Practice Mindfulness In Yoga Poses

Warrior Pose 1 Yoga Hillsboro

For a sense of ease that can permeate your whole life, try practicing mindfulness meditation techniques on the mat.

By: NORA ISAACS Original Article

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 labored. 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 judgment 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. In classes around the country, 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.

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.”

The Next Wave
If this practice speaks to you, look for a teacher who has studied both traditions. “It’s good to have someone who can respond to your questions and support you,” Boccio says. So far, there is no easy resource for locating such a person, although the quest should be getting easier. Currently, a training program is being offered at Spirit Rock in conjunction with the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, taught by renowned yoga and mindfulness teachers from around the country. The program integrates asana, Pranayama (breathing techniques), mindfulness meditation, and the teachings of Patanjali.

“Senior teachers at Spirit Rock noticed that more and more yoga students were coming on retreats and wanting to learn about Buddhist meditation,” Cushman says. “We saw an eagerness and desire among the yoga community to learn insight meditation” (called vipassana).

That’s certainly true for Rachel Lanzerotti, a nonprofit organizational consultant in San Francisco, who is in the midst of taking the course. “It has taken me further in a direction that I was already going—[a direction] of slowing down very deeply into the practice and truly being present with what arises.” She uses the recent example of standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) to illustrate these changes: “I was so incredibly captivated by the feeling of my feet against the mat, and the mat against my feet, and everything rising from there,” she recalls. “I was drawn into that moment of sensation and breath and observation, even as I was noticing it. I ended up standing there for minutes, and it was incredibly precious and rich.”

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.”


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