What makes a yoga practice “mindful”?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while (thus the existence of my blog), but especially since I came back from the first 10-day retreat in the year-long Mindfulness Yoga & Meditation Training program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center last fall. The purpose of this program is to weave together the distinct, yet related, contemplative traditions of Yoga and Buddhist Insight Meditation into a powerful integrated practice. And, it does feel pretty different from most mainstream yoga classes.

You might ask: “Isn’t all yoga mindful?” And I get where you’re coming from.

Yes – all yoga has the potential to be mindful. In fact, all activities have the potential to be mindful activities. (Which is kind of the point of practicing mindful yoga and meditating, right? They are like the dress rehearsal for our other activities so that it becomes second nature to take what we’re practicing out into the world.)

Then why do we need this label “mindful yoga” to distinguish one approach to practice from others – are we implying that everyone else is doing “un-mindful yoga”? (Hopefully not.) But, just because something is called “yoga” doesn’t automatically guarantee that it’s helping us grow in our capacity to live mindfully.

mat&cushionWhat I mean when I describe a yoga practice as “Mindfulness Yoga” is that we are making mindfulness the centerpiece and focus of the yoga practice. Different types of yoga emphasize different aspects – some focus on tuning up the health of the body, or improving one’s fitness, and others are primarily concerned with reducing stress. In each of these, mindfulness is still there, but it may be more of a background feature.

In Mindfulness Yoga, we do the physical asana practice in a way that brings the development of mindfulness to the foreground. Our practice also serves to prepare the practitioner – in body, mind, heart, and energy – for formal meditation. So, ideally, in a Mindfulness Yoga practice you would build up to, and devote significant time, to seated meditation…which is usually not the case in the typical public yoga class!

If you look back at the ancient texts, the physical asana practice was never meant to stand alone as the full yogic path. It has been noted many times that Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, outlined in the Yoga Sutras, include ethical behaviors, asana, pranayama, and ever-subtler experiences of meditation. I think some schools of yoga seem to interpret this as a linear hierarchy, where you have to master the poses before you are ready to attempt meditation. But, there is another school of thought that says we can really benefit from practicing both postural yoga and formal meditation side by side.

So here are a few of the elements of a mindful yoga practice:

  • Start by creating space to connect, then build on that connection. I typically start lying down, or seated, and spend several minutes simply trying to “come home” to the body. This is a check-in time where you notice how the body is feeling, sense the emotional states that may be present, and acknowledge the activity level of your mind at the moment. These observations are judgement-free, and they help you practice in a way that is sensitive to your present-moment reality. Otherwise, you’ll probably just do what you always do, the same way you always do it…which sounds a lot like auto-pilot. So start in a very simple, undemanding shape, where you can establish a connection to the actual feeling of the body and breath, so that you can come back to that more easily during the more complex poses or movements later in your yoga session.
  • In yoga poses, direct attention to the felt sense of the body. The “felt sense” means the real-time sensations in the yoga-hands-matbody, including the obvious ones and the more subtle ones. Take in anything and everything – from the feeling of your hamstrings stretching, to your leg muscles working hard to hold your Warrior pose, to the expansion of your chest on an inhale, to the pressure of your palm touching the floor, or the fabric of your shirt draping over your back. Feeling into the poses this way directs our attention away from concepts and stories about the body and toward a direct experience of the body. Of course, we still want to pay attention to safe alignment, but it’s easy to get caught up in endlessly arranging our parts, rather than ever truly feeling them. Feeling into the direct experience of the body is a huge part of what we do in mindfulness meditation, so we bring this onto the mat when we practice mindful yoga.
  • Experiment with the pace of your practice. Often a “Mindfulness Yoga” practice is on the slower side, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Slowing down can help you connect to the felt sense of the body and sustain your focus there, but mindfulness should be present at any tempo, whether you’re doing an intense Vinyasa Flow, a series of static standing poses, or a mellow Yin Yoga session.
  • Pause and notice. It helps to stop often to check in, pausing to deliberately break the momentum of the practice. Momentum is where habits go to hide. We easily get lost in the familiarity of a well-worn sequence and find ourselves spacing out. Or, we may find ourselves getting trapped inside our heads, as we intellectualize about the complexities of asana and anatomy. When we pause, we notice – and we can come back to our intention to practice in a way that emphasizes mindfulness. Speaking of which…
  • Be mindful of your intention. Rather than having a goal of mastering a particular pose or working the body out in a certain way, a mindful yoga practice centers around intentions that are more internal and meditative in nature: to awaken embodied awareness and an attitude of kindness toward the body, to strengthen the continuity of mindfulness through all activities, or to see how feelings influence your movements on the mat, for example. There’s a time and place for analyzing and “workshopping” poses, or refining your sequencing, and there’s a time to just feel in a more receptive, inwardly-drawn mode. In a mindful yoga practice, heightening our ability to feel enhances our ability to know change in the body, moment to moment – which leads to insight.

From the outside, it may not look all that different from how you already practice. The difference is in how you create space, work with intention, and how you place your attention.

This can all look really humble. I like to say that it’s not “show off” yoga, but rather “show up” yoga. In a mindful yoga practice, we are practicing fully showing up for ourselves – and our lives, our fellow humans, and our world. We are setting out to cultivate wisdom on the mat, and to practice asana in a way that supports and leads to seated meditation.

Feel free to share any other thoughts or tips for a mindful yoga practice in the comments!

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Continuity of Meditation & Asana on Retreat

I’ve been back from my retreat at Spirit Rock for a week now, and I’m finally finding some time to share my experiences. One of my main interests in blogging is to talk about the continuum between mindful movement (yoga) and mindful stillness (seated meditation) in my practice. I don’t always find it easy to identify that continuum, but I want to make it stronger so that my yoga and meditation practices can support each other better.

spiritrock_bell

The bell at Spirit Rock that calls retreatants to sitting sessions.

Not surprisingly, this is all a lot easier on retreat! While it was mostly a meditation retreat, alternating between 45 minutes of sitting meditation and 45 minutes of walking meditation for most of the day, we also had the opportunity to attend yoga classes at least once a day.

These yoga classes were an absolute life saver.  Whoa. Let me tell you…when you do that much sitting day after day, the yoga is huge in relieving the tensions, aches, and pains that accumulate in the body. My achiness peaked on the third day, but after that, I actually felt MORE open and comfortable in sitting.

I also found the yoga supported my sitting practice in a second major way: it built up my energy. I have the tendency when I start to get calm and concentrated, to go too far in that direction, and I fall asleep. This didn’t happen when I first started meditating, because I had all that restless agitation to keep me awake! I have been working on balancing the energy level in sitting, so that I can be calm and concentrated, but also vibrant and alert. Each time I took a yoga class on the retreat, I felt energized for the next sitting session. Much like the disappearance of my achiness, over the course of the retreat, I found I was struggling less with sleepiness.

One of the Buddhas at Spirit Rock

One of the Buddhas at Spirit Rock

The yoga practice itself felt more mindful – like a logical extension of the sitting and walking we’d been doing. I think there are a several reasons for this:

  • Continuity is supported by the retreat itself – not just concerning the yoga, but through all activities (eating, walking from one place to another, taking a shower). Everything is part of the practice.
  • Being surrounded by dozens of other students doing the same practice you are, with the same (or at least similar) intentions. This feels different from going to a public yoga class where people are gathering from all kinds of different places, each bringing in their own busy energy, and each with their own goals for the practice, ranging from the sublime to the superficial.
  • The silence of the retreat helps you to get out of your head. When you’re a yoga teacher and you attend another teacher’s class, it’s hard not to go into an analytical space as you experience their style, cues you like/dislike, etc. In a silent retreat, the students don’t speak, but the teacher does – but her words were chosen carefully, and she wasn’t just speaking to fill the space. And, probably it goes without saying, but these yoga classes were done without music. No distractions.
  • The presence of the teacher herself. The yoga teacher participated in most of the seated meditation with us, came to the nightly talks, and was really integrated into the retreat. She was operating at the same speed as us.
  • The yoga was simple.  No elaborate or super challenging poses, and the poses were given without an abundance of technical alignment cues. Normally, I teach a very alignment-based form of Hatha Yoga, but it’s always a fine line to teach with precision without making the practice too cerebral. The simplicity of this practice on retreat allowed us to just stay present with the body.
  • And, the yoga was just what we needed. The focus of the yoga was on reinforcing the themes of the retreat, and preparing the body for sitting. We were opening the hips, releasing the shoulders, and turning towards the body with kindness, rather than emphasizing fitness, technique, or the attainment of particular poses. Not that these goals are always a problem, but they can actually compete with the intention to make the asana a meditative experience.
  • The asana practice didn’t overuse one’s physical energy to the point where you collapse into savasana at the end. When I go to a more vigorous class, sometimes I leave feeling drained rather than relaxed. That’s a sign of overusing energy. I know some students are so wound up, they feel like exhaustion is the only way to actually relax in savasana at the end. But, ideally, yoga balances the energy rather than draining it. True relaxation is not the same as exhaustion or dullness.