Health, harmony, endorphin-rich happiness—there are as many reasons for practicing yoga as there are styles to choose from. But ultimately, you practice yoga because it helps you live your daily life. As a practice in self-awareness, yoga is an infinitely rich guide to how you spend the hours you're not on the mat. But it's not always easy to access the heightened awareness you find during yoga. One way to find that connection is to become more aware of how the small choices you make every day affect you, your community, and the world around you. Maybe this year you'd like to take better care of your body, help others, or reduce your impact on the planet. Whatever your intention, when you make positive changes grounded in self-awareness, you can connect with the truth of who you are and why you do what you do. Here are seven small acts that can help you understand yourself, connect with the world around you, and live your yoga.
1. Shift Your Perspective
To radically shift your outlook, break out of your regular routine. Go a different way to work, try a new food, take a class from a yoga teacher you've never studied with before. Then notice how one seemingly simple change affects the way everything else appears to you. "Our whole world is basically what we perceive," says Frank Jude Boccio, a meditation teacher and the author of Mindfulness Yoga. "The opening verse of the Dharmapada—an anthology of quotes attributed to the Buddha—says, 'We create the world with our thoughts and our perceptions.' This means that the only thing we know about this world we are living in is how we perceive it."
To show how changeable our perceptions are, Boccio directs his students to visit a store and try on a hat that they would describe as "not me," then notice how wearing it changes the way they feel. "Even without looking in the mirror, just having the hat on changes your perception of your reality in that moment," Boccio says. Changing your perspective, whether it's as dramatic as taking a trip to another country or as mundane as taking a different seat at your dining table, can make you more aware of how conditioned your perceptions are. This awareness can soften your attachment to your perceptions, says Boccio, and open your heart to change. "Seeing the conditioning of perceptions is an essential aspect of the yogic path of liberation," he says.
2. Waste Not
Commit to a single day free of disposable products. Bring your lunch to work in a reusable container, use a cloth napkin, and bring your own water bottle to yoga class. Carry a reusable bag for everything you buy, not just groceries. Notice what you're obliged to throw away, whether it's the plastic wrap around your sandwich or the cotton in a new bottle of vitamins. And don't be discouraged if achieving a waste-free day proves harder than you think. Just becoming aware of what you're discarding is likely to usher in other changes that will eventually have an even greater effect on the environment.
"Paying attention to what I consume and discard is a practice in everyday awareness," says Berkeley yoga teacher Ari Derfel, who saved all of his trash for a year. He describes the project as a yoga meditation, one that made him keenly mindful of the life cycle of each piece of trash that he took responsibility for. "People say they're throwing stuff away, but 'away' is a euphemism. There is no 'away,' " Derfel says.
3. Restore Health and Happiness
As an antidote to striving for success in all that you do (including asana), devote one practice a week to poses that quiet, nourish, and center. Begin your restorative practice by sitting quietly for a few moments and connecting with your breath. Next, warm up with movement that gently stretches your muscles, such as Cat-Cow Pose and Happy Baby Pose. Move into postures like Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), and Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose), followed by an extended Savasana (Corpse Pose). If doing a restorative practice on your own sounds daunting, try a restorative class. Sunday evening is a good time for a restorative practice, helping you to wind down from the previous week and emerge revitalized for the week that's about to begin. Over time, a regular restorative practice will offer you a depth of self-awareness that's hard to come by any other way.
4. Experience Silence
Spend some time in silence. "Silence is one of the best ways of cultivating self-awareness," Boccio says. "When you're talking, you don't realize how noisy your mind is. When you're practicing silence, you're trying to step back from your reactivity to your mind. That alone is a profound insight."
Practicing silence can also be a way of conserving prana, or "life force." "When you speak a lot, you are using up prana," Boccio says. So unplug your iPod, hide your BlackBerry, and commit to a period of silence—as short as a 10-minute tea break or as luxurious as a whole day. Initially, being quiet can feel agitating, but simply notice your urge to speak or to take in other people's words or ideas. See if you can appreciate all the ambient noises: the sounds of birds, wind in the trees, the movements of other people, even traffic. Soon, you'll likely find the respite from speech to be deeply restful. "After a period of silence, my students find that they are more alert and even need less sleep," Boccio says.
5. Be a Creator
Bake bread, knit a cap, build a birdhouse, design your own thank-you notes. Creating something may feel like a small way of enriching the world, but making something with your hands can be an active meditation, an opportunity to take a break from conscious thought and allow yourself to freely engage with your creative side. "Like other contemplative practices, knitting opens space in the mind," says Tara Jon Manning, author of Mindful Knitting. "By simply creating a quiet state of being, you begin to notice—notice your thoughts, notice your feelings, and notice the workings of your mind and experience." Like the practice of yoga, creative acts are about the process, not the result; your sense of satisfaction when you pull on a warm hat you made yourself, mail a beautiful card to a friend, or bite into a sandwich on homemade bread is just an added benefit.
6. Make an Offering
Commit to one selfless act each week. You'll be surprised at how even a simple act like offering your seat on a crowded bus can foster a sense of connection and a respect for the welfare of others. Bring a meal to a busy friend; babysit your neighbors' kids; give a few hours to a community garden. These moments are a chance to share someone else;s experience of the world and see the richness of your own existence. "All yoga begins with karma yoga, which is action done as a service to others and as a form of worship of the divine," writes David Frawley in Yoga: The Greater Tradition. If you want to reach beyond your neighborhood, volunteer organizations like Kula for Karma www.kulaforkarma.org can help you find a place to contribute.
7. Love Your Body
At least one day a week, celebrate your body with a health-promoting ayurveda">Ayurvedic self-treatment. Therapeutic salt scrubs are nourishing and immunity enhancing, encouraging the movement of the lymph and the blood, says DeAnna Batdorff, of the Dhyana Center of Health Sciences in Sebastopol, California. Batdorff suggests mixing equal parts sea salt and organic sunflower or safflower oil, both of which are suitable for all Ayurvedic types. Add a few drops of grapefruit essential oil—it has a comforting aroma, and it helps to move the lymph, Batdorff says. Apply the mixture to the skin and scrub first from feet to heart, and then from hands to heart. Rub each area until the skin flushes, an indicator that the blood is moving. Fill the tub with warm water and soak, or rinse off in a warm shower. Gently blot the skin dry, massaging in the oil that is left on your skin. Lavishing yourself with love and compassion in a self-care routine is a good way to experience gratitude for your body and all it allows you to do.
Charity Ferreira is senior editor at Yoga Journal.