Mia Togo, 10 year-certified YogaWorks teacher, often starts her classes by sharing a bit of yoga philosophy. She talks about how we can apply what we experience in class to life outside of the yoga studio. LivingHealthy recently sat down with Togo to find out how, exactly, our practice connects to our inner feelings, and how it can help us deal with everyday life issues.

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LivingHealthy: Aside from the obvious physical benefits, how can yoga help us with real life challenges after we leave the class?

Mia Togo: At the beginning, people come to [yoga to] get stronger or more flexible, but after a while, clarity comes which shows us there is a deeper meaning to what we are practicing in class. Maybe it comes right away, or it takes many years, but yoga allows you to be on your own personal journey. Yoga asks us to embrace our critical voices and insecurities that are part of being human, so we can expand and embrace who we truly are. 

LivingHealthy: How does that help improve self-esteem?

Togo: You can’t buy healthy self-esteem and you can’t bottle it. Every breath you take, it’s a choice of how you want to move forward. Engage with your thoughts and feelings [and] you can choose to develop your practice in a soulful way.

LivingHealthy: So how does this happen in individual poses? For example, what does it mean when you say a hip opener is an emotional pose?

Togo: Hip openers are related to our second chakra—the sacral chakra—–which is the pleasure center around our pelvis and hips; it also relates to creativity. The element associated with it is water. When we’re angry or upset, we often suck in the emotions and they circle around like a whirlpool. Hip openers encourage you to move through the emotions, not resist them. Old wounds, old traumas, grief, sadness and loss show up in the body as resistance, but in a hip opener they will often come out as tears. Again, there’s the water principle.

LivingHealthy: Crying in a yoga class? That sounds very vulnerable.

Togo: You have to be okay with being vulnerable. We’re willing to sweat buckets, but there is shame around one tear. There’s a lot to be said about releasing those emotions—there’s a neurochemical shift that happens and you will feel better if you move through them.

LivingHealthy: How does embracing our vulnerabilities help us?

Togo: We’ve been taught that being vulnerable is a weakness, but knowing our vulnerable areas allows us to be seen fully, take off the mask—the defense—and be ready to show up and be seen. That’s strength.

LivingHealthy: So you’re saying being vulnerable helps us become stronger?

Togo: Yes. We are encased in a kind of armor. When we are knocked around, the armor gets chipped, which is a good thing. We don’t want to walk around defended. We can’t truly love and connect if we always keep up the armor and false sense of self.

LivingHealthy: Is there another area like the hips that helps us connect with our inner selves?

Togo: There’s something associated with each different area of the body. Take the third chakra—the solar plexus chakra—that element is fire and it’s connected to our self-esteem and self worth. You want to develop a healthy sense of self? When you’re in a posture that focuses on the solar plexus, think of sun, fire. Do you trust your gut instincts or do you push and power through something, being aggressive? If you are just muscling through a pose, you are not engaging your personal power. Instead, turn your aggression into being assertive, but in a calm, confident way. You want to be in your warrior power but without being forceful.

LivingHealthy:  Speaking of aggression, being in a crowded yoga class can make us a little agitated. Any tips on how to handle that?

Togo: When you step onto your yoga mat, some days are more balanced and others are more reactive. In yoga you become self-aware and less reactive. Anger has its place—it’s important not to disconnect or avoid it. It’s a gauge or a red flag, so pay attention to how you are feeling on your mat.

LivingHealthy: How can we apply this anger philosophy to everyday life?

Togo: There are different ways to work through your anger; you can ‘rinse’ anger through writing, for example. But understand where that trigger is coming from—then we can see our stuff as our stuff. Taking responsibility for yourself and self-regulating is huge! Then we can go out to the world wanting to connect and engage instead of seeing people as wrong all the time. It’s all about transforming that energy. Energy attracts like energy.

LivingHealthy: So our yoga practice on the mat really does translate to life outside of class?

Togo: Yes, when you get quiet on the mat, you get clear and it gives you perspective on what’s important and meaningful; and perhaps what’s not important, so you can let go and release attachments that are not helping you. Then you can go back into daily life and give it more attention. Yoga encourages you to live in your personal power and do the things that give you depth and meaning.

LivingHealthy: What do you mean by ‘personal power’?

Togo: I think our culture and society are confused about what power is; there’s an emphasis on external power, how much money is in the bank, who we’re in a relationship with, the job we have. But if you don’t have a relationship with your deep internal power, nothing can make you feel satisfied and fulfilled. When you really practice the whole spectrum of yoga, not just the asanas (postures), you can see who you are—your frailties and vulnerabilities. Then embrace all the facets of who you really are. This is where the power lies.