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From time to time, we all get distracted on our mats during yoga class. From to-do lists and daydreams to work responsibilities and family drama, our minds drift off while our bodies take the shapes of familiar yoga poses. After all, brain activity is normal. In the same way our physical bodies flow in and out of poses, our thoughts have a rhythm too. One of the gifts of a yoga practice is learning to notice when we’ve become captivated by our thoughts—and then knowing how to reconnect to the present moment and all it holds.
But what about those times in yoga class (or anywhere, for that matter) when your distracting thoughts are consumed with cruel self-talk about your body and its perceived shortcomings, inadequacies, and imperfections?
Inner dialogues fixated on negative body talk breed guilt, shame, and unnecessary comparisons. This makes it nearly impossible to have a positive—let alone peaceful—experience in yoga class. Instead, your time on the mat will be filled with resentment toward yourself and maybe even toward others.
In fact, when you’re caught up in comparative thoughts during yoga, you’re probably everywhere in the room except for your mat: Your eyes are scanning around the room, comparing the size, shape, features, flexibility, and capability of everyone else in the room. You may even get caught up in comparing clothing or perceived popularity, or how much more other yogis “fit in.” Comparing yourself to others is a slippery slope that can go on and on and on, compromising your self-worth, self-esteem, and body image.
If you are often distracted by comparative thoughts during yoga class, here are five practical ways to become more present on your mat.
1. Ground in the moment with your hands at heart center
Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal) is a posture commonly performed during yoga class. Done from standing or seated, we often pause with our hands at heart center to connect with ourselves and the moment; it’s an opportunity for quiet reflection.
When we compare ourselves to others, we are thrown far off center by obsessing about external factors. Use this mudra to pull yourself back to center. Think of it like a reset button—a physical reminder to let go of comparison and return to the moment.
Firmly press your hands together, and bring your awareness to the feeling of being palm to palm, fingertips to fingertips. Take a few moments to stay focused on this feeling— your hands pressing into one another—as you take several deep breaths in and out. Count your breaths to help deepen your focus and detach from your thoughts about yourself and others. Stay with this hand position and your breath for as long as you need, and remember that you can return to it as many times as you like.
See also The Meaning of “Namaste”
2. Soften your eyes
In yoga, we often talk about keeping the eyes soft to embody a sense of ease and calm in our postures. A hard, narrow gaze translates into tension through our bodies and thoughts. In comparison, when our eyes are soft, our thoughts are kinder. We judge, berate, and demand less. We are more open to the sensory experience of each pose and less concerned about controlling the outcome.
Walk into the yoga room with soft eyes. Do your best throughout your practice to hold a soft drishti (gaze). Practice looking at others with soft eyes, too. You will be less likely to compare when your intention is a soft gaze. Here’s something that may be revelatory: Try seeing yourself with soft eyes, too. Literally soften how you hold your focus and facial muscles, and put your attention on your breath instead of physical forms. When you feel your forehead or jaw tightening, that’s your cue to come back to soft eyes.
3. See yourself as part of the whole.
Comparative thoughts often lead us to believe we don’t fit it in, we are different, and thus isolated. Calling on the definition of yoga (union) is a tangible reminder that we are not separate after all.
Rather than picking apart your body, notice other elements in the room. See yourself in connection with the world around you. Appreciate the space; take in colors, shapes, nature, architecture, and the beauty of light. Recognize yourself as part of a larger group—and world. Imagine how much you belong.
4. Use mantra
The practice of mantra is incredibly powerful, because words directly influence body image and self-esteem. The more you use comparative language in your self-talk, the greater your shame and guilt will be. On the flip side, the more you make purposeful efforts to feed your mind kind language, the more open and compassionate you become.
Pause before entering the yoga room to set a short affirmation or mantra that you can repeat throughout your practice. It’s best to focus on this before you enter an environment that triggers unkind feelings about your body. Your mantra can be one word (like “trust”), an “I am” statement (such as “I am enough”), or a simple, short phrase (for example, “I am strong and beautiful”). If you have difficulty coming up with a self-affirming mantra, choose one from an existing quote or other source of inspiration in your life.
Your mantra will be your personal power source. Using it will not be a fake-it-until-you-make-it situation. It’s a purposeful practice that will help you learn to relate to yourself in a new and affirming way.
5. When you catch yourself comparing, wish that person well
Cultivating gratitude for your body can feel impossible on tough body-image days. Still, harming yourself with nasty self-talk is not OK—not to mention goes against our yogic practice of ahimsa (non-harming). The practice of wishing someone well is a beautiful way to counteract feelings of resentment and jealousy. It opens us up to our natural capacity to offer love—even to strangers.
Well-wishing is a quiet practice meant only for you to hear. It cultivates positivity within and extends goodness without. To do this practice, notice when your thoughts are ridden with guilt, shame, and comparisons. Pause and take a few breaths to clear your mind and calm the feeling. With soft eyes, place your focus on the person or thing you are reacting to, and quietly say to yourself, “I wish you well.” Repeat the words until you sense a shift, both physically and mentally. Repeat this during your yoga practice as many times as needed to help you foster more ease and presence.
When practiced with compassion and patience, these tips will allow you to be more present in yoga class and less consumed by comparisons that aren’t serving you. These practices will also help you develop appreciation for your own body, because you will have more energy to pay attention to your abilities, gifts, and unique experiences. I’ve used them myself to overcome negative body image in my own life, and I’m hopeful you’ll find them to be valuable as well. Repetition, consistency, and time are essential to letting go of habitual comparative thoughts. Be gentle with yourself, but also committed to showing up more fully for yourself in these ways. You are worth it. Your body deserves your kindness, too.
About the Author
Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT-500, C-IAYT, is a yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. She is an inspirational speaker on eating disorder recovery and body image and coauthor of the forthcoming book, Body Mindful Yoga: Create a Powerful and Affirming Relationship With Your Body (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). In addition to her private yoga therapy practice, Jennifer leads yoga therapy groups at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia and yoga workshops and retreats on eating disorder recovery and body image. Jennifer also trains yoga professionals how to nurture positive body image in students and private clients at the YogaLife Institute in Wayne, PA. She is the cofounder of 11 Elements: A Body Compassion Project Yoga Retreat, and a partner with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. Jennifer’s writing about her personal and professional experiences on the topics of yoga, body image, motherhood, and eating disorder recovery have appeared in Yoga Journal and other influential blogs. She has appeared on Fox29 News and has been featured in the Huffington Post, Real Woman magazine, Medill Reports Chicago, Philly.com, and the ED Matters podcast. Connect with Jennifer: www.ChimeYogaTherapy.com.