De-Stress Your Life: Yoga Off the Mat

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Finding stillness through movement

Many folks are drawn to yoga as an opportunity to experience the focussed, steady concentration of meditation in a moving, rather than still form. So if we find sitting still challenging and even downright difficult, how can we find a bridge from the physically active to a more contained form of connection?

The eight-fold path of yoga as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, places the asanas or postures that we now mainly associate with yoga the third limb along the path.

This work compiled around 400 CE is often cited as the seed of modern yoga, so from this context, the physical aspects which now dominate the practice (and its image) were suggested as a route to prepare the body for the real business of meditation or Dhyana literally means “contemplation, reflection” and “profound, abstract meditation” in one translation.

This is the seventh limb before the ultimate state of oneness and liberation; Samadhi, where there is no distinction between the meditator and universal consciousness. If this seems pretty abstract to grasp on paper, don’t worry it always will be as with all meditative practices, it is completely experiential and lost when described through words.

Although meditation is often most associated with Eastern religions, it has been practiced throughout most cultures in some form; as prayer, contemplation or even time spent in nature.

It is a natural state for the mind and we visit this altered state of consciousness often, where time passes quickly and we feel connected to the world around us. Maybe you’ve noticed that, when something like a view or a feeling held your awareness, whilst your brain went into a natural rest – staring out of a window or walking through a park. This is part of the brain’s natural cycles, allowing it to form memories, create new pathways and cultivate new habits.

Meditating formally is to create these moments and learn to stay with them with awareness.

There are many different types of meditation practice and that means many different routes towards its aim, which is simply put, to train the mind to allow complete focus, consciousness and sustained attention.

Practising asanas and being fully focused on the experience unfolding – without needing judge if ‘good, bad, pleasant or unpleasant’ – is a marvellous way in for those of us not used to spending much time slowing down and being with stillness, but at some point, progressing to doing less is the ultimate aim.

Mixing a physical and still practice allows us to be with these different qualities and how they change what arises and how we respond to that – either move it through our bodies or contain and hold it.

We can be so praised and conditioned for doing more, achieving more and doing it faster, that to slow down, be quiet and still can often seem quite scary, but it has a deep history and well-researched for sanity, clarity and health.

The idea of sitting and focussing might seem challenging if you are new to it, so it can help to understand it by first noticing the opposite, freefall way our minds are left to wander most of the time.

It’s not unusual for our minds to be constantly flitting, chattering, narrating our lives, latching onto thoughts and ideas, filling in gaps and creating opinions and judgments. A mindful, moving practice like yoga asanas gives our minds a different focus of something to do, which is why many are drawn to that over meditation.

Walking meditation offers a point between the two and can help those who feels anxious or agitated when coming to still. Our connection to the ground is a palpable and accessible way in to waking up our body senses and truly feeling a sense of where we are right now.

As we walk to move ourselves around and to experience nature through our most natural movement, we can associate walking with the embodiment, whole body attunement and constant change that are key characteristics of meditation.

Slowing down this automatic movement towards a sense of being in each step rather than where the steps are taking us, can provide a direct route to dropping in to the present moment.

Walking meditation:

Stand comfortably and begin by breathing in to your feet to get a sense of the ground holding you up. Meditating standing as a preparation for walking or as a meditation in its own right is another option to feel grounded and secure.

Let yourself move with the tide of your breath and notice where you may be holding against that flow. Acknowledge how we are stronger when we bend and sway, so we have flexibility rather than brittleness – like a tree in the wind.

Start to walk slowly, moving through your heels to the balls of your feet and to the toes, noticing when your body shifts the weight onto the next step.

Fully experience each part of the motion, drawing your attention back down to start at your feet any time you notice you’ve drifted off or gone into automatic. You can come back to these questions whenever you need a focus for meditation:

  • Can I feel each part of the shifting weight on my feet touching the ground?
  • Can I start to track up the wakefulness of movement from feet up though my body and up to my head as I move?
  • Am I able to slow down or are thoughts arising to drive me faster?
  • Can I let go of ‘getting somewhere’?
  • Can I feel the difference in my walking gait when I drop the need to strive forward?

Meditation means being open to finding peace, quiet and being with the feelings that arise when we step away from letting our busy minds run the show.

However we do it, just showing up and creating that dedicated focus can bring enormous positive effects throughout our lives. It is certainly not always easy, but it is always of benefit. Many people take up meditation because it helps develop compassion, acceptance, relaxation and well-being.

A regular practice seeps out into our lives to make us more resilient, tolerant and able to meet demands with more equanimity – grace under pressure.

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