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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Bo Forbes: “Rethink Working with Connective Tissue”

This is an interesting (and quick) video with Bo Forbes on the Yoga International website touching on some of the latest findings about how fascia works.

If you haven’t run across Bo Forbes before, she is a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology, behavioral medicine, sleep disorders, and stress management. She is definitely someone to have on your radar if you are interested in integrating scientific/medical knowledge, as well as mindfulness meditation, with yoga.

A few of the most intriguing statements are these: “Much of the injury we think is muscular really comes from overstretching fascia that’s not hydrated.”

and

“The work that’s now integrating into the yoga systems and bodywork is really looking at how do we teach people to work with their own connective tissue matrix in a way that’s not just sort of diving in to loosen things up, but in a way that really listens to a very, very visceral and subtle dialogue between the connective tissue and the nervous system and works in a way that the work can be integrated.”

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mesh-internetWe Yin Yoga practitioners love to geek out about fascia and talk about how our practice targets and benefits the connective tissues in particular. So, it’s important that we stay up-to-date on the incredible amount of research that’s coming out about our internal interwebs, our amazing matrix, our fascinating fascia.

Here are a few tips for incorporating this knowledge into your Yin Yoga practice:

Movement tends to hydrate the tissues more than long-held poses, which is why I like to include a few minutes of gentle one-breath-one-movement poses before diving into the meditative Yin practice. This is not so much to generate heat (warm up), but to hydrate the fascia and help establish embodied awareness, which most people connect with more easily in movement than in stillness.

Increasingly, I’ve been exploring how self-massage complements yoga (both Yin and “Yang” forms). This is another way to hydrate the fascia and release places where the web is holding on too tightly. I know this is not a scientific way to describe it, but experientially, when you feel a tender spot or a knot let go in massage, a feeling of greater freedom and integration comes along with it. I sense less of a harsh pull around those spots when I stretch them after working with massage balls. Those spots feel like they’re ready to play nice with the surrounding tissues. And, like movement, massage is an excellent way to heighten awareness of sensation in the body so that we go into our postural practice mindfully plugged in.  The Yoga Tune Up therapy balls are great for this, and by the way, I am loving Jill Miller’s new book, The Roll Model, which also includes a section on fascia anatomy.

Also, as Bo mentions, props like blocks, blankets, and bolsters help provide some stability in the pose, which signals the nervous system that it’s OK to relax, thus avoiding a “backlash” of resistance in the tissues. The more we learn about how fascia works, the more we understand the huge role that the nervous system plays. The bottom line when it comes to stretching is: less is more! Dial back that intensity. Use prop support when you need it. Enjoy your practice, but don’t overstretch. Gradual, gentle change is more Yin-like anyway.

Important food for thought for Yin Yogis…enjoy!

For your yoga pleasure

AnneCushmanBookCoverI am currently reading and practicing with Anne Cushman’s new book Moving into Meditation: A 12-Week Mindfulness Program for Yoga Practitioners. If you know anything about my blog, you can tell from the title of her book that it’s right up my alley. Like waaaay up my alley. And it is such a clear, engaging, brilliant, humorous, and inspiring book, that I have looked forward to each day’s practice with it for about 9 weeks now (since it came out in July – yes, I am such a nerd, I had pre-ordered it). I can’t recommend it to you enough if you are interested in the fruitful integration of postural yoga with a formal meditation practice.

When you combine these practices together in a genuine way, as Anne Cushman has for many years, it is a truly potent path with all the advantages of meditation’s stillness and yoga’s momentum. You find you can slow down without getting stuck. You can move forward without running away. Light bulbs click on in every level of your being – body, heart, and mind.

To give you an idea of what the book is like, I’ll describe a practice session I had last week inspired by one of the exercises from chapter eight. This chapter is entitled “I love it! I hate it! I’m bored to death!” and it’s about vedana, or the feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Both the Buddhist and yogic meditation traditions teach that we have these three categories of reaction automatically with every experience. (I wrote a little about vedana in an earlier post here about how we decide when it’s time to come out of a pose.) Basically, this is the mind’s quick-sort mechanism trying to protect us from what’s bad and steer us toward what’s good. But at the same time, this creates a relentless push-pull that can result in quite a bit of internal struggle and really drive our behavior in a lot of ways we’re not aware of until we start observing it. And, often our knee-jerk reactions are a bit off. The yoga mat is a great place to look at how vedana works. 

a-few-of-my-favorite-things3So, in the exercise “A Few of Your Favorite Things,” the instructions are to do an asana practice made up entirely of poses you find pleasant. Sounds great, right?

Well. Guess what. It was impossible!

I was, of course, looking forward to a blissful yoga session made up of all my favorite poses, and I generally think of yoga as a pleasant thing, so what could be better? Ok, so I had some suspicion that the purpose of this practice would be for the student to notice that an all-pleasant practice isn’t attainable. Yet, there was a part of me (and probably a part of you too, except for all my fully enlightened readers) that wanted to believe that I could get it just right and have the yoga session of the century. 

In actuality, there were definite moments of unpleasant feeling tone during the practice, and even within an overall pleasant-feeling pose. Sometimes getting into the pose wasn’t that pleasant, but it was great once I was there. Or the first few breaths in Down Dog were pure delight (ahhh…calves), but staying in it too long made it unpleasant because my elbows begin to ache (they have a tendency to want to hyperextend). On the right side, the reclining twist created a very pleasant stretch in the chest, but the left side was actually painful! Then there was that moment when I encountered a surprising pinching sensation in my sacrum as I settled into a pose that’s always been enjoyable before.

If you do this practice and have the same experience I had, it doesn’t mean that we chose the wrong poses or that we’re doing it all wrong. It means we’re actually seeing things the way they really are. (I challenge you – try it!)

mosaicheartTruly, there is no such thing as a purely pleasant moment (or a purely unpleasant moment) – it is more like each moment is a mosaic of some pleasant experiences, some unpleasant experiences, and some neutral. This is because we react to everything and there’s a lot going on in each and every little moment. One feeling tone may be much more obvious than the others at the time, but if you look closely you will see that there are aspects, maybe subtle, of the others. For example, imagine you’re talking a walk on a hot summer’s day. Here’s your internal monologue: “Ooh, that breeze is nice (pleasant), but the sun is too darn hot today (unpleasant). And the sun is right in my eyes (unpleasant), but the lighting looks really cool on that tree over there (pleasant).” Meanwhile, you were unaware of the feeling of your arms swinging (neutral), your breath (neutral), and your feet hitting the pavement (neutral). 

chocolateIf you are reading this and thinking, “Wait a minute…I have definitely had some great moments of pure joy. And, there was nothing unpleasant about that chocolate bar I had last night!” I don’t doubt your moments of pure joy and chocolate bars. But, if you think back to those experiences, was there any hint of “I wish this would never end,” or “How soon can I do this again,” or “Why does chocolate have to have so many calories?”

Uh huh. The pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral tones are all right there next to each other.

I have noticed this before, but it is so clear in an asana practice where you set out with the intention to make everything pleasant. So, is this a bummer that there’s no purely pleasant yoga practice? (Seriously – I challenge you to prove me wrong!)

Not in my mind – I feel like it gives us permission to use less energy trying to make everything all perfect all the time. We are such frenemies with our experience (frenemy etymology = friend/enemy). We’re always pushing and pulling at things to try to get them a certain way. That’s not bad or wrong, but at some point it does become tiresome. Let’s relax.

I hope you’ll try this practice, and I highly recommend Anne Cushman’s entire book. I am looking forward to learning a lot more from her this fall at the Mindfulness Yoga & Meditation Training program I’m taking at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I’ll be sure to keep you updated with tales from my practice there. Namaste!

Yin Yoga Teacher Training in Orange County, Nov 14-16

Join me in Orange County this November for Yin Yoga Teacher Training! The training is open to current yoga teachers who want to learn to teach the Yin Yoga style, as well as practitioners seeking to deepen their studies.

Hosted by The Yoga Mat, Anaheim. More info & registration on my website: Creative Spirits Yoga.

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Simple Does Not Mean Simplistic

In fact, it often takes a great deal of experience to pare things down to their essence. To clear the unnecessary clutter, to silence the extra noise.

simplicity_leonardodavinciMeditation is ultra-simple, but it’s not easy, is it? The same goes for many of the “basic” yoga poses, if we are paying attention.

When something is simplistic, it is trite, shallow, and inauthentic. True simplicity is quite the opposite – it is deep, satisfying, and often profound.

Bells and whistles are nice, but every once in a while, it’s good to let go of complication and embrace simplicity. It feels refreshing.

Yes, We Use Props in Yin Yoga!

Recently, I was leading a Yin Yoga teacher training, and one of the trainees shared something with us that really highlights some of the misperceptions out there about Yin Yoga.  She said that she had been emailing with a fellow yoga teacher friend about her plans for the weekend – studying Yin Yoga – and her friend’s response was something like, “Why would you want to do that? Yin Yoga is dangerous.”  Apparently, she had heard that one doesn’t use props in Yin Yoga, and reasonably concluded that it could be unsafe to practice that way. The problem with this assumption is that props are (and should be!) a regular part of the Yin Yoga practice.

My home practice & teaching space, complete with lots of props!

My home practice & teaching space, complete with lots of props!

Somehow this myth that props are not to be used in Yin Yoga has gained a real foothold in the yoga world. I have a few theories. One is that some Yin teachers downplay the use of props in order to make the distinction between Yin and Restorative. Personally, I think there are more substantial differences between the two styles, as I wrote about here. Secondly, flexible people are often drawn to Yin Yoga, and they may need fewer props, so Yin may have become associated with how the practice looks when really bendy yogis do it. Third, Yin Yoga can attract certain yogis that we could lovingly describe as “sensation junkies” (no offense intended if you have tendencies in this direction). For some, it is difficult to back away from that really strong edge of sensation, especially if they dig that strong stretch, but in actuality, this is a very YANG way to practice YIN yoga. For them, using props changes the practice, because they will have to learn to love the pose with a little less emphasis upon intensity.

In case you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s some advice from Sarah Powers, who is one of the originators of Yin Yoga, along with Paul Grilley.  She writes,

“There are three main tenets that help nourish the joints in a yoga pose. The first is to come into the chosen shape to an appropriate edge. This means coming into poses nonaggressively and sensitively, allowing the breath to remain slow and unlabored so we can detect the appropriate depth of sensation that we feel we can tolerate. If we attempt to take on too much intensity too soon, our inner state – or mood of resistance – will actually hinder the chi flow, causing more energetic disruptions…If we are working on an area that is fragile, injured, or hypermobile, we need to do two things. First, we should merely suggest the shape, coming into the pose just enough to stimulate chi flow without any feeling of strain. Second, we need to remain highly focused on the sensations promoted by the pose, thereby refining our meditative attention, while relaxing the rigidity around the painful joint. Of course, we may also need to use props; allowing for modifications and variations to support damaged or destabilized areas.” (p. 25 Insight Yoga)

So, there you have it! Certainly, when I’ve practiced with Sarah Powers and Bernie Clark, both are proactive about offering props to students. This idea that props are forbidden in Yin is not coming “from the top,” so to speak. And, while Sarah is mostly talking to those with injuries here, by extension, props can be an important ally in preventing injury. This is especially important for those with less flexible bodies – the props actually allow the average student to gradually and safely grow more flexible.

Practicing Swan Pose on a bolster can help make it more accessible, especially for anyone with knee issues.

Practicing Swan Pose on a bolster can help make it more accessible, especially for anyone with knee issues.

Also, consider this – one of the main principles of Yin Yoga is to hold the pose without muscular tension around the target area of the stretch. The theory behind Yin Yoga has always been that this helps us to work with the connective tissues more, rather than only stretching the muscles. So, if a student’s body is resisting a pose due to inflexibility, and is in essence, “propping” itself rigidly in space, how can that student practice the pose with disengaged muscles? In order to correctly practice Yin Yoga, this student needs prop assistance, or they will never be able to release the muscles, relax the nervous system, and gain new flexibility. The prop is hugely helpful in creating the conditions to allow a passive and thorough stretch in this situation.

Most of the students I teach are not super flexy yogis. They have real lives, real jobs, and real aches and pains. Not using props might work out OK if you are a 20-year-old gymnast (I was one once), but then again, it may tend to reinforce the muscle imbalances you already have, making you more flexible where you’re already loose and ignoring your tighter spots. This is one reason why I practice with props in my own personal Yin practice. It allows me to be more precise in where I am receiving the stretch.

Because I love lists, here are my six favorite reasons to use props in a Yin practice:

1) Make a passive stretch possible by avoiding muscular “propping.”

2) Ensure safe alignment.

3) Make the pose sustainable for several minutes.

4) Make it possible to experience the pose as a meditation, rather than distracting the mind with red-alert nuclear levels of intense sensation.

5) Practice with an appropriate amount of sensation (oops, did I say it twice?) to avoid overstretching.

6) Allow the pose to target the intended area of the body.

It is possible to overstretch…which is not very yin-like! Overdoing of any kind is missing the point of a Yin style practice. And, when we’re holding the poses for a long time, as we do in Yin, it is important that we’re in a good place. Otherwise, we could be creating imbalance, or harming our ligaments. (I’ll write more about the ligaments one of these days – talk about another area of misunderstanding in Yin Yoga!)

This is my favorite way to practice Snail Pose.

This is my favorite way to practice Snail Pose.

If you come to my class, I’m not going to force you to use a prop, but I will point out when I think a blanket or a bolster would be helpful. Not all students need a prop in all poses, and the point is not the prop for the prop’s sake. The point is accepting support when you need it. Most people are not flexible enough to practice Yin Yoga effectively without some support. Don’t struggle endlessly with the pose, or spend your time hanging out in a place of pain or potential injury. Work creatively with props as a part of your self-compassion practice, and embrace the support. You might soon discover that the kinder, gentler approach brings more lasting change to your body.

I’ll leave you with some more advice from one of the leading Yin Yoga teachers. Here’s a post from Bernie Clark about using props in Yin Yoga, including a helpful video explaining some of the ways you can employ blankets, bolsters, chairs, and more. Enjoy!

Alignment Maligned: The Baby and the Bathwater

There’s been an article circulating around yogi social media circles today that’s ruffled a few (normally) well-aligned feathers: “Six Reasons You Should Stop Obsessing Over Alignment in Yoga Class” by Maya Devi Georg.  I came across it on Facebook this morning, actually through Matthew Remski’s comments on the article. It touches several nerves connected to current debates on how to make yoga safer, how we relate to our physical bodies, and what is the true significance of this practice.

The quotables from Georg’s article include:

“Obsessing on alignment keeps all the emphasis on the asana and the body. It also emphasizes a level of detail that will neither prevent injury nor make the pose more visually appealing.”

And somehow also this: “When a teacher over-talks, giving far too many details about the alignment of a pose, it takes the student out of their body and into their mind.”  (Wait, where are we stuck? Body or mind?)

And, my favorite: “If you must wait to master one pose before you can begin working on another, you will wait, sometimes for years, while your body loses flexibility and strength. Besides, how long do you want to work on tadasana?”  (Tadasana is Mountain Pose, for those who’ve forgotten your Sanskrit.)

Clearly, the article was meant to be a bit provocative (it includes a little profanity and a lot of attitude), and I admit my first reaction to it was a bit snarky. Here’s my comment on Matthew Remski’s Facebook thread: “I don’t get the sense that she’d be interested in this (see comment “How long do you want to work on Tadasana…”), but if she wants to forget about alignment and just meditate, it sounds like she should just sit down on a zafu and get to it!”

Ok, maybe that was a little harsh, because I don’t know her, and maybe she is serious about meditation. But since the article brought up Patanjali, I think it’s fair to guess that the asanas he had in the back of his mind when writing “the pose should be steady and easeful” looked more like this:

meditatingmodel-on-red-cushion1

than this:

crazy_yogapose

That’s an educated guess, because Patanjali actually did not describe any physical postures in the Yoga Sutras (c. 150 CE), and the related commentary text Yoga-Bhashya, written by Vyasa in the 5th Century, details 11 asanas, all of which seem to be seated meditation postures.

Putting that aside, I actually agree with some of Georg’s points, but not the conclusions she draws from them. Even though it is challenging to teach alignment in a well-integrated way, that does not mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It really IS challenging to teach alignment without being overly technical and cerebral, inadvertently encouraging students to remain stuck “in their heads.”  But this doesn’t mean alignment instruction has to be a distraction. Ideally, there is a huge sensory aspect to learning alignment. Students shouldn’t be looking around saying “Am I doing this right?” but rather feeling into the pose to discover how any particular alignment principle applies to them.

And, there definitely ARE lots of anatomical variations – ranging from actual skeletal differences that no amount of yoga will change, to injuries or muscular imbalances that may prevent the full realization of a particular alignment principle on any given day. But that’s OK, because alignment is not really supposed to be about aesthetics. Yoga teachers are not sculptors!  And alignment is not about making each person meet some universal standard – in order to truly be safe, it must make allowances for students’ actual bodies and meet them where they are.

In my experience, students (myself included) do not always know when they are misaligned in a pose. It may or may not feel “off.” Sometimes we don’t understand right away what a pose is about, what parts of the body it is targeting, and what alignment would mean in that pose unless someone teaches us how to envision and FEEL it.  And, when all the body weight is dumping into the arms in Downward Facing Dog, and a teacher helps you with that, it is an act of compassion. When a teacher makes you work on Dolphin Pose for a long, long time before teaching you Headstand, that is also compassion.  And smart. And safer for your neck, which is no small thing.

Alright…this rant is almost finished, but here are a few of my thoughts about alignment, which I hope will be the quotables from this article:

Alignment in yoga is key to safety, but it has power beyond that. Taught well, it can awaken unconscious, dormant, underused parts of the body (and mind).

Proper alignment can sometimes feel foreign, even uncomfortable, at first. “Familiar” is not the same as “aligned” because yoga is supposed to expose our habits.  This is one way in which yoga is more about undoing than doing.

Focusing in on a subtle point of alignment can be an excellent way to develop concentration, rather than a distraction. Alignment should help to bring the body and mind together, or in other words, heal the “body/mind split” most of us are living with.

I respect that there are other approaches and perspectives, and especially Georg’s intention to make the asana practice more of a meditation.

But, how long do I want to work on Tadasana?  For the rest of my life! It will be useful as long as standing upright is part of my daily repertoire…and standing still is actually a great way to meditate.