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How to Get the Most Out of Your Yoga Practice—Emotionally Speaking

Plus, why sometimes you feel like you’re just going through the motions.

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We all know yoga is an effective way to practice mindfulness, recenter yourself, and focus on self-compassion. And sometimes, it does just that. It “hits hard,” leaving you feeling refreshed and energized, or even calm and focused, both emotionally and physically. But other times, you leave a session feeling like you just went through the postures. And that can be frustrating, right?

So what makes yoga “hit harder” on some occasions, and how can you harness that energy each time you come to the mat? The answer may lie in the way you approach your practice.

Why a yoga session has you in the feels

There are several possible reasons to consider:

1. You focused on the process, not the outcome

After a long day, it’s understandable that you would rely on yoga to give you what you need, whether that’s a boost or a break. But don’t forget the steps you have to take throughout your practice to get to that “sweet spot,” including making the effort to head to class, paying attention to your breath, and trying to stay mindful of where your thoughts are headed.

“With the emphasis on the goal or outcome, rather than the process, your yoga practice turns into simply a box to check on the road to feeling better,” says Valerie Ugrinow, master trainer at YogaSix, a national franchise with more than 150 studios. Ultimately, your practice is about much more than just being in class.

2. You stayed present

Feeling present in your body and in the studio can also help. “When we’re present, we’re fully here in this moment with our awareness and attention, our mind is relatively quiet, and our heart is open,” explains Rev. Connie L. Habash, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher. “That means we’re allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and have very little distractions going on inside ourselves.”

Ugrinow believes your ability to be present is what makes your practice powerful and effective. This may look like sensing how your body feels when you transition to a new pose or the rhythm of your breath. Notice distractions that pop up, without judgment. Maybe you’re stressed about a deadline at work or a conflict with your partner. That’s normal!

However, when you notice those thoughts, Habash recommends redirecting your mind to how your body and breath feel with each pose. For example, you could do a brief body scan or slowly count your inhales and exhales.

3. The poses were emotionally charged

Do some yoga poses feel more emotional than others? That’s because they are, in a sense! “Certain movements and asanas, such as backbends or hip openers, focus on areas that tend to hold a lot of emotional tension for individuals,” says yoga teacher Catri Barrett. Through these poses—such as Balasana (Child’s Pose), Uttana Shishosana (Extended Puppy Pose), and Garudasana (Eagle Pose)—you may experience a release of stored emotions and feelings, she says.

4. You were true to yourself

In an in-person yoga class, you may be tempted to push your body to “keep up” with those around you. “However, when you mindfully show up for and meet the version of you that is on the mat that day, that is when you enable yourself to make the most out of your yoga practice,” Barrett says.

This could mean doing a variation of the pose, moving into a more restorative posture, or even closing your eyes so you don’t compare yourself. Remember, how you feel and how deeply you can stretch may change from one class to the next—and that’s okay!

5. You didn’t judge yourself

If you fall out of a pose or can’t stay focused, choose to respond with self-love. It may lead to a more fulfilling yoga session. Habash encourages you to meet your thoughts and emotions with understanding. “Be present with them, with a kind and caring attitude.” This can further connect your body with your mind.

How to get the most out of your yoga practice

While your feelings after yoga may be different each time, keeping these tips in mind during class can help you move toward the emotional release you’re craving.

1. Set an intention

At the beginning of your yoga practice, think of what you want to feel throughout the class. This might look like channeling strength, being compassionate toward yourself, or summoning courage. Keep that intention in mind throughout class. It may help to pick one particular word—surrender, calm, patience—to come back to throughout your practice.

2. Breathe with awareness

Check in with your breath. You may be holding it without realizing it, especially if the pose is uncomfortable or stressful. By tuning into it and using a technique like ujjayi pranayama (aka, a Darth Vader breath), you create alpha waves in your brain. “This activates your vagus nerve, which ultimately activates your parasympathetic nervous system,” Ugrinow says.

A 2018 study in the Mental Illness Journal supports this. It found that levels of theta and alpha 2 waves were higher in participants after deep breathing, which contributed to reduced anxiety. However, you can experience the same benefits from other techniques, including simply slowing your breath. A 2018 study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience discovered that slower breaths can help you feel more relaxed, as well as less anxious and depressed.

3. Reframe judgments into curiosity

Do you feel embarrassed if you fall out of a pose? If so, you’re not alone. Shifting that judgment and getting curious instead of, well, judging yourself for judging yourself, can help. Mariel Witmond, yoga teacher and founder of Mindful Sonder, says curiosity helps us “find meaning in what we do and experience.”

Instead of saying, “I’m too weak in this pose; my balance is horrible,” Ugrinow recommends reframing to: “I wonder what it would feel like to take a different variation.” This shift opens you up to new insight and possibilities, she says.

4. Do what you need in the moment

On that note, try to not focus on what others are doing, what you usually do, or what the “full expression” of the pose is, as this can put you in an unhelpful headspace. Ugrinow recommends asking yourself, “Do you really need (or even want) more intensity in this moment, or are you just pushing yourself through the extremes out of habit?” Your emotional needs and desires may look different every time you come to the mat—honor that.

Bring self-compassion to your mat

To keep these tips top of mind, it may help to write them on a sticky note or find teachers who mention these reminders throughout your class. And again, since every yoga session is different, be kind to yourself. No one is perfect, and that’s okay.