Bring More Mindfulness Onto the Mat

Yoga class is a great laboratory for becoming more mindful, because it’s rife with conditions that are beyond your control. Integrating mindfulness can make you feel more able to deal with the everyday stresses of work, relationships, and finding your place in the world.

You’re standing in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I). You actively reach through your back foot and allow your tailbone to descend away from your lower back as your arms reach up toward the ceiling. As you hold the pose you start to notice your front thigh burning, your shoulders holding tension, and your breath becoming laboured. Still holding. Soon you get agitated and start to anticipate the joy you’ll feel when the pose is over. Your breath becomes shallow while you await the teacher’s instruction to come out of the pose. But she doesn’t say anything. You label her a sadist. Still holding. You decide that you are never coming back to yoga. As your thigh starts to shake, you mentally check out. Frustrated, you drop your arms and look around the room.

Now imagine this: You’re standing in Virabhadrasana I, noticing the same sensations, having the same thoughts and feelings—anger, boredom, impatience, tension. But instead of reacting, you simply observe your thoughts. You remember that this pose, like everything else in life, will eventually end. You remind yourself not to get caught up in your own story line. And, in the midst of feeling irritated while your thighs burn, you appreciate the sweetness of the moment. You may even feel a wash of gratitude that you have the time and privilege to do a hatha yoga practice. Then you bring your awareness back to your breath and witness the ongoing sensations and thoughts until the teacher guides you out of the pose.

You’ve just experienced the benefits of mindfulness—of bringing your awareness into the present moment, of noticing and accepting what is happening right now without judgement or reaction. And, no doubt, it feels a lot better than the first scenario (which you might recognize as something you’ve also experienced). Mindfulness is something that Buddhist meditators cultivate. And it’s something that all styles of hatha yoga teach, often through an emphasis on breath awareness.

Lately, a group of teachers who each, independently, discovered the benefits of merging mindfulness with asana has begun to offer something we might call “mindful yoga.” Teachers from a variety of yogic backgrounds—people such as Frank Jude Boccio, Stephen Cope, Janice Gates, Cyndi Lee, Phillip Moffitt, and Sarah Powers—are applying traditional Buddhist mindfulness teachings to the asana practice. They offer these tools as a way to bolster your presence and awareness not only when you’re on the mat but also when you step off it, which can ultimately make your life—with all of its conflicts, confrontations, and distractions—easier to navigate. “My experience is that when we really cultivate mindfulness in the hatha and sitting practice, it almost naturally begins to seep into our other activities,” says Boccio, the author of Mindfulness Yoga.

The Indian Connection to Buddhist Concepts
You don’t have to be Buddhist or even know much about Buddhism to learn the mindfulness practices, but it’s helpful to know that yoga and Buddhism have much in common. They are both ancient spiritual practices that originated on the Indian subcontinent, and they both aim to help you liberate yourself from the small, egoic sense of self and experience oneness with the universe. The eightfold path of the Buddha and the eight-limbed path of yogic sage Patanjali are quite similar: Both begin with ethical practices and conduct and include training in concentration and awareness. “Ultimately, I see Buddha and Patanjali as brothers, using different languages, but speaking about and pointing to the same thing,” says Stephen Cope, director of the Kripalu Institute and the author of The Wisdom of Yoga.

One difference, however, is that the yogic path emphasizes the development of concentration on a highly refined object, like the breath, to produce profound states of absorption. The Buddhist path, on the other hand, focuses on a mindfulness of all events as they unfold in the stream of consciousness so you can experience what is happening without clinging to it or pushing it away. So, that shaking thigh in your standing pose? It doesn’t overtake your whole experience, and you don’t have to change it. With mindfulness, it just becomes one small sensation in the whole fabric of a moment. Applied more broadly, when your whole body is shaking because you’re nervous for a job interview, you can allow that sensation to be there. It doesn’t have to eat into your self-confidence or ruin the experience.

A Systematic Approach to Mindful Asana Practice
Mindfulness has always been an essential aspect of any serious yogi’s physical practice. But today’s “mindful yoga” teachers say that Buddhism’s comprehensive road map to mindfulness has benefited them even more. That’s not to say these teachers felt something was missing from yoga. For most, the integration has evolved naturally: As their interest in, and understanding of, Buddhism deepened over time, they realized that highly developed mindfulness techniques could complement their hatha practice.

“I had been practicing asana mindfully, paying attention especially to my breath and alignment details,” Boccio recalls. “But when I heard the Buddha’s teaching on the four foundations of mindfulness, the vista of asana practice widened before me. Instead of just practicing ‘mindfully’ in general,” Boccio says, “he followed the Buddha’s teachings, which provide detailed instruction that can be applied within any pose. By systematically approaching mindfulness, he was able to identify specific behaviors of his, such as grasping for the outcome of a pose, avoiding a certain pose, or just zoning out. And once he identified them, he was able to make positive changes.

Boccio explains the difference between practicing yoga mindfully and following the Buddha’s mindfulness techniques: “While other forms of yoga may teach students to practice asana with mindfulness, I teach and practice mindfulness through the form of asana.”

Cyndi Lee, who is the founder of New York’s OM Yoga, says that, while she has always loved the physical poses, it wasn’t until she applied specific Buddhist mindfulness practices that she saw the fruits of her practice go beyond the physical level. “The Buddhist mindfulness practice has a fully developed technique, which can then be modified to apply to asana,” she says. “For me, that is when my practice showed up in my life as increased patience, curiosity, kindness, the potential for a letting-go of agenda, the understanding of craving, and the recognition of basic goodness in myself and others.”

Invitation to Go Deeper
The beauty of mindfulness training is that it transcends yoga styles: Once you learn the basics of the practice, you can apply it in any class you take. Today’s yoga teachers have woven a web of mindful yoga based on their unique training, interests, and background.

Sarah Powers’ classes often begin with Yin Yoga—which consists of mainly seated postures held for long periods of time—and move into vinyasa flow. The long holds in Yin can bring up intense physical sensations, not to mention an often persistent, nagging desire to exit a pose. Powers feels this is the perfect time to remind students of mindfulness methods, and she does this by sharing teachings from the Buddha-dharma. “When we are called to go into the deeper places of pain, discomfort, or agitation, we need support to integrate that experience. Receiving mindfulness teachings assists this process.” By the time students are ready to begin the flow portion of the practice, the stage is set for mindful awareness.

In his Kripalu Yoga classes, Cope encourages students to develop “witness consciousness,” the quality of mind that allows it to stand still in the center of the whirlwind of sensations. With practice, Cope says, students can develop this aspect of mindfulness, the part of the Self that is both standing in the middle of the experience and also observing it.

Cope says that suffering can serve as a reminder to come back to the present moment and to observe the truth of what is happening in that moment. In class, he asks students to identify the ways they are causing themselves to suffer—for example, by comparing themselves to their neighbor in Triangle Pose or yearning to go farther in a forward bend—and then to recognize these as simply thoughts or behavioral patterns. Such thoughts are not the truth but rather things we have conditioned ourselves to believe over time until they become so ingrained that it is hard to discern them. “You notice the pattern, name it—and then you start investigating it,” Cope says.

Boccio teaches the Buddha’s four foundations of mindfulnes—mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of the mind, of the dharma (truth)—on the mat. After he instructs his students in a pose, he reminds them to cultivate mindfulness by asking questions: Are you bringing awareness to your breath? Where is sensation arising? Are you starting to create a mental formation by wondering when this pose will end? “When people start to investigate, they begin to see that they don’t have to believe every single thought that pops through their head,” he says.

Mindfulness in Action
Yoga class is a great laboratory for becoming more mindful, because it’s rife with conditions that are beyond your control. On any given day the traffic noise might be uncomfortably loud, you may feel bored or restless, your neighbor’s sweat might drip on your mat, your hamstrings may feel tight. Armed with mindfulness techniques, you can reframe these conditions so that you get more out of your yoga class and feel less reactive about things that you usually find irritating and distracting.

For yoga teacher Laura Neal, owner of Yoga at Cattitude in Bar Harbor, Maine, mindfulness techniques made her aware of her tendency to push too hard in her physical practice. “Now I’m less likely to push past my limit—and also less likely to stop short of it,” she says.

Michelle Morrison, a supervisor for an accounting firm in Manhattan who also teaches mindfulness yoga, feels the effects of combining awareness practice with her physical practice. “I came to see the different kinds of things happening: where I was clinging to pleasurable sensations, what was causing the irritation, noticing my habits,” she says. “I tend to be kind of hard on myself, and I’ve noticed that I can have those feelings and yet open myself to other options.”

Anne Cushman, a co-director of the 18-month Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, says that mindfulness can enliven a yoga practice operating on autopilot. “It’s a way to open more deeply to your yoga practice and extend that feeling into the rest of your life.” Cushman also says that it can open new doors for people who can’t seem to get a sitting practice going: “For some people, seated meditation is not accessible at this stage in their practice, either temperamentally or physically. That’s just not their doorway.”

Practitioners say that integrating mindfulness has helped them be better able to deal with the everyday stresses of work, relationships, and finding their place in the world. Cyndi Lee says that mindfulness works because it offers a realistic approach to dealing with life’s challenges. “It’s very earthy, grounded, and time-tested material,” she says. “It’s not about escape, creating a bliss state, and then when you open your eyes, you come crashing down into reality. Whatever your situation is, you can work with it. It gives you a path for shifting your general scenario away from attachment or aversion, to thinking there is fundamentally no problem and everything is workable. And that is very liberating.”

A Mindfulness Practice
1. Savasana (Corpse Pose)Savasana is one of the four main meditation postures taught by the Buddha; do it to start and end your practice. Lie on your back with your feet 12 to 18 inches apart, arms at your sides a few inches away from the torso with the palms up. Surrender the full weight of your body to gravity.

Rest your awareness on your breath, wherever you feel it in the body. Let go of any tendency to manipulate it; simply know an inbreath as an inbreath, an outbreath as an outbreath. Open to the breath and its various qualities: deep or shallow, fast or slow, rough or smooth, even or uneven. Scan the body. Is it fully released or still holding tension? When the mind wanders, note any irritation and judgment, and bring it back to the breath and the body.

2. Eye-of-the-Needle Pose

From Corpse, bring both feet to the floor near the buttocks, hip-width apart. Place your outer right shin on your left thigh. Draw your left knee toward your chest, reach between your legs with your right arm and around the outside of your left leg with your left arm, and clasp your hands. Notice whether you held or restricted your breath as you moved into this stretch, and continue to let the breath flow naturally.

Depending on the openness in your body, you may feel stretching sensations in your right hip. You may also feel some resistance to the sensations, which causes you to tense the surrounding muscles. See if you can release this tension, and observe how the sensations change as you maintain the stretch. You’ve just established mindfulness of the body, sensations, and mental formations. Continue this work as you release and repeat on the other side. Since we are not perfectly symmetrical beings, you may find that one hip provokes stronger sensations and reactivity than the other. Can you stay with the bare sensation, maybe even see the difference between one side and the other, without getting caught in judging or picking and choosing?

3. Cat-Cow Pose

Come onto your hands and knees, positioning your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. As you exhale, round your back and scoop the tailbone between your legs. Let the head tilt so you are gazing back toward your thighs. On the inhalation, tilt the pelvis forward, opening your belly toward the floor and letting your spine move into the torso, creating a gentle backbend. Reach the crown of your head and your tailbone up toward the ceiling. Be careful not to reach upward with your chin, which compresses the back of the neck. Flow back and forth for a few breaths.

As you continue to coordinate the movement with your breath, let the timing of the breath determine your pace. After going back and forth several times, notice the mind’s natural tendency to wander. This is a common reaction to repetition. The mind seems to assume that having done something well, it doesn’t have to know anything more and needn’t pay attention. This “knowing mind” is often the biggest obstacle to intimacy with oneself and with others. When we think we know, we stop listening and seeing. Try to maintain the “don’t-know mind,” and you will grow in understanding and intimacy. Come back to the breath again and again; it’s the thread that keeps body and mind connected.

4. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

From Cat-Cow, tuck your toes under, lift your hips, and straighten your legs into Down Dog. Playfully explore the pose by bringing the heels to the floor one at a time. Coordinate with the breath and notice if your mind wanders in the face of repetition. Once you straighten both legs, remain in the pose for anywhere from 8 to 15 breaths, staying alert to sensations, mental formations, and the way the experience continuously changes. Teachers often talk about “holding” the postures, but notice how there is no fixed thing to hold on to. Moment by moment, breath by breath, the posture re-creates itself. The Dog of the first breath is not the same as the Dog of the sixth breath.

You will begin to see that this is true not only for this asana, and all the other asanas, but also for all life experiences. You will come to see that you are not the same “person” when you come out of the posture that you were when you went into it.

5. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

Mountain Pose is too often perceived as just something to do between the more important asanas, when in fact it is foundational for all the standing postures.

Stand with your arms at your sides. Press the four corners of your feet into the ground, distributing your body weight evenly between both feet and centering it just in front of your heels. Imagine your pelvis as a bowl with its rim level, both front to back and side to side. Let the spine rise up, keep the lower ribs from jutting out, gently lift the chest, and open the heart. Relax the shoulders, with your shoulder blades moving into and supporting your upper back. Keep the chin parallel with the floor and your ears centered over your shoulders.

See what happens as you simply stand there. Be awake to all the sensations that arise: the subtle swaying of the body, the movement of the breath. Does boredom, impatience, or anticipation arise? Can you just be here? When you feel you’ve been here long enough, take another 6 to 8 breaths and see what happens.

6. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)

Reach out to the sides with your arms parallel to the floor and step your feet apart so that they are directly under your fingertips. Turn your left foot in about 15 degrees and your right foot out 90. Without leaning forward, bend the right knee toward a 90-degree angle so that the knee is directly over the ankle. Keep your arms parallel to the ground and gaze out over your right hand. As you breathe, stay alert to changes in the quality of the breath, its depth and rate. As sensations begin to arise in your front thigh or your shoulders, notice how the mind reacts. Do you feel aversion to the tension accompanying the sensations? See what happens to the quality of your experience if you stay with the breath while releasing this tension. Notice the story lines that arise about what is happening and choose to just listen without grasping at any of them. Rather than solidifying the sensations into entities with which to do battle, embrace them with awareness. Notice—if you can—their habitual, nonpersonal nature. After doing both sides, come back to Mountain and scan through the body, being open to all that arises.

7. Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)

Sit in a cross-legged position, sliding your left foot under your right thigh so that your left heel comes to rest at the outside of your right hip. Cross your right foot over your left thigh so that the sole of your right foot is planted firmly on the ground. Hug your right leg with your left arm just below the knee and use your right hand to press into the ground behind you. Extend your spine up. Twist to the right, using your left hand to aid the left side of your body in coming around to the right. You can take your left arm to the outside of your right leg and press into the leg for added leverage, but let the twist rise naturally from the base of the spine upward. Turn your head to the right at the end of the torso’s movement and keep the neck relaxed. Stay present with your breath, allowing it to guide you in an exploration of release as you exhale and gently untwist. Repeat to the other side.

8. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)

Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Press the backs of your thighs, calves, and heels into the ground. Reach through your heels and flex your toes toward your head. Press your hands into the ground beside your hips and lift your chest. If your lower back rounds and your weight is on your tailbone, sit up on a blanket for support. Grasp your feet or your shins, soften your groins, and slightly rotate your thighs inward. Lengthen your torso out over your legs, keeping the lower back from rounding. Let go of “grasping mind” and be where you are. Feel the breath move within the body. Surrender into the posture, and keep letting go of any clinging or aversion to the everchanging phenomena. Notice how the attempt to prolong or create pleasant feelings is itself a form of tension.

When you’re ready, rest in Corpse Pose for a few minutes, letting the experience of the practice penetrate the body-mind. After Corpse, consider meditating. Sitting after asana practice is a nourishing and satisfying endeavor. Why not try it now?
By Nora Isaacs

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