Whether you go to yoga at a studio, your local gym, or at an ashram in India, the very first thing that you do is roll out your mat and find a comfortable position. Everything that happened leading up to class—traffic, weather, texts, emails, deadlines, and shopping lists—come to a stop when you arrive.
You come in, roll out your mat, and pause. This process of arriving requires you to slow down, settle into yourself, and find a deliberate respite.
Sometimes your mind is racing and it’s hard to let go of what just happened before you got to class. Sometimes your mind is anxious, busy, confused, or agitated. Other times, it’s easier to find a peaceful state and settle yourself.
This process of settling the mind happens before you even do the first pose or the first inhale. It is the first step in yoga. Yoga means union and connection. In the pursuit of connection and finding out who you really are, you must first find out who you aren’t.
This involves stilling the mind, because until you learn how to quiet your mind, it's pretty much impossible to find a deeper connection to your heart, body, or soul.
The quality of the mind is tied to the quality of the breath. Your breath is influenced by your thoughts and emotions. When you're agitated, your breath becomes agitated. When you're peaceful, your breathing becomes peaceful. Just as the body responds to nutritious food, the mind responds to a nurturing breath. A deep, smooth, and even breath—without noise, without jerks, and without pauses—nurtures the mind and enhances its ability to slow down and find peace.
Mantras are like medicine for the soul. The word "mantra" can be broken down into two parts: “man,” which means mind, and “tra,” which means transport or vehicle. In other words, a mantra is an instrument of the mind—a powerful sound or vibration that you can use to enter a deep state of serenity.
For thousands of years, people have used the mantra "so hum" to contact the stillness that is the source of awareness. So hum is an ancient Indian mantra that can be translated as "I am." By concentrating on a mantra and repeating it silently in your mind, you cut through the clutter and give your mind a peaceful center of focus.
It's impossible to find peace when you're constantly reacting to your inner roommate: That nagging voice that's constantly talking in your head, the voice spouting off judgments, criticisms, worries, stresses, and laundry lists of things undone. It can take years of disciplined practice to free yourself from that voice in your mind. And, the more you concentrate on trying to make your mind shut up, the more agitated the mind becomes.
Instead, imagine that your mind is like a stream of water rushing by. Imagine yourself sitting beside the stream—on dry land—not getting involved in the stream and not trying to change or interrupt the pattern of the stream. Simply let the stream of thoughts pass by without getting too interested in them, without following any of the threads downstream, without trying to interrupt or stop the flow of the thoughts. When you notice that you've jumped into the stream, no biggie: Drop any negative self-talk and simply put yourself back on dry land, back to the place where you are merely observing the stream rushing by.