In “The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science”, Dr. John Yates, boils down his basic meditation instructions in three parts: 1) posture; 2) relaxation; 3) intention and breath. I was reminded how these principles are also vital to a healthy yoga practice. As many of you already know, yoga can be a one-hour moving meditation and often a dress rehearsal for what we need in our daily lives. So how can we bring John Yates' instructions for meditation into our yoga practice?
In my yoga classes, we often start in a seated posture; an opportunity to give our bodies our full, whole-hearted attention. This is where we establish the mind-body connection which is essential to our yoga practice (or more clearly; it is our practice). We find a comfortable seat; in that Goldilocks approach; not too much effort, nor too much ease. In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (sutra 2.46): this is called "sthira-sukham asanam." This sutra reminds us to practice with a sense of equanimity; or equal balance. We let this posture be the foundation and reminder of how we will move in our practice and a metaphor for how we might need to move through our day. A wonderful Tibetan Buddhist and author; Pema Chödrön, reminds us in meditation to sit with a "strong back" and a "soft front." What does sitting with a "strong back" mean? It means to sit with attention and intention. To sit like you mean it; keeping an active, alert spine. What does sitting with a "soft front" mean? It means, balancing your strong back with a sense of ease in the body, a soft belly, and a relaxed, open (receptive) heart. Again, that Goldilocks approach.
As we start to move through our practice we might notice a desire in the mind towards striving; a strong goal-orientedness in our practice. Doing doing doing. This is sometimes just a habit. We can notice in a typical day the myriad of things that need to be done; work, laundry, meals (lather, rinse, repeat). And like a game of Tetris, we organize these items in neat little rows until there is finally a clearing, a peaceful moment before life restacks the to-do list. Our practice and our postures give us that reminder to soften the goal a little bit. If our goal is to look like that Instagram Yogini, fine, but you may want to soften and re-examine that goal. How? Notice the mind's desire to reach further or dig deeper into any of our poses...and then let your body be your guide as you move through your postures; keeping an embodied approach to your practice. Notice which poses (especially in Yin Yoga) that you can just let gravity do the work for you. No striving. Just letting go and allowing this moment of surrender. Always finish your yoga practice with a rest in Savasana. Just a few minutes to allow your body to truly rest and digest. A reminder to your one precious body that this is a moment of deep self-care by the simple practice of relaxing in your final moments of practice.
Intention and breath
We use what's called a strong "drishti" in practice. Drishti is where you put your gaze or focal point in practice (i.e. perhaps with the gaze on the hand, the toes, the breath). It also means "concentrated intention." It corresponds to the fifth limb of yoga; pratyahara, or "withdrawal of the senses," as well as the sixth limb, dharana, which relates to concentration. When we practice with a strong drishti, the mind naturally becomes still, less blathering and we become more deeply connected with our physical bodies.
Our breath is with us through our entire life, consciously; in hours of wakefulness, and unconsciously; during sleep. We usually come into the world with an inhalation and, in more peaceful conditions, we often leave the world with an out-breath. If we live to be 80 years old, we might take about 672,768,000 breaths in our lifetime.
Pranayama (or breath work); is an important limb of the 8 limbs of yoga. In Sanskrit, prana is our life force, so pranayama is the cultivation and mindful use of our life force. Pranayama leads to improved concentration, health, focus, clarity, purpose and compassion. In my more dynamic classes, we take deep "ujjayi" (victorious or ocean) breaths. Ujjayi breathing can set the rhythm to your practice and signal the transition between poses. It can also create a meditative state, keeping you focused and encouraging the free flow of prana during practice. A helpful tip in our practice is to focus on the exhalation and feeling the release in the pose. We're not so much pulling ourselves into these postures as we are using that letting go muscle; surrendering into the pose. Let your exhalation be your reminder; a gentle guide that's always with you; that your body knows how to let go (it's the mind that often forgets).
When we practice with equanimity in our postures, strong attention and intention, and focus on letting go it's a dress rehearsal for these bringing these same qualities into our daily lives. When you practice in the body, often, your mind will follow.
Join me for my next weekend Yoga and Mindfulness retreat in the alps April 15-17, 2022. Practice dynamic and restorative yoga, breath by breath, in community, surrounded by beautiful nature. An opportunity to dive deeper into the science of yoga (truly a science for our health and well-being) and mindfulness. You will connect with your own heart, mind, and body and practice taking good care of your one precious self.