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.
Begin in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), with feet hip-distance apart. Bend knees slightly and take hold of opposite elbows (A). Moving in a circular motion, on an inhale, travel upward toward the left with the right elbow leading, hinging at the hip (B), until you’re standing upright, facing forward, with elbows held overhead (C). On the exhale, allow the body to move downward to the right, with the right elbow still leading and hinging at the hip (D). Repeat 3–5 times. Finish in Standing Forward Bend, holding opposite elbows. Repeat on the other side 3–5 times, with the left elbow leading. As you move through this pose, imagine yourself as big as possible, stretching your body as far as you can. This pose is called Sunflower because it encourages us to be flexible, feel big, and move toward light and growth opportunities much like the beloved yellow flower does.
2. Wishing Chair
Begin in Standing Forward Bend with feet together, weight in the heels, and hands or fingertips on the earth. Bend your knees and reach your hips back as far as you can, as if about to sit into a chair. Imagine that you’re picking dandelions in front of your feet (A). On the inhale, pick the flowers, lift the chest, draw the navel in and up, and bring elbows to touch in front of your heart. Keeping elbows bent, outstretch hands with palms up toward your buddy (B). On the exhale, hold the pose, blow toward your hands, and make your dandelion wishes. Repeat 3–5 times. In this pose, believe in the power of your dreams! Reflect on what it is you truly want to manifest in your life, and don’t be afraid to put your desires out there.
3. Archer Warrior of Love
Standing at the top of your mat, step your left foot back, placing the left heel down so the pinkie-edge side of the foot is parallel with the back edge of the mat. Bend the right knee so it is directly over the right ankle. On an inhale, open the arms wide. On the exhale, take the left hand all the way to the right hand and, as if you were drawing the string of a bow, bend your left arm, taking the elbow back (A). On the next inhale, hold the pose and think about someone you love, maybe even exclaiming his or her name. On the exhale, lift the right arm up, tilt the left elbow down, and release your arrow into the air, sending out a message of love (B). Repeat on the other side. Use this pose to consider all the people you love in your life—or maybe just one who might need a little extra love right now—and commit to sharing your love freely, as a child would.
4. Big Jet Plane
Stand at the top of your mat with your feet hip-width apart. On an inhale, bring weight into the right leg, draw the navel in, and extend the arms along your sides as if they were airplane wings. On the exhale, keep the gaze forward, begin to tilt the torso forward, and lift the left leg off the ground behind you. Hold the pose for 5 breaths and imagine where you want to go on your next adventure. If you fall, remember that—like many hiccups in life—it’s just a small stumble on your journey, and you can get back up and try again. Repeat on the other side.
5. Supported Tree
Stand at the top of your mat, feet hip-distance apart, side by side with your buddy. On an inhale, press your open palms out to the side, meeting one of your buddy’s. On an exhale, press your right foot into the ground, and imagine yourself growing roots out through your soles. On the next inhale, bring the left foot to the inside of the right leg, either above or below the knee. Hold the pose for 5 full breaths. Feel the support of your friend and the earth. Notice how you can do more together than you could on your own. If practicing solo, you can use a wall for support. Repeat on the other side. Whether using the wall or your buddy’s hand, recognize that there’s always someone or something out there to support your pursuit of play. And keep in mind that you don’t have to do everything on your own—it’s OK to ask for help or company.
6. Rock Your Boat
Start in a seated position with knees bent and feet in front of you on the ground. On an inhale, lift your shins parallel to the floor as you simultaneously raise your arms and extend them forward toward your pinkie toes. Draw the shoulders back and lift the navel in and up (A). For additional support, place your hands on the floor behind your hips. Keeping the core engaged, on an exhale, rock your boat back onto the spine, grabbing the backs of the thighs for additional support (B). On the inhale, rock back up and hold your boat with shins floating parallel to the floor. Repeat 10 times. As you rock, keep it playful, recognizing that this may be more challenging than it seems. And, remember that no challenge—whether on or off the mat—lasts forever. Trust in your strength, breathe, and find a little joy in the movement.
7. Build a Bridge
Lie on the floor with knees bent, feet on the mat and ankles beneath the knees. Reach your fingertips toward your heels, pinkie side of hands on the floor. On an inhale, keep your gaze up, press your shoulder blades down, and lift your hips. At any point, you can bend your elbows and place your hands under your hips for support. Exhale and shift the weight into your left foot. On the inhale, lift and straighten the right leg as though you were touching the ceiling. Hold the pose for 3 full breaths. Allow the challenge to fuel you, and celebrate your strength. In this Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) variation, chose to lift to new heights and be bold as you imagine becoming a bridge over a river. On an exhale, lower the right leg and repeat on the other side.
8. Still like a statue, quieter than a mouse
Lie on the ground with legs straight and feet open. Allow your body to fall into the support of the earth. Place your left hand on your belly and your right hand on your heart. Close your eyes and bring your attention to the belly rising and falling. Become aware that your greatest gifts—your breath and your heart—are at your fingertips. In the hushed quietness, you are what you are and that is enough. Like a child who has engaged in a full day of play, now is the time to rest and recharge. In that place of knowing, allow yourself to fully surrender to the pose and the moment. Relax into the pose for 3–5 minutes.
About Our Pros
Teacher and model Christen Bakken works with yogis of all ages. She is a graduate of several teacher trainings, including a 500-hour with Rusty Wells, and founder of Young Warriors, a business focused on 20-hour teacher training programs for children and adults. Find her in Denver, Kansas City, and all over the nation teaching fun-filled Rockin’ Bhakti Yoga classes. Our other model is Noah Ciel-Tilton. Writer and yogi Jessie Lucier balances caring for her family with her passion for sustainability and wellness.