First things first. You can't "win" at yoga. That just gives me a clever title.
My husband, though, ALWAYS wins at Risk. It's kind of maddening.
In Deborah Adele's fantastic book The Yamas & The Niyamas, she makes a brilliant analogy between the board game Risk and yoga.
I've expanded on her metaphor in this post. Hopefully it will give you a new way to consider what we are actually doing in our yoga practice.
Maybe it will help you figure out a winning strategy for the game of Risk and <cliche warning...> the game of life.
Our Amazing Mind
In Sanskrit the word citta is the name to describe the part of our mind that provides us with incessant mental activity. It’s the home of our multitasking mind.
It's the job of the mind to make all of the these thoughts. This is how we are such brilliant problem solvers. It's the source of our creativity. This is literally how the human species has survived.
But our greatest strengths are often the things that cause us the most suffering.
Being able to use our amazing thought-producing minds productively is just one of the many reasons yoga exists.
One of the most well-known definitions of yoga in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, comes from the line: yogaś citta vr̥tti nirodhaḥ.
In English my favorite translation is “yoga is the mastery of the restlessness of the mind”.
Or another way of saying it “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”.
Yoga is this cessation or mastery but it is also the process and practice by which we manage the mind.
The Mind in Posture Practice
Because so much of our yoga practice time is spent on postures, it’s helpful to think about why and how yoga asana - those poses we practice - fit into this our yoga puzzle.
First and most importantly, the poses are not yoga.
We practice yoga in the poses.
Do you hear that difference?
Posture practice gives us the chance to hone our attention to specific actions or aspects of the body.
We work towards being totally present to and focused on whatever sensations arise as we move our bodies.
In addition, the poses also help us open pathways for the breath and create the right flexibility, strength, and stamina required to hold a steady seated position for meditation.
You can make friends with your busy mind in the practice of your poses. You can also make friends with your mind while you are sitting on your couch or at your desk chair.
Developing a relationship with the breath is part of the practice of yoga. It's a particularly effective tool for anchoring our attention. Here's why.
The breath is:
It's with us all the time.
No one can breathe for us.
We can't breathe in the past or in the future.
You don't have to be in a fancy pose to bring your attention to your breath. In fact, this is the whole basis for mindfulness meditation.
The Sanskrit word for focusing or concentrating or holding the mind steady is dhāraṇā.
Meditation techniques are many and varied but the one thing they share is that they are strategies for managing our restless mind.
Some meditation practices ease us into sleep.
Others allow us to have insights into our thoughts and general mental habits.
Some make us calm.
Others wake us up.
Just like posture practice and developing a relationship with our breath, meditation requires awareness and dedication.
The Key To Winning
Here's where we get to my husband's strategy for winning Risk.
I know you know this from your own experience in your life: when you spread out too thin, nothing gets done well.
However, by concentrating on one thing - whatever it is - we can get to the point where some of the extraneous mental busy-ness subsides.
The tools to do this with yoga include postures, the breath, and meditation.
Essentially, we pick a landing place and then practice brining our mind back to that landing place over and over again.
My husband does this exact thing in the game of Risk.
He concentrates all of his playing pieces in one small country. And he wins.
Excuse me now while I go set myself up to win.