energized About Your Future
Your yoga practice helps you live in the present, but life in the world demands a certain amount of decision making and planning. What’s your vision of where you want to go and how you’ll get there? When you take a proactive approach, your dreams are more likely to become reality. Knowing what you want is, of course, the first step.
If you need help discovering your life’s path, start by talking it out, says Nancy Wagaman, a life coach in San Diego. You can develop a goal list and create affirmations, she says. You can draw a picture of your future—even pray for guidance. "There are so many ways to energize the new vision you want for your life. The more you energize it, the more you draw that energy to that vision. And the universe tends to support you," she says.
Of course, your vision may change over time, but the important thing is that you’re an active participant in your future.
How to: To find a life coach near you, visit findyourcoach.com.
2. Plug Into Your Spiritual Self
Reconnecting with your innermost self can open the doors to an entirely new and unpredictable path. At 33 years old, Susan Nicolas was a yoga teacher living in San Francisco and dating. But her singular focus on meeting a husband and starting a family was causing her heartache. On the advice of friends, she signed up for a vipassana retreat. During 10 days of silence and insight meditation, she came face-to-face with her attachment to getting married and to the unfinished dynamics of past relationships. "Through a lot of struggle and occasional glimpses of true stillness, it seemed the obstacles in my life dissolved," she says. "I felt more in touch with my true self than I ever had."
Getting away from routine relationships and environments makes it easier to drop into stillness and examine the undercurrent of your life. Once you do, you can plug into a connection with your divine nature. On retreat, you can also practice accessing your true self so that you can call on it anytime in your life.
A month after her retreat, Nicolas unexpectedly reconnected with an old sweetheart who is now her husband of eight years. "The experience during those sometimes difficult 10 days was like removing a stopper in the mouth of my life," she says. "Everything simply flowed forth as it should."
How to: Check with a favorite teacher or retreat center for upcoming dates. Even a weekend away that includes meditation, yoga, rest, and silence can be enlightening if you set an intention to retreat.
3. Let Go of the Old
Writing, drawing, doing yoga—there are many pathways to bringing all that’s inside of you out and into the world. For several years, Tiffanie Turner, an architect from San Francisco, felt creatively blocked. As an experiment, Turner began writing three pages in her journal each morning. After a few weeks, she noticed some dramatic changes in her life. "I drop off a lot of baggage in the morning and feel clear for the rest of the day," she says. Turner found that her anxiety levels decreased, too. "I write down things that worry me in the morning, or a horrible dream that would normally stay with me all day. And when I do, these things pretty much don’t exist for me any more."
"Once you let go of thoughts that aren’t truly serving you, you’ll feel lighter, more creative," says Courtney Miller, a yoga teacher in Manhattan, who includes journaling in her yoga workshops. "It’s as if you have more space inside for noticing what makes you happy."
How to: Dust off your journal, commit to a designated time frame each day, and stick to it. If writing isn’t your thing, try drawing your thoughts and feelings.
4. Serve Others
If you haven’t yet noticed, time spent trying to fulfill your desires usually isn’t that fulfilling—even when you achieve or get something that you think you want. But when you turn your attention to the needs of others, you often feel a huge sense of satisfaction. Focusing on other people enables you to be engaged without having to figure out what’s in it for you. And seva (selfless service) can be very empowering, showing you that your actions really do make a difference in the world.
How to: You can walk pups at the Humane Society, teach yoga at a community center, or bring your talents to an after-school tutoring program—the possibilities are endless. Many organizations ask for a six-month commitment, though, so it’s important to find something you’re passionate about and have time for. Log on to volunteermatch.org and type in your interests and Zip Code to find a perfect volunteer fit.
5. Honor Your Physical Self
You often hear about spacious awareness in the mind, but it can also be found in your sense of physical self—in the way you move externally, and then process things internally. That’s why San Francisco chiropractor Colin Phipps does a seasonal cleanse about three times a year. He says that the cleanse cultivates awareness by giving him emotional clarity and providing a healthy ritual to follow. "It’s a conscious effort to become much more attuned to my sense of self and where I am in the world," he says.
How to: Elson Haas, an integrative-medicine practitioner and author of The New Detox Diet, recommends a simple winter detox that anyone can follow: For three weeks this winter, base your three meals a day on soups, salads, fruits, and veggies. Drink lots of water and herbal teas, and stay warm. Omit sugar, alcohol, caffeine, wheat, and dairy—and don’t eat between meals. When the seasons change throughout the year, carve out anywhere between 3 and 21 days to repeat some version of the detox. “When you move toward fruits, veggies, and water, you are moving toward things that are less congesting and moving along the pathway to health,” says Haas. Find more detox tips at elsonhaas.com.
6. Be Daring
There’s a lot to be said for having the discipline to stick with a specific style of yoga, getting to know it well, and working through resistance to aspects that you know you don’t like. But exploring a new style of yoga can be revitalizing. Experimentation and play in your practice can teach you to be, err, more "flexible" in all of your life and more aware that there’s always more to learn and explore.
Jay Maldonado, a 29-year-old director of a literacy program who lives in Brooklyn, says her long-term study of one style of yoga left her with a good understanding of alignment but not a lot of spiritual depth. So she pounded the Manhattan pavement looking for something that resonated. She found it at Laughing Lotus, a studio whose philosophy centers on joy and playfulness. “It opened the doors to my creativity and self-expression, and just really enjoying who I am,” she says. “It allowed my yoga practice to become something that’s not so regimented. Instead, it evolves every day.”
Maldonado is also transgendered, and finding a new style helped her greatly during her transition. “As my practice became freer, everything else in my life freed up, and I made the changes I needed to honor myself as a transgendered being,” she says. “When you delve into the scariness of something new, that’s usually the shock that you need to awaken your spiritual practice and passion.”
How to: Chant if you normally focus on alignment, or experiment with holding poses for minutes at a time if you’re used to a more flowing practice. For other ideas, go to yogajournal.com/styleguide.
7. Soothe Your Mind
Meditation quiets a busy mind and cultivates a witness who can watch what’s happening in your life with a bit of emotional distance. The benefits are enormous—many meditators say they have more clarity, experience less anxiety, and feel better physically. Most of all, the practice offers an experience of calm and contentment.
Are you willing to commit to meditating every day for 30 days? If so, you might find your whole life transformed. “An agitated mind squanders such an amazing amount of energy,”; says Richard Faulds, a senior meditation teacher at Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “If you can still the surface of the mind, you’ll say ‘Wow! This is who I really am!’ You get a taste of something that’s really quite profound. You will want to sustain it.”
How to: Faulds recommends meditating on the breath for 20 minutes each day. To do this, follow his guidelines: Find a comfortable seated position. Bring yourself to the present moment by breathing, relaxing, feeling, watching, and allowing any thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations to come and go. Instead of reacting to those things, simply be aware of them. Deepen the breath. Watch the breath. Let go of all technique and come into effortless being. You can find another Kripalu Yoga guided meditation at yogajournal.com/kripalumed.
8. Notice Your Surroundings
When you’re reassessing life, it’s tempting to spend a lot of time focusing on yourself. But it can be transformative to connect with the world around you, to meet your neighbors, to enjoy the changing of the seasons, to take an interest in what’s happening in your community. Simply being aware of your environs creates a sense of interconnectedness—and suddenly you can’t not care about how your actions affect people and your environment.
One way to feel that connection is to make a commitment to eating seasonal and locally grown foods. "Once people become dedicated seasonal eaters, suddenly they become aware of things like water issues, ranchers’ issues, and political issues in their community," says Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. Plus, these foods taste better, do less harm to the environment by reducing resources needed for shipping, and put you in touch with the cycles of nature.
How to: Eating seasonally and supporting farmers is as easy and delicious as visiting your local farmers’ market or joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program—a fancy term for a farm that grows and delivers produce near your home. Visit the United States Department of Agriculture’s website (ams.usda.gov) and click on your state to locate a local farmers’ market, or check out localharvest.org/csa to find a CSA.
9. Create Community
Karen Habib had been plagued for years by a feeling of emptiness that she couldn’t quite name. Habib, who lives in Manhattan and worked in corporate marketing at that time, craved meaning, community, and a place where she could feel grounded amid the hustle and bustle of New York. So when the opportunity arose for her to move into the Integral Yoga Institute in the West Village, she went for it.
When you live in close quarters with other people, they can certainly press your buttons. But when that happens, Habib thinks of a statement attributed to Integral Yoga founder, Swami Satchidananda: "The stones in a river start out rough, but with the current continually bumping and polishing them, they end up being beautiful." Since moving into the institute, Habib has gained clarity to pursue a life-long interest in interior design. She has also discovered a renewed sense of vitality, strength, and gratitude. With her yoga community, she now has a sacred center to come home to, daily yoga classes and workshops at her disposal, and a place to meet like-minded yogis she can relate to. “When I walk into the center, I breathe and sit to do Pranayama and think, ‘God, am I lucky!’”
How to: While you may not choose to move into an ashram, you can find some kind of sangha (community) at your local studio or through a favorite teacher. Many studios offer immersion programs that meet weekly to discuss philosophy, practice asana, chant, and spark renewed vitality, strength, and gratitude for the practices. Or you can organize your own group by inviting friends, posting flyers that give information about the meetings, and hosting yoga meet-ups in your town (visit meetup.com to post events).
10. Make a Nature Date
It’s easy to overlook the most obvious accessible antidote to stress, worry, and busyness: the outdoors. Sense the earth beneath your feet, watch birds soar, feel the wind on your face—these are all reminders that your troubles, and even your joys, need not be all consuming; you are part of something bigger.
Carol Tonelli, a Spanish interpreter living in San Francisco, heads to the ocean for a swim when she wants to reconnect. “There, I can surrender to the water, to the sun, to the flow of life,” she says. Immersing herself in natural beauty, says Tonelli, allows her to release stress and to access a deep sense of serenity that carries her through tougher times.
How to: Whether you decide to head for the mountains, streams, or sea, take time out of your schedule to make a nature date once a week. When you’re outdoors, allow your thoughts and concerns to float away like clouds. Stay present to the natural beauty that surrounds you; cultivate a sense of gratitude for the abundance that is right in front of your nose.