The first four instructions you often hear in class most days.
How does the way you enter the practice set you up for a transformative experience on the mat each and every time? It might be the simplicity of these instructions, broken down to their physical, mental, and spiritual components, that help set the tone for your experience.
You take a seat at the start of class, typically seated cross-legged, though any upright seat will do. Why is it important to begin practice this way? Because generally speaking it sets yoga apart from other activities of your day. You take an intentional seat, one that indicates the beginning of a different activity than you have previously engaged in that day. You chose that seat wisely and purposefully, in order to be able to stay there for some length of time. Taking an active role in the way you choose your stance, your position, your posture allows you to continue to choose your stance intentionally beyond the classroom or practice space as well.
Stepping into the seat of the student and assuming the responsibility of engaging in actions that also have potential for psychological and spiritual implications makes you more your own teacher than anything else. The field of dharma-kshetra is where true yoga begins, Krishna states in the Bhagavad-Gita, and this is the field of your own dharma. They are in fact your monkeys, and this is totally your circus. It is up to you.
Close or lower your eyes.
Why? The next instruction encourages you to turn your attention inside, to your lively inner life. And if it is not yet lively, this affords you the opportunity, by conscious attention, to enliven it. Who are you? Who are you right this moment? How have your actions thus far today shaped your experience? By turning your attention inward, and away from all the external forces meant to continually pull you out of yourself via the senses, you can begin to (or continue to if you are practiced at this) cultivate deeper listening and a stronger sense of self-inquiry with this small, revolutionary act of self-compassion. Look inside, listen more deeply to what you find there, and change your mind. Self-compassion is the fuel for mindful compassion for all beings. Start at home.
Sit up tall.
Change your shape, change your state. Psychology research has proven that this works. When you alter the shape of your body, your mental state changes. When you call upon the highest, tallest, most upright version of yourself from the very start, you are setting up the conditions for moving from your highest place and purpose, not just for the remainder of the class or practice on your mat, but for your return to "real life" off the mat. Being competent in your postural-shifting skills allows you flexibility in all ways; to be capable of seeing from multiple angles, to let go of rigidity, and in general to generate responsible, skillful action in your emotional and physical realm. Posture dictates attitude, and moving from the highest version of yourself cultivates attitudes of friendliness, compassion, equanimity and love, which Patanjali suggests in the Yoga Sutras as the best practices for being in relationship with others in this life. Granted there are many situations, both emotional and physical that we cannot control, nor will facility with postural change or body language help us in dictating what will happen to us. But it might provide some of the tools for our reactions to those scenarios.
Finally, the attention to the breath. This is what makes it yoga and not the gym (which is also totally worthwhile, but entirely different altogether!) Breathing deeply allows for a re-set to the nervous system, a way of saying "This time is different from all other times of the day, set apart by the way we breathe with the quality of conscious attention." For most people, at no other time of the day do you focus so intently on the breath, and if its true what they say, that energy follows attention, then you truly energize yourself fully with this practice of conscious breathing. If yoga is a practice of making the unconscious conscious, then this is one of the keys to that practice.
So the next time you come to practice yoga, remember these first four simple instructions as you settle in for practice and try to bring each of them to life in your own way. Each and every time you come to your yoga mat, you have the opportunity to participate in your life for the better, to alter habituated ways of relating or being present (or not present), and to be an instrument of service, love and tolerance in this insane world.
Now go forth and be present.