“Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now.
Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.”
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
The first time I attended a yoga class I wasn’t too sure how much I really liked it. Seems funny stating this now, but it’s true. The class was a beginner level and the teacher barked at me for not honouring the practice correctly because my focus in my vriksasana (tree posture) was not solid enough and quickly saw my version of the pose felled to the ground. I walked away feeling like I just didn’t get it. I heard yoga was meant to make you feel good, but I certainly didn’t feel good enough to go back, so I dropped out.
But that’s all a few years ago, and where do I find myself now – working as a certified yoga teacher. So what bought me back to the mat?
To be fair my relationship with my mat had been inconsistent over the years, but the combination of the influence of a wonderful friend, the trial and error of different classes, styles and teachers, and, most importantly, the introduction of a concept called mindfulness gave me my a-ha moment, the moment of oh yeah I get it now, this is how yoga can make you feel good!
Mindfulness is a Buddhist meditation practice that’s been popularised in the West. In fact, since the 1970s, clinical psychology and psychiatry have found therapy based on mindfulness to be hugely effective for reducing anxiety, depression and stress. The beauty of the practice is in its simplicity and its accessibility. The only tools required are your body and your breath. The essential element is that you focus on the complete present, regardless of what might have been the journey that got you there or where you might be taken next. What is important is where you are right now. And the result – a mini holiday or retreat to a place of space and calm. You realise you don’t need to be defined by your thoughts or feelings (mainly the negative ones that bring you down) and you don’t need to worry about your past or your future. You are able to get out of your head and open up huge internal space to just be. And, if your mind starts to wander, then all you need to do is bring it back to the gentle rise and fall of the breath, becoming attentive to your inhalation and exhalation and settling on the state of presence once again.
Mindfulness meditation practice is used within movement as well, so you can come to this place of awareness when you take your yoga class, but also when you walk, eat, do your day to day chores, and even better, in stressful situations like meetings at work, job interviews or during altercations with your teenage child. In fact, there is a huge movement in the UK to bring mindfulness into schools and the practice is getting great results, so your kids can start to use it too.
As a yoga teacher and a yoga student I find myself using mindfulness in every class I teach and partake in. Being present to the breath is a cue often heard in the yoga room, and this is a tool of mindfulness too, but the attention with which we place the focus on the breath is the key. I find myself saying often in class, “Move mindfully with your breath” but what does this really mean? It means to be fully engaged in what you are doing at that point in time, that present moment. The breath is the anchor and the attention is brought out of the mind and more so into the body, so when you are doing an asana (posture), you do so with deep attention and awareness. You aren’t just a brain on top of a body and your body is not just moved by the actions of that brain. You can feel true embodiment of an asana by drawing from the energy of the mind and placing that energy around your entire body, inside and out, the organs, muscles, tissues, everything – and find the true holistic expression of the pose for your body. It’s this which provided me with my a-ha moment during one yoga class when I found that this accessible tool of mindfulness helped me become truly present. By moving through the postures I was able to place mindful attention on my breath in movement with my body, drawing me out of my head, releasing me from my ego and finding that place of internal space where I was calm, centered and balanced. And after the class, damn right I felt good!
But where is the mind in all this? Obviously the mind is essential for us human beings. It is just like the sympathetic nervous system, the flight or fight response. If we didn’t have a little bit of our sympathetic nervous response in our body system then we wouldn’t get out of bed for work in the morning when our alarm goes off! Likewise, we need the cognitive function of our brains for our practical issues and our aspirational goals. But it is all about balance, and it is all about the attention with which we give focus to our issues and goals. If we operate from a state of present mindfulness we are able to function with deeper focus and can disregard negative mental states and therefore create a more lucid, positive state, a much better place from which to make decisions.
And, to go one step further, mindfulness also helps us create a safer yoga practice for our bodies too. Cultivating this practice disassociates us from our ego so that we don’t overdo it and potentially cause injury by pushing our bodies into a place we can’t physically embody at that present time. Instead, we realise our edge and work to that edge with mindfulness. Just like the crest of the wave – if you don’t push hard enough then you won’t catch it, push too hard and you’ll fall off. Some of you would have heard me in class call the restorative Child Pose a Warrior 4 instead. That’s because it takes a warrior to realise when not to listen to the ego and to take time to rest and create space – thanks to yoga teacher Seane Corn for that great piece of wisdom.
So there you have it – a brief account of the benefits of mindfulness in yoga and how you, if you haven’t already, might be able to find your a-ha moment too.
If you want to learn more here are some links for further resources:
Thich Nhat Hanh’s (Buddhist monk) meditation techniques – http://ow.ly/okzE1
Mindfulness in Schools programme (UK based) – http://ow.ly/omqHB
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (and other teachings) – http://ow.ly/omqLw
Mindsight by Dr Dan Siegel (and other teachings) – http://ow.ly/omrEg
Healing and the Mind by Bill Moyers (feat. Jon Kabat-Zinn founder of Stress Reduction Clinic and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society) – http://ow.ly/omsi7
~contributed by Shelley McCarten