Inspire Your Yoga Practice with Mindfulness

This entry was posted on Feb 25, 2016 by Charlotte Bell.

If You’re Bored with Yoga Practice, You’re Not Paying Attention

How many times would you guess you’ve practiced Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose)? Or how about Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)? Pick any one of yoga’s staple asanas and you may have placed your body in its requisite shape hundreds or even thousands of times. Does it ever feel like the same old, same old? How is it that some people can nurture a yoga practice for 30, 40, 50 years or more and not be completely bored with it?

Whatever kind of asana you practice, keeping your yoga practice interesting can be summed up in five words:

Be mindful of your body.

Being Mindful of the Body

Back in the 1980s on my first five-day silent Insight Meditation retreat, the boredom was excruciating. Quite often, as I sat on my meditation bench, I was completely absorbed in inventing countless mental diversions from the sheer tediousness of it all. I never minded not talking on silent retreats—silence suits me just fine—but sitting and walking for endless hours, trying to focus on my breathing or the sensations of walking was soooooo boring. No wonder my mind spent most of its time in flights of fantasy.

But all this shifted. After a few days on my first retreat, being present with bodily sensations and movements became quite interesting. It was especially satisfying—even sensual—to stay completely present with my movements in the daily asana class. The teacher, Pujari Keays, barely spoke as he led us through our practice. We moved slowly and with care. Each movement—each incremental part of each movement—became completely absorbing. Soon, the concepts of “Dog Pose” or “Triangle Pose” were no longer relevant. When my body formed these usually familiar shapes, the moment-to-moment sensations passing by at lightning speed were completely new and unique. In being mindful of my body, moment to moment, my mind sank into each new sensation as it arose and passed. There was no boredom, and oddly enough, my mind felt more spacious and peaceful than it had ever been, even though my entire experience was based just in this body.

Mindfulness of the body is the first of the four foundations of mindfulness that the Buddha laid out. It is the cornerstone of all the other foundations of mindfulness: mindfulness of feeling (the pleasant, unpleasant or neutral quality of an experience), mindfulness of mental/emotional states, and mindfulness of the dharma. This is because everything we experience, everything we can know, comes through our senses and is experienced in our bodies as sensation. All the other foundations of mindfulness are experienced as sensations in the body. For example, we know we are angry, sad, happy or tired because we experience these qualities as particular sensations in our bodies.

If yoga practice is meant to unify the body and mind, I can think of no better way to do this than to be mindful of our living, breathing bodies as we practice.

Mindfulness and the Brain

As it turns out, mindful yoga practice may also be healthy for your brain. A recent article in The New York Times cited a study suggesting that mindfulness of the body changes the brain—for the better. All 35 participants were recently unemployed. Participants were given brain scans and blood tests prior to the study. Then half of the participants were taught formal mindfulness practice, awareness of all sensations—pleasant, unpleasant and neutral; and the other half were taught a form of relaxation practice that encouraged them to distract themselves from their stress and its source. One part of the study had participants practice simple stretching exercises. The mindfulness group was guided to be mindful of bodily sensations, while the relaxation group was encouraged to engage in conversation during the stretching practice.

Here’s what the study found:

“At the end of three days, the participants all told the researchers that they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.”

What This Means for Your Yoga Practice

Asana is a physical practice. At any given moment, there is a multitude of sensations of which you can be aware. If you’re really paying attention to your moment-to-moment experience, your brain and nervous system—and therefore your whole being—benefit. When you are paying attention, you can’t be bored. Each Dog Pose is new. Each moment of each Dog Pose is new. When you are paying attention, there’s no room in the mind for boredom.

Let your body and your breath guide you. Every asana is a verb, a continuous process of expansion and release. You will never tire of your practice when you understand that every Dog Pose you practice is new. It is quite literally the first time you have ever practiced this particular Dog Pose. The only way to understand this is to look deeply and experience each moment as something new, which it is.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Practice in a quiet space, without music or other distractions. Listening to music while practicing stimulates your brain and makes it more difficult to focus your mind inward.
  • Consider that every asana begins with your intention to practice it. So every gesture you make toward moving into the pose, and every gesture you make to leave the pose is just as important as the formal pose. Stay connected throughout the process.
  • Spend some time. Slowing down helps you tune into more subtle sensations. If you’re moving quickly through a sequence you will likely only be able to experience surface sensations. Take 10 or more deep breaths in each pose, so that you can feel your body unwinding into the asana.
  • Remember that asana is a process. It is a verb, not a “thing” to accomplish. Asana is a living, breathing entity that is constantly evolving as you breathe. Pay attention to the moment-to-moment evolution that is asana.
  • Let your breath guide the process. Your breath moves your body. In every asana, your inhalation and exhalation encourage your body to retreat a bit from the pose and to soften into it. For example, in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) the inhalation lifts the torso a bit and the exhalation allows it to soften forward. Many times, we inhibit these movements—especially the retreating phase—in the interest of pushing further and further. Instead, soften your body around the breath and be present with this natural oscillation. This will help you stay present with the pose as a process rather than a stagnant end point.
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About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.