How v.s. What.
To celebrate the end of my first semester in graduate school and the beginning of summer in the Pacific Northwest, I went camping with a few friends in Eastern Washington over memorial day weekend. Being a holiday weekend, the campground was packed with people and there were little privacy and seclusion in the campground, and I thought to myself “how am I going to relax and unwind with all this people/noise/music/electricity around me?” The majesty and serenity of the landscape proved to be larger than my concerns, and my senses were soon looking past the noises in the campground and focusing on the beauty of my surrounding at large. Even when I returned to the hustle of city life of familiar routine and habits, my sense perceptions were still looking past busy activities and seeking beauty. On days when I feel overwhelmed, I would have similar concerns as I did with my camping trip, wondering how a short yoga practice could possibly bring me any sense of relief in the midst of all the noise. Short 20-minute yoga practices are not quite as majestic as the Cascade Mountains and may not be able to drastically alter my mood or physical state, but it can provide a tiny shift in perspective. A few short yoga sequences remind my body that it’s capable of making shapes other than sitting, 5 minutes of deep belly breathing can take the edge off of the fight/flight stress response, and a 10-minute meditation practice reminds me there is stillness somewhere within me, even if it feels hidden.
I like to think that the transformative power of practice is what we’re really after when we step on to the yoga mat (or running trail, gym, or meditation cushion). With any kind of practice, we’re looking to create positive change, whether it be on the physical, emotional, mental, social, or spiritual level; in other words, we want to feel better. As amazing as long practices are, my guess is that there are days where we don’t necessarily “feel better” just because we practiced for an hour. If what we practice doesn't guarantee transformation, what would it be like if we focused on how we practice? Focusing on the physical sensations of muscular contraction and extension made my short 20-minute yoga practices very profound and effective, but there are countless other ways we can shape our attention while we engage in any movement practices. What if during our practice, we focused on observing the changing patterns of sensation? Or made sure that our attention was always focused on the quality of the breath? Or focused on listening to the sounds in the environment we are in? Experiment with some of these focuses in your practices, and notice the effects.