What To Do Before, During and After Yoga: For Beginner to Advanced Yogis

Little things make a big difference when it comes to making your yoga practice effective and enjoyable.  Below are several rituals that I generally attend to in order to make the most out of my practice (my online yoga practice videos).  These tips on what to do before, during and after yoga are functional in nature.  Following them, however, may lead you deeper into a state of yoga, where our mental focus, physical form and spiritual depth are one. 

Try these suggestions on for size and enjoy the ride!  

Before yoga:

  • Take a shower to warm up muscles, stimulate circulation and cleanse old or negative energy.

  • Don't wear lotion to active yoga classes, as it causes hands and limbs to slip on the mat.

  • Eat a light, nutrituous meal no less than 1.5 hours before practice; if that won't work, have a light, healthy snack before (fresh fruit is my go-to in this case).

  • Hydrate; before heated classes, drink fluids with electrolytes such as organic coconut water.

  • Avoid heavy caffeine or sugar intake so you can focus more easily.

  • Go the bathroom, especially #2, to make space in the body for deeper detoxification.

  • For athletic practice (like power vinyasa or hot yoga) wear slim-fitting clothes that keep your body parts in place and won't get in your way as you move; for restorative or yin practice, wear loose, comfy clothes and warm layers or socks as needed.

  • Remove bulky jewelry so you can focus more on your body.

  • Fasten long hair so you can leave it be and go within.

  • Give yourself time to arrive to a class to arrive in a calm state and deepen your breath.

  • Turn your phone to silent and let it go.

  • Bring props to your mat before you begin; I bring two blocks and a strap with me before any class, just in case.

  • Set an affirmative intention or mantra for your practice, like "I am focused" or "I am ______ (insert positive word that affirms your greatness).  Don't be bashful.  You are GREAT.

During yoga:

  • When distractions arise in the mind, turn your attention to your breath or to your affirmative mantra.  

  • Know that you don't have to do everything the teacher instructs. If a posture or a moment to rest feels good, stay there as long as you want.

  • Breathe during transitions and treat them like a moving meditation.

  • Close the eyes in postures where you feel secure and focus inward.

  • Minimize non-essential movements for greater energy efficiency and attention.

  • Take small sips of water during practice as needed; don't chug.

  • Observe your thoughts with detachment in savasana let yourself drift off into inner space.

    After yoga:

    • Move slowly to savor the feeling of peace within.

    • Seek quiet surroundings; if you're in a busy or loud place, play soothing music through headphones, or enjoy silence with noise-canceling headphones.

    • Hydrate; drink electrolytes if you sweat a lot in practice.

    • Avoid heavy caffeine or sugar intake to stay mellow.

    • Give your body some time to adjust and re-hydrate after class before eating a light, nutritious meal.

    • Treat the rest of your day like a moving meditation and breathe.

    Please reach out with questions or comments, check out all my yoga practice and instructional vidoes, and feel free to add any other tips for fellow yogis below. If you're interested in going deeper with your practice, become part of my Urban Yogi E-RYT 200 Yoga Teacher Training Program.

    In love and practice,

    Susana Wolds

     

    How often should I practice Yoga? Ideally, 24/7.

     

    People ask me regularly “How often should I do yoga?”  What they’re hoping to know by asking is the number of times per week they should practice postures in order for the benefits of yoga to take effect.  My response is “Ideally, we practice yoga all the time.” This is an annoying answer at face value, but I mean it whole-heartedly as it opens the possibility of bringing balance, fulfillment and high consciousness to every area of our lives.

    The eight stages or limbs of yoga give us areas to work on and be aware of in relating to the world around us (yama), taking care of ourselves (niyama), exercising the body (asana), using the breath (pranayama), controlling the senses (pratyahara), concentrating (dharana), meditating (dhyana) and knowing ourselves as spiritual beings having a human experience (samadhi).

    My task in answering the question “How I often should I do yoga?” is to explain how everything we do as humans is an invitation to practice the systematic liberation of the body, mind and soul from pointless suffering.  Clearly, my response would be rather long-winded for an ordinary conversation, so I’m writing this down.

    If you follow yoga philosophy, you may find that my interpretation of these limbs is different than some others’. B.K.S. Iyengar does a fine job of detailing these limbs and how they build upon each other in Light on Yoga, which is a text I used as reference for this piece.  I have taken his words to heart and evolved in my own thinking over the years as I've developed my practice and my E-RYT 200 Yoga Teacher Training Program. I personally approach this philosophy in an open, non-prescriptive manner that gives me room to be a human finding balance in a complex world.  As you master your own experience, please do what works for you.  

    It’s not shocking that non-violence (ahimsa), non-stealing (asteya), truthfulness (satya), moderation (brahmacharya) and non-hoarding (aparigraha) are the first stage of yoga (yama).  We’ve heard the same universal commandments in belief systems worldwide.  There are, however, positive behaviors that relate to these ethics, which we can practice in daily life.  They stem from love rather than fear, and from the consciousness of abundance rather than that of lack. Being gentle and kind to the world, expressing your self, living simply, needing less and sharing more are all manners of practicing yoga.  

    The instrument of yoga is the embodied self: the body, mind and breath. Like learning to play an instrument, practice requires personal discipline, which is the second stage of yoga (niyama). The idea behind this stage is that we become masters of the embodied self we live in. Maintaining a clean body and tidying up our space (saucha), practicing gratitude and being content with life (santosa), fulfilling our duties with enthusiasm (tapas), studying our own human experience (svadhyaya) and trusting the process of cause and effect in our actions (isvara pranidhana) are all means of self-mastery, which empower our practice through self-discipline. 

    Most people I know began their journey into yoga through the body.  We have this amazing system of postures (asana) that have innumerable benefits on our physical wellbeing. Upon getting up from my chair to take a break from writing this post, a little voice went off in my head that said, “I need bridge pose!” I stopped, dropped, and did five postures and a round of squats (try my practice video: Squats & Asana for Energy).  It took about five minutes and now I’m back at my post with a little buzz in my body and more energy to write this.  I practice asana, the third limb of yoga, for a thousand reasons pertaining to my overall health, but mostly because it makes me feel better and requires very little for me to get into.  We can apply the muscle memory and skeletal alignment that we learn in our postures and carry them with us throughout the day. Engaging the core as you stand and move, lengthening the spine, relaxing the shoulders, remembering to not spend all day with your head tilted down is yoga.  As practitioners, we learn to balance qualities of strength and firmness (sthira) with ease and sweetness (sukha).  The effect is impressive, both on the mat and in how we carry ourselves through life.  By being “alert without tension and relaxed without dullness,” we avoid the extremes of stress and lethargy, which programs balance into our way of being. 

    Mindful breathing (pranayama) is perhaps the most portable limb of yoga, as we can practice it anytime and anywhere.  Aside from strengthening the lungs, eliminating toxins and causing the shape-changes in the body that release tension in our postures, breathing also tames the mind.  In times of stress or frustration, I use my breath like a tether to bring me back to the present moment.  This is especially helpful when fearful or negative thoughts try to steal the show.  I think of Sandra Bullock’s character in the film Gravity, spinning head-over-heels into outer space, needing something to hold onto before she got lost in the void.  This is an extreme comparison to the mind running wild, but anyone who has felt the grips of anxiety can likely relate.  

    My brother Ian Wolds, a PsyD of Clinical Psychology who specializes in integrative treatment modalities, taught me that catching ourselves at the top of an anxious feeling, rather than sliding down a slippery thought process, saves us from having to pull ourselves up from the bottom.  By taking a moment to breathe, we “catch ourselves,” calm our nerves and put ourselves back in control of our mental state.  Even the less extreme but incessant chatter in the mind that judges, devalues and distracts us from living in the moment can be brought under control by the breath.  Making a habit of intentional breathing keeps our thoughts in check and thus begins a new mental pattern that’s more constructive and peaceful.

    Living in a culture that teaches us to chase after possessions and extrinsic measures of worth makes us materially needy and impossible to satisfy. “On the other hand,” writes Iyengar, “if there is rhythmic control of breath, the senses instead of running after external objects of desire turn inwards, and man is set free from their tyranny.”  Taking control of our senses (pratyahara) and turning within to find fulfillment rather than reaching for things outside of us, is yoga.  Similarly, being disturbed or aggravated by outer circumstances that don’t please our senses, and are ultimately out of our control, is another form of attachment to external objects, which leaves us sadly dissatisfied with the world.  Fortunately, yoga teaches us that what we wish to experience in the outer world is here to be discovered within ourselves, through practice, which frees us from the strain of grasping and aversion, of desire and fear.  

    Obviously, we need certain things to survive.  And yes, we can go shopping, have nice things and still be yogis.  Engaging in the material world without being consumed by it is yoga.  Knowing that our self-worth is not dependent upon having or not having something is yoga. When you crave or resent some object for what it represents in your mind, taking a breath to remember that you are enough and you have enough is good practice.

    By working through the first stages, we become masters of our life experience, using discipline to methodically free ourselves from the causes of our suffering in body and mind.  At this stage in our practice, we’re not bogged down by the effects of unconscious lifestyle patterns.  The mind then becomes a bigger container for consciousness, which can be thought of as the connection between that which is infinite, like the cosmos, and that which is finite, like the brain.  The very term “yoga” refers to unified effort in the embodied self to experience oneness with the life force that pervades all things. Union, being the opposite of separation, is considered our “deliverance from contact with pain or sorrow.” The last three stages of yoga apply to the soul’s quest for union and freedom from suffering via the mind. 

    Controlling our mental state through concentrated discipline (dharana) is a mental hygienic practice that creates the conditions for an expanded consciousness.  Focusing on the big, unified picture of infinite possibility, rather than dwelling on the fragmented mess of what’s not working, is yoga.  Entertaining powerful thoughts that affirm union and dismissing limiting thoughts that affirm separation, is yoga.  This is not an invitation to turn a blind eye on the world’s dysfunction or what causes us to suffer, but rather to adopt a manner of thinking that inspires right action in the direction of oneness and freedom, individually and collectively.  As Ernest Holmes stated in The Science of Mind, “change your thinking, change your life.”

    Continuing to practice the previous stages of yoga is important at this point. Aches in the body and clutter in our environment, among other things that are in our control to change, affect our mood and our thoughts. Tending to our practice over time is like gardening.  We set the conditions for the seeds we’ve planted to grow and thrive.  Taking care of our mental landscape, weeding out the thoughts that would otherwise take over and nurturing it with concentrated mental discipline is yoga. 

    The effect of our disciplined practice over time is like a fruitful bounty of robust plants. Things grow, flourish and return to the source in a perfect cycle of birth, life, and death that’s connected to the universal life force that unites all things. Immersing ourselves in this interconnected nature of life (dhyana) brings us a feeling of supreme bliss and transforms our consciousness into an enlightened state (samadhi), in which we are fully conscious, alert and at peace.  At this stage, we discover that we are actually spiritual beings having a human experience on earth.  We take the light of our conscious mind and use it to illuminate the world around us.  To apply spiritual wisdom to our worldly connections is to practice yoga.  To shine light where there is darkness is to teach yoga.

    While it helps to understand that these stages of yoga exist and that they build upon each other, we may find that we practice multiple limbs of yoga at once. However your journey unfolds, and however you choose to apply this practice to your own life, know that its all yoga and that the practice never ends.

     

     

    Yogis Gone Wild, Backpacking in Los Padres National Forest

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    Memorial Day weekend has just passed and I'm back at work. Everything is roughly the same as it was last week, except for me. I'm more human than I've been in months and I have a transformative backpacking trip in the wilderness to thank for it.

    This past weekend, friends and I drove east of Santa Barbara to Los Padres National Forest. We packed our giant backpacks with the essential components for a weekend camping trip in the wild, including water for four days in the high desert.  

    Before we set off on the rugged ten mile trail that led to the Manzana Schoolhouse campsite, we agreed as a group that we would "eat before we were hungry, drink before we were thirsty and rest before we were tired." This pact, along with the cumulative benefits of physical fitness, proved to be the key to ensuring this trip was enjoyed by all.

    Our packs were enormous and filled to the brim with vital cargo. It had been years since I carried my pack for more than a mile. By mile three I was secretly summoning my inner strength and yogic mindset to make it to mile ten. 

    In between sweeping views of mountains, valleys and dried up creek beds, we saw bright wild flowers, reptile buddies and birds of prey. We heard the wind say "shhh" through the valleys and trees. It cooled our sweat and helped us along the trail in the midday sun. We walked up and down over rocks and the roots of old trees, along sheer hillsides and golden grasses that left tiny spears in our socks so that we'd remember them awhile.

    I recalled an experience I had of severe dehydration and its consequences from another outdoor mission years before.  I ran out of water while kayaking against the wind across Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua. I was sick and faint for days. Nature has a way of humbling us with reality checks: respect the elements; enter at your own risk; be ill-prepared to your own detriment.

    By mile seven, just about every step hurt somewhere in my body. While I knew that I could and would go on, I imagined what would happen if I couldn't. After briefly calculating the possible outcomes, I figured that if I fell ill under the weight of my pack and the sun, my friends wouldn't leave me to die, so I'd be ok. My next thought was very clearly this: "be ok; do what you must do to be ok; don't leave your well-being to the last minute in the hands of others; take care of yourself now."

    So, I made myself "be ok", as did my crew.  We took off our packs and rested in the shade before we were exhausted; we ate high-nutrient snacks and drank more than enough water along the way.

    We ran into an enthusiastic group of volunteer forest rangers who advised us against a particular trail we intended to brave the next day. Two people had died there earlier in the season from heat stroke on the dry, confusing route of the mountains above. I thought I was going to die just standing there with my pack on, so I ate a ShotBlock and pounded some water.

    At last we made it to mile ten and were pleased to find that we were, understandably, the only people there. Two crossfitters, a yogi and a beach volleyball player, all of whom felt the physical toll of our weighted trek.  When I took off my pack, I felt like I might float into the air. My limbs felt bizarre, like those of a foal taking its first steps.

    We ate two servings each of a prepped meal our friend Molly (aka Superwoman) made for us. She and her hubby Chris eat like Paleo gourmands and made the most amazing camp superfoods you can imagine. By the end of the weekend, these foods had me feeling like a superhuman, and may forever change my eating habits.

    Once our tent was up, I felt like I had been totaled. My honey B and I took a two hour nap in the early evening and listened to the bugs and the birds. We emerged from our tent to say hey to Mr. and Mrs. Superman, who had just gotten back from another two hour excursion. Athletes. We dove back into our sleeping bags and slept for ten more hours.

    We awoke the next morning to a day with no agenda whatsoever. Our bodies ached, so I led us through a deep, stretchy flow of grounded yoga postures. While the SuperPeople ran the trail to fetch water from the nearest creek, I read a few chapters by Cheryl Strayed while lying in a hammock.

    We spent the day at a liesurely pace, not needing to do anything too bold or daring. We followed the moves of a beetle and a gopher. We kicked around rocks and high-tailed out of a place that looked exactly like the rattlesnake enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. We turned fallen branches into Wizard staffs and hiked with them at sunset. We took photos of the landscape and each other in our wild element.

    Once we were tucked into our tents for our last night, we were startled by the freakish cry of an injured animal. We heard a scuffle in the dry rockbed alongside our camp and stopped breathing as a group, our hearts pounding. The animal kept calling out with the strangest sounds I've ever heard from a creature. Then, it's cries were answered by a pack of demonic sounding canines that we heard gathering speed down the canyon, headed towards our camp. Our adrenaline was pumping as we grabbed our headlamps, lanters and wizard staffs and held down our place in the canyon. The noises ceased for good when we made a bold proclamation into the darkness to "stay the f*** away from our camp!" The noise and lights were likely enough to scare away whatever coyote party wanted to crash our picnic, but setting our boundaries out loud to the nocturnal animal kingdom made us feel like we were back at the top of the food chain. 

    I sent distant Reiki to protect us from the beasts and fell asleep, while the next tent over slept with their boots on.  I woke up every so often thinking there was a mountain lion or a bear outside. If there was, it didn't want anything from us, which was all I needed to know. 

    We arose from our tents mid-morning, packed up our camp, and headed back down the 10 mile trail to where this excursion began. Our packs were significantly lighter from having eaten our food and consumed our weight in water. We charged the trail at 2.5 miles per hour, a .5mph increase in speed from the way in.  This time at mile seven, I felt like I could handle another several miles. My body felt strong, capable and well-fueled by our superfoods, rest and hydration.

    More than once on this trip, I asked myself why we we didn't just check into some bed and breakfast for Memorial Day weekend, or why we weren't at Lightning in a Bottle with friends and artists whom I love. Either would have provided inspiration and a respite from daily life, but our group needed a greater departure from our normal associations. We, like so many of us, have been so in the zone of work, entrepreneurship and our social lives that we hadn't had a reason to do nothing at all, or to simply be.

    Being plugged into the grid of life in the city is awesome, especially when you have good reason for being there. Firing on all cylinders is like being in the flow of something much bigger than we are, making new connections and creating something out of nothing. But if we stay plugged in for too long, we'll blow a fuse. There's an excess of energy out there and too little time to process it all without burning out. Sometimes, a proper reboot of your machine requires a sharp tug of the chord from the socket.

    That's what we did for ourselves this weekend. We pulled ourselves way out of our normal environment to plug back into the source: Nature. Plants. Animals. The food chain. Survival. 

    I'm back at work and back to my groove, but I feel like a human again and less like a machine with a screw loose. I'm a little softer around the edges, given the relative beating I took while backpacking.  It's taken my sense of urgency down a notch, which makes me easier to be around. I'm more intentional with my time this week, hustling when it's important and slowing down in between things, conserving my energy so I can shine when I need to. 

    I'm choosing to be a brighter light on this urban grid by not getting so caught up in it that I forget to take care of my basic needs. I'm eating before I'm hangry (hungry and angry), hydrating before I'm thirsty and going to sleep before I'm so tired my eyes hurt. I even look younger than I did last week. 

    The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali teach us that the practice of Yoga is to still the patterning of our consciousness.  The practice itself involves removing ourselves from the normal patterns of life for a time to re-center, re-focus and return to our vital essence and needs as human beings.  Whether that time is taken on a yoga mat, on an outdoor adventure or on a lunch break, it is absolutely in our power to care for ourselves and stay human. Our survival depends on it.