If I’m doing yoga, surely I’m being mindful?! Maybe you are! Or perhaps you’re not. Have you ever considered what mindfulness in a yoga practice might actually look like?Let’s start with what it doesn’t look like.
Contrary to what mainstream media often reflects, yoga is not just another workout designed to get you lean and long. Sure, for some, yoga is a part of the weekly workout regime, but I’d like to start by stressing that it is SO much more than that.
As a more avid yoga practitioner, you may be nodding your head – “duh, knew that already”. But consider these questions: how many times have you been caught off guard, leg in the air, predicting your teacher’s flow? How often does your mind wander from your alignment, from what your teacher is drawing your attention to… how often do you forget to breathe?
Guilty as charged, I have been that student. Going through the motions, I have been caught out doing the complete wrong posture for a number of breaths, having tuned out on the important cue of where to land my foot.
This sort of mental switching off happens in all aspects of our life. Absorbed in a smart phone, missing the bus stop, running on automatic in our conversations and interactions with others. Automating behaviours are quite natural for the brain to do, an efficient function when you are driving a car.
But when we ‘mentally check out’ in day-to-day to interactions and become caught up in our internal narrative or in predictions of what’s coming next, we miss out on what is really going on in our lives right in this moment.
As easy as it is to switch off in a yoga practice… it is also unsafe. This is why I love teaching alignment-based vinyasa – to keep my students present in the moment, but also completely aware of how they are moving their bodies. Why tune out on your MAT, when you are presented with such a juicy opportunity to get into your body and really focus your mind!
Your yoga practice is the perfect place to cultivate mindfulness. Even as a regular yoga practitioner, there can be a tendency to hit the yoga mat and completely switch off. Can you challenge yourself and commit to being totally aware and in your body for the entire 60 – 90 minutes? What does this even look like?
Let’s begin with the age old question : What is mindfulness?
Put simply, mindfulness is the ability to tune into our senses and be fully aware of the present moment. When thoughts do arise (and they always will) mindfulness involves the ability to be aware of them whilst remaining non-judgemental and non-reactive. It involves the ability to re-direct our awareness to the present.
Consider these steps to cultivate a more mindful practice:
Set an intention.
Take a moment at the beginning of the class to centre yourself and to set an intention. It really is an incredible feeling to dedicate the entire practice to yourself. Research fresh from Harvard University posits that on average, we spend up to 50% of our days lost in thought. In our heads. Can you designate your next yoga class completely to yourself and your experience? A one hour class works out to be 4% of your day; surely you can give yourself just that.
Try it on the mat:
Arrive to class a couple of minutes early and settle in on your mat. Find a comfortable position, perhaps lying on your back or a restful seat. Start by taking a few moments to simply notice your breath. No need to breathe deeper or change the way you are breathing just observe in a non-judgmental manner and let it be. Let the mind start to quieten. Collect up all that’s happened prior to this moment, all your thoughts and judgments of those events and imagine rolling this into a ball and setting it to one side of the mat. Take a moment to acknowledge all your concerns, your plans, those internal conversations that lie beyond this class and set them to the other side of the mat. They will still be there for you afterwards. This hour is for you. Return your focus to your breath and take a gentle scan through your body in your mind and acknowledge any sensations that stand out to you. Acknowledge yourself, where your body is at, and set an intention to be with yourself, completely present and giving your body what it needs this time around.
Focus on feeling.
As soon as you step onto your mat, settle into a state of feeling rather than actively thinking and labelling. Maintain your focused attention on the sensations in your body, without attaching to them. Every day, every practice, every pose will be experienced in a different way in your body. Notice the subtleties. Forward folds may be felt intensely in your hamstrings one day, and other days you feel the opening in your lower back. Recognise that your body changes and that is totally ok. You may not be as flexible as the day before, or you may simply be aching from yesterday’s workout. You may feel the need to heat up your body and be challenged today. Your experience, and all the sensations going on in your body makes this practice uniquely yours, be with that!
Get curious with your wandering mind.
When you catch yourself mentally checking out, make a point to notice the thought going through your mind. Be the observer, and instead of thinking, “I should be present,” or “Stop thinking,” be curious about the thought and acknowledge where your mind has gone to. Then let it go. It’s natural for the mind do to what it is conditioned to do: think! Don’t curse yourself thinking you’ve doing something wrong, just accept that you are building awareness of your internal landscape.
Over time, we can channel this awareness of thoughts and delve deeper into our tendencies and habits. Does your mind continue returning to the same self-talk patterns? The same hypothetical flash-forwards playing out in your head? Keep catching yourself reflecting on events that have passed? In yogic philosophy training this awareness is termed ‘svadhyaya’, an observance or study of the self. Keep bringing your mind back to your mat and notice how your body is feeling and the consistency of your breath, and the insights will come.
Come back to your breath.
One of the best ways to anchor to the present moment is through the breath. After all, yoga is a breath-centred practice. Unless you’re practising kumbhaka (breath retention), it’s safe to say that if you’re not breathing you’re not doing yoga in a mindful way. Not to mention you’re hardly doing your body or mind any favours!
Try it on the mat:
If you notice you’ve forgotten to breathe or that your breath has shortened into a panting/gasping state, you may have gotten a little too caught up in your head or perhaps pushed yourself too far. Come back to steady breathing to support yourself in your practice. Ujayi breathing is very useful technique if you are one who quite easily switches off. Breathing in and out of the nose, you create a gentle restriction in the back of the throat, creating a slight rasping sound. Following this audible cue is a comforting way to stay present and an audible reminder to focus on your breath. Get curious once more and really pay attention to how your breath moves in your stomach and lungs as you move through the different shapes and postures.
Practice and all is coming (Aparigraha).
Detach from the outcome of your efforts. You’ve heard it before. Rather than focusing on an end goal, a fancy arm balance or advanced twist, set an intention for each practice and disengage from an ‘achievement’ mindset. Use each practice as an exploration of your body, mind and breath, and over time the strength and flexibility you cultivate will allow these poses to come naturally. It’s totally fine to have goals, but there’s no glory or joy when you set expectations on yourself or you limit yourself to a specific timeline or form. This striving mindset, makes it easy to get discouraged and demotivated, which will set you back more than a consistent, mindful practice ever will. Keep your ego in check, keep that breath strong and steady, and all else will come.
Try it on the mat:
Do you find yourself out of breath, and force yourself to take the advanced option at times?
If you’re already feeling the burn at your current expression of the pose, stick with that! Your instructor is likely going to keep you there for a couple more breaths and it’s much safer to stay at this level, building strength and flexibility rather than forcing your way into an advanced option and falling out within a breath’s time. In a mindful yoga practice, we bring a mindful acceptance to where we are at in our practice, how our body feels this particular time around. Traditionally, yoga encourages a balance of ‘sthira/sukha’ which translates to a balance of steadiness/softness. As such, we work towards maintaining a strong, smooth breath throughout the entire practice. In a mindful yoga practice, with an awareness of how the breath moves in our body – you will notice that you’re not ready for the advanced position as your breath won’t move smoothly if you’re body is contorted.
Stay mindful in your practice and stick with your intention. Shift to a preferential mindset rather than striving for a particular goal. As I mentioned even from day to day, you will notice changes in the body. Our minds however, love familiarity and it freaks out when we observe things that don’t go according to plan or as smoothly as the day before. Move your body without the need to judge it for what it should or should not do. Set aside expectations for which poses you are ‘good’ at or how you expect your body to respond to the poses. Furthermore, set aside expectations in the sequencing of the class! Ever been frustrated with a cover teacher’s method of instruction? Question yourself: “what is it that is really frustrating me here?”. Be open to new experiences, curious as to how they feel and what bubbles up for you. Allow your body to be moved in similar and different ways without attachment to the result.
So there’s a little more to a mindful yoga practice than simply showing up! Show up completely, and apply that your attention to yourself and your practice. Don’t just go through the motions. Yoga provides such an amazing opportunity for a truly honest and real exploration of yourself: mind and body, if only you will take it! With these tips you can really pay attention and harness the power of mindfulness on the mat. Accept where you’re at and enjoy the ride, yoga is a practice. Use your mat to tune in rather than tune out.
What are your experiences with mindfulness on the mat? We would love to hear from you.