A playful practice can bring you more joy on and off the mat.
Once upon a time, we all viewed the world as a friendly, lighthearted, and inviting place. Then, somewhere in the process of becoming an adult—perhaps when we felt pressure to excel in school, got passed over for that perfect job, or felt the pain of a broken heart—seriousness, self-doubt, and fear may have replaced our wonder and fun-loving attitude. While we can still connect with the idea of being playful at times (say, on the dance floor at our best friend’s wedding), for many of us, playful moments have become more and more fleeting. And, the sense of seriousness we use to succeed at work or school extends to many other areas of our lives, including our yoga mat. That’s not to say that taking a thoughtful approach to asana can’t come with benefits, especially if you’re experiencing pain or injury. But a constant laser focus on perfecting alignment, toning core, nailing a balancing pose, or breathing away a tough day can come at the expense of fostering flexibility of mind and spirit.
When Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutra, he explained asana as the intersection and balance of sthira-sukha. Translated from Sanskrit, sthira means “compact, strong, steadfast, resolute”—all qualities we embody in our adult lives. Sukha, conversely, translates to “good, joyful, happy, light”—all qualities we often associate with children. Most of us adults have lost sukha. On or off the mat, we may no longer be willing to risk failure or to laugh at those failures like we did when we were kids, and, as a result, we can suffer stress and imbalance.
Realign with Your Inner Child
But you can use your mat to realign to the joy and lightness of sukha and ultimately advance your asanas. By cultivating sukha, you can connect with your inner child again, finding more creativity and freedom within your practice. Children, as you’ll see in the practice that follows, are the obvious teachers to light and lead the way. “Yoga can be a place to invite more play into your life, and kids can serve as the example,” says Christen Bakken, founder of Young Warriors, a children’s yoga program in Denver. “Kids remind us of who we intrinsically are and to let go, just be, and play.” Bakken, who has been teaching yoga since 2006 and teaching children specifically since 2008, says that a playful practice helps us let go of fear that holds back our practice. “When we’re having fun, we’re more willing to take risks, such as kicking up into Handstand or moving into a variation of a pose, such as Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose), that we didn’t think we could do or that a more serious attitude would have never allowed for,” she says.
Reconnecting with our natural childhood senses is essential to realizing the benefits of sukha, according to San Francisco–based Jodi Komitor, founder of Next Generation Yoga, an international children’s yoga program that began in 1998. “Kids are playful, spontaneous, innocent, and creative beings—all qualities that we, as adults, tend to suppress,” Komitor says. “We learn to stop talking openly, to cover our mouths when we laugh, and to abandon the connection that we once had with our inner child.” In order to cultivate a childlike practice on the mat, Komitor encourages both her adult and child students to embody the essence of the pose they’re assuming, which helps adults in particular loosen the body and mind and feel younger in spirit. For instance, in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), hiss, stick out your tongue, and slither like a snake. In Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), you can lift and wag your tail, ground paws into the mat, yelp, bark, and maybe even chase a neighbor around the room. You might meow and moo when doing Cat-Cow Pose. “Get creative, and use your asana to truly come alive,” suggests Komitor.
The Subtleties of a Less-Serious Yoga Practice
If you can’t imagine yourself meowing or barking during a class full of people, or even in your own living room, there are subtler ways to bring more play and lightness into your practice. You can set an intention at the beginning of class to relax more into your body. In Airplane Pose, for example, stretch your arms out to the side and imagine gliding into the mountains and perhaps landing atop the highest peak. Instead of berating yourself for not nailing Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose), notice the wonderful ways your legs, feet, and hands move, even when falling. “Sometimes simply smiling when we notice that we’re taking ourselves too seriously or laughing rather than judging when we fall out of a pose can help us let go of some of the limitations we’ve created for ourselves,” says Bakken.
When we give ourselves permission to play on the mat, a whole new yoga practice and outlook on life can emerge. We lose our attachment to outcomes, which limits our effort, and instead enjoy the moment for what it is, explains Kali Love, a certified instructor in yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda at the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California. “We can learn so much from how children respond to uncertainty with a sense of curiosity and adventure,” says Love. “Rather than fearing that we’ll fail to meet an expectation, we can adopt a child’s practice of letting go, and so much more becomes possible. We can create more magic, inspiration, happiness, love, joy, and laughter both on and off the mat.”
Practice Moving Joyfully
Find a young buddy—perhaps your kid or another little loved one—to share your practice with. Practicing with a child helps keep it light and more playful, but you can also do this sequence solo.