With mindfulness showing such positive effects for how we can navigate the choppy waters of life, we can feel pressure to be ‘doing that’ as well as our yoga practice. So it’s quite the relief to find that yoga is in essence mindful.
Mindfulness in its more modern, secular (non-religious form) has become popular out of necessity. In a world full of distraction, information, things to want, constant comparison and judgement, to actively choose to simply experience the present moment can save our sanity, create perspective to remember what’s actually important and give us the tools to have a flexible and non-reactive mind.
Although most cite the roots of mindfulness in Buddhism, many religions and nature-connected traditions value the awareness and compassion that come together to characterise mindfulness. Within texts used to inform modern yoga practices, an example of how the kind attention of mindfulness is foundational to yoga, the Bhagavad Gita mentions it as:
“Clear, discerning, totally voluntary, dynamic participation in one’s life.”
“Heightened sensitivity and awareness of all life around us and within us, and an outpour of love in reciprocation with life’s wonder and beauty.”
“Intimate connection with the whole universe, with eternal realms even beyond the manifested universe, and with our own being’s endless capacity to love.”
This refers to the whole sphere of yoga philosophy, with posture (asana) practice a later addition to support meditation (dhyana). Mindfulness is one technique within meditation and one that works well for the modern brain as it gives us a focus, where it is habitual for many of us to struggle without constant stimulus. Its focus on the breath and the body helps create the ‘embodied awareness’ that has shown to actively shut down the left-brain chatter that can dominate our internal landscape and show up as constant self-criticism and judgment, ruminating on the past and creating projections for the future. It can seem like we even have a personal voice-over narrating everything we do – no wonder we can struggle with the stillness and quiet of meditation!
All of this can be going on during a physical yoga practice and is the reason why many people respond to a moving rather than still meditative art, particularly when starting out. It is important to make the distinction here that mindfulness is inherent within yoga – without this steadiness of attention, this continually bringing ourselves back to the felt experience of each moment, simply moving through some physical motions or gymnastics is not practising yoga or ‘union’, as it is translated. Those with busy minds can be drawn to faster practices as there’s less time to be with open space. These can still the mind effectively, but at some point we need to meet ourselves.
One way of looking at ‘union’ is that of mind-body. Our Western perspective tends to separate these out and stress can fracture further. A focus on our mind occupying our body during practice both quietens the mind and allows us to see the subtle nuances that deepens our practice; how we listen and not respond, not just where we put our foot.
What makes a yoga practice mindful?
- Actually being there – thinking about what to have for dinner or a chat you had earlier means your mind is not in synch with where your body is, right here, right now. Mind and body are separated by our tendencies to follow thoughts and feelings off somewhere else. A mindful practice involved bringing ourselves back to bodily sensations and the rhythm of the breath whenever we notice we’ve wandered – kindly and steadily, as if it’s important, but without harsh words that our heads are so busy.
- Slowing down – going too fast can leave us no time or space to actually feel what’s going on within a pose or transition. Like a train going fast, the view out of the window can become a blur. To connect and experience what is here, true and arising dare to slow down. Letting go of needing to get lots done or push into postures is a truly advanced practice; one where we meet ourselves, hold what is coming up for us and create a meditative space.
- Observing when we’ve separated out mind and body – to be mindful, we have to first notice we’ve gone somewhere else. Of course when we’re off in a story it’s easy to be just going through the motions physically; being the witness and choosing to come back become easier with practice.
With the mind being as it naturally is – distracted, busy, preoccupied, meandering, avoiding – it needs to be constantly reminded of its purpose in a practice, to stay with whatever is arising whether the body is moving or staying still in a posture. These reminders need to be gentle so as not to activate the often very over developed tendency of the mind to castigate or criticise. When stress can have us living up in our heads and trauma can shut us off from being able to feel neck down, some physical gestures and cues can help guide us back to fully experiencing yoga:
- Feel whatever part of your body is meeting the ground and drop your attention down into gravity to feel the weight of your being to know you are here.
- This can be most helpful if your standing, where dropping attention into your feet on the earth is furthest away from your head, where we can inwardly see our thoughts living.
- Touch any part of your body to acknowledge that you are physically present and draw your mind’s attention to that fact; even stroke, hug or press into yourself to illicit felt sensation in the present.
- Move your jaw around to release tension there that can shut us off from sensations below.
- Place a hand on your heart to foster the self-compassion that is the seed of awareness that isn’t simply vigilance. Here you can meet what’s arising without the need to run away and distract yourself elsewhere with thoughts. This mindfulness stuff takes courage!
- Feel bodily sensations without judgment, so rather than ‘like/dislike’, ‘good/bad’, ‘pleasant/unpleasant’, step away from these dualities and feel as they are; in terms of flavours, colours, temperature, pressure, texture… In this way, we react less and our perceptions to discomfort can change from reactive to interested.
- Notice that everything is continually changing – one of the few things we can rely on in life and to be relaxed into as mindfulness seeps out of our practice into our lives.