5 Tips for Anyone Feeling Bored or Stagnant in Yoga

I have something important to share about yoga. I’m a big proponent now, a practitioner for almost 15 years, and also a yoga teacher. I don’t think yoga is boring—at all. Rather, I find it invigorating, challenging, and simultaneously relaxing and stimulating. However, I can truly relate to those who dismiss it after little exposure and say they just can’t get into it or that it is boring. I can relate because I felt the same way at first. In spite of my initial disdain, I continued to practice occasionally at the urging of my older sister who insisted it was like an acquired taste, and one worth acquiring. So, I occasionally would join her for a session (though I honestly thought my time would be better spent lifting weights or going on a long run), but didn't really get the point of arbitrarily putting my body in these stupid positions.

Then one day it clicked while we were doing Bryan Kest’s Power Yoga VHS tape (still one of my favorites, though now I have the DVD). The verbal cues had been there the whole time, they didn’t magically change, but someone as he guided, “Right arm pushes, and left arm pulls,” I had been doing a mental nod, “Yeah, yeah, I got it,” but had been failing to push and pull respectively… until that day. As I started incorporating all the subtler movements (or rather, directional pulls and muscular engagements), yoga started unfolding for me. The entire practice changed; I had acquired the taste. 

For me, this is a crucial breakthrough, and one I try to transmit to my own students to help them get the most out of their practices. The best way to try to explain this process is dynamic tension. There is a gargantuan
difference in every yoga position and transition when the practitioner is actively engaging, reaching, lifting, expanding and opening (or sometimes completely relaxing), compared to just going through the motions. It makes the practice more interesting, more challenging, and more rewarding.

If it doesn’t make sense right now, that’s okay. It didn’t for me either, and I still have TONS to learn. It’s one of those things that won’t make sense until you, um… get it. Got it?

So, here are five pointers to help any yoga newbies or returning practitioners to get in a productive groove:

1. Don't take yourself too seriously; it doesn't have to be perfect, and this should be a fun process. Accept and be open minded to the idea that you may be trying to do something that is unfamiliar, and there is no expectation that you should be "good" at it right off the bat. If you're feeling good things and breathing deeply, then you are doing it right and that's good enough!
2.  Make consistent efforts to incorporate the verbal cues for body adjustments that your yoga guide makes. Remember that it takes practice and be patient with yourself. Even if you're not sure exactly what the responses to cues feel like, just work in that general direction, whatever it may be. Even when you’re doing it "right", there may not even be any dramatically visible changes to your positioning, it’s all about the sensations in your body.
3.  Listen to and honor your body. Try to work right up to and at the brink of your edge (not your mat neighbor’s, instructor’s, or anyone else’s), but don’t force past it. As you continue to consistently approach it, the edge will gradually move farther and farther away; that is your progress. You never reach the edge because it keeps moving. Ignoring this and trying to force past it often results in injury and causes set-backs, the opposite of the desired outcome. 

4.   Make the breath a priority. Without the breath you are short-changing yourself and your practice. If you feel like you can’t catch your breath, or notice you are holding your breath, back out your intensity to the extent that you can maintain deep, full-cycle (inhale all the way in, exhale all the way out) breathing. 

5.   Let go. This may mean letting go of your expectations for the class, or your performance in it. Let it be what it is, understanding it will vary day to day. Also, let your yoga practice time be a time to let go of everything else in your life. It will still be there when you are done. As distractions occur (thoughts about
what you have to do later, what you’re going to eat for dinner, what Johnny said about Marta, that weird clicking from the fan) simply acknowledge them, then get back to your breath! Finally, make sure you allow time for your final relaxation, even if you only have a few precious minutes. This is your ultimate challenge and opportunity to relax completely, letting go of your muscles and your thoughts!

This is geared toward massage therapists, but can be a healthy reminder for anybody.

The other day I was showing a client a few of my very favorite stretches for relieving common stress and tension in the neck and shoulders. Just teaching the stretches took all of 20 seconds, and I felt an immediate, marked improvement just from that short time of stretching and breathing. As I realized how much better I felt, it was like a red flag waving in front of my face, telling me that I had strayed from my own self-care routines. When the outcome is so dramatic, it usually indicates that we really need it. Though I typically have good habits of exercise, stretching and healthy nutrition, we can all get off track in busy or stressful times– ironically, when we need it most!

I always recommend that clients incorporate stretches throughout the day whenever possible, at the very moment they remember they should do it. I usually do this too, sneaking in stretches in the car, in line at the grocery store, whenever and where ever I can, but apparently I had been too long without!

If we are weary, injured and sore, it’s much harder to help other people feel good! Please take this as a friendly encouragement to make taking care of yourself TOP priority, and share any tricks you have for making self-care fit into your busy life!

I’m sure that most massage regulars have experienced (hopefully only on rare occasion) a massage that feels something akin to a child arbitrarily pushing brussel sprouts around his plate. The spectacular flip side to that is a massage where it feels like the therapist is working some kind of “magic” with his or her hands, a fantastic dance of muscular interaction and release. I reckon this drastic difference is not attributed to skill, experience or technique alone, but rather to a combination therefore, and foremost to the attention and intention of the therapist, as well as the client. Granted, there are many factors that go into the overall experience and associated sensations of receiving a massage (and giving one), but I find intention to be one of the most powerful factors influencing bodywork. In this case, it can occur that even the most gifted and skilled practitioner may deliver a brussel sprouts massage, while an untrained yet genuinely caring person may work wonders.

The power of our intentions and how they are translated through touch may be witnessed in many examples of every day life. Consider the difference between placing a firm, disciplinary hand on someone’s shoulder, versus the transmission of a sympathetic touch in the same place, although it may be just as firm. Think about snatching up a crying baby hoping it will shut up, versus picking up the same child with the intent to comfort and soothe; the outcome usually strongly mirrors the underlying intent. Or imagine giving your tired grandmother a loving shoulder massage, compared to massaging your spouse’s shoulders while snuggling by the fire; although you may employ identical techniques of soft tissue manipulation, your intentions would carry very different implications, resulting in very different massages.   

For those on the fence of doubt, try a simple experiment with a friend or family member. Simply have them sit in a chair and stand behind them. In three different phases, you will place your hands on their shoulders while you entertain three different types of thoughts. Once think about conferring love, generosity, health, joy, good energy and healing to the person in front of you. One time think about whatever comes, whether it’s errands you have to run or a pair of shoes you’d like to buy. Finally, think about something that makes you feel sad, angry or ashamed, or entertain judgmental thoughts about the person. You can do these in any order. Don’t tell the person what you are thinking about, but ask them to rate the quality of your touch after you’ve gone through all 3 cycles. Most people will clearly feel most comfortable with the touch when you were directing positive thoughts toward him or her. Some people will feel no difference, we are all energetically more or less in tune, but be honest with yourself before you write someone off as energetically numb—for many people it can be hard work to focus the thoughts in one consistent direction for any amount of time, so if you are sending mixed messages, of course it will be hard for another individual to notice a difference.

This can be a fun experiment. Don’t take yourself too seriously, but take the message to heart. Often no defined intention at all feels distinctly empty, almost as unenjoyable as a bad intention.

So, for massage, what can we do? As clients, we can come into our massage sessions with the intent to relax, receive, breathe, honor ourselves, and let go. As therapists, we can come into our sessions with the intent to soothe, calm, invigorate, guide, coax, or woo the muscles, as fitting the needs of the client, but always with presence of mind, and always with the intent to touch with reverence.

Recently I was asked how I keep “my stuff” out of a massage. “My stuff” being my mental to-do list, my emotions, my concerns, basically, my personal life and anything else that doesn’t have anything to do with the client and his or her experience. I haven’t been asked this question in years, yet the response was immediate. This got me thinking, and inspired this post.

There are as many ways of clearing or focusing one’s self before going into a massage as there are therapists. Some therapists use a series of breathing exercises or stretches. There is the visualization of a hook, much like a coat hook, where one “hangs” all their own “stuff” outside the door. I’ve even seen some therapists actually hang or place a small basket along the path to the therapy room and “drop off” their goods–or bads–before going in.

This is a topic we dealt with in massage school, but I haven’t really had to think about it since because I still practice what I learned back in 2006. I was very blessed to be at a great school, BMSI in Overland Park, KS, which has since closed down in 2009 following the untimely passing away of the founder and owner, Michael Pizzuto. It was through his guidance, passion and insistence that “our stuff” didn’t belong in other people’s
massages that I learned a strategy for keeping it separated. Basically, it involves drawing a line in the sand, and repeating somewhat of a mantra, “(Client’s name) is a whole and complete person.” I learned that from Michael. Sounds simple, and really it is. After 6 years, it has become habitual, and seems to occur on a
subconscious level.

It has become a mental practice, much like turning a switch on and off. When I flip the switch into massage therapist mode, there simply is not room for anything except love, healing, compassion, positive energy, and acceptance. That’s the line in the sand. Anything crossing that line is simply unacceptable. Of course, no one is perfect and maintaining the intense focus required to stay completely client-centered can be challenging at times. That is where consciously repeating the mantra comes in. 

If I should find myself on the brink of mentally wandering, if there are outside distractions I cannot control that are threatening my focus, if I should start to get frustrated with a muscle that doesn’t seem to want to release, or if I should feel the remnants of any other emotions or thoughts that do not belong in the massage, I silently repeat to myself, “____________ is a whole and complete person.” I find that this immediately and effectively redirects and redefines the purpose of the massage.

It took a little practice to get to this point of automaticity, but now I am so grateful to Michael for sharing his personal practice with me so I could internalize it and also make it my own.