So, what is mindfulness?
In its most basic understanding, Mindfulness is about bringing awareness to the present attention, on purpose, without judgment. Something which in modern life can be difficult to practice but could be the answer to help us deal with the pressures of daily life and to reconnect with ourselves in this digital age. By practicing this way of living regularly it can help us to bring awareness to what is going on in the present moment. This means we are able to accept our life and our situation right now rather than living in the past or future.
With its roots in the East, mindfulness has existed alongside meditation in Buddhist practices for nearly three thousand years. It’s only been fairly recently that this practice has spread to the West.
The scientific research that is available shows that the practice of living mindfully can provide many benefits on our mind and body. These include;
Relief from feelings of stress and anxiety
Relief from pain
Improved general health
Increased immune function
When we think of mindfulness there are often two key elements to the practice. These are awareness and compassion. We’ve already touched on the first element, awareness. Bringing awareness not only to the present moment but also to our thoughts and our reactions. When we are aware of how we react to certain situations we then take back control. We can be aware of our situation without holding any judgment or negative thoughts, thus in turn we can begin to improve our relationship with our experiences.
For example, you might be holding Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II). After a while, you might start to experience uncomfortable sensations within the arms. Your awareness might be directed to these sensations, maybe you begin to get frustrated, annoyed, or wishing time away until you can release your arms. Suddenly your whole practice and experience has been consumed by these thoughts and judgments. If you are able to tune into the present during these moments, you might find that you start to see things differently. Maybe you bring your awareness back to the breath or showing yourself and your body kindness and compassion.
How to incorporate mindfulness in your yoga practice
Now that we have a better understanding of the concept and its benefits we can begin to incorporate mindful practices into yoga. In its simplest form, mindful yoga is about bringing awareness to the present, while simultaneously treating yourself with compassion. Most importantly, it’s about listening to your body. Leaving judgment behind, focusing on yourself and not others, and practicing in a way that works for you and your body.
One of the things that I’m sure we’re all guilty of as students of yoga is following the teacher's every word. Yes, the teacher is there to guide us and to help prevent any unnecessary injuries. But only you truly know your body. Only you know how it feels in each pose. Only you know what feels good and what doesn’t. By practicing mindfully we can become aware of when we might need to rest, or try a different yoga style or change our alignment. Once you become familiar with your practice, your ability to move mindfully will increase. You will begin to move in a way that is right for you. You will begin to adapt asanas based on your needs at that present moment. It is truly magical to be so connected with your mind and body that you can adapt your movement, breathing, and thinking at the moment.
Below are some of the ways we can incorporate more mindful moments to our practice.
1. Find a welcoming space, free from distraction
Create a dedicated space to practice in where you feel comfortable and safe. Remove any items or sounds that might distract you. If you need your phone near you, why not try to cover it with a blanket and turn it on silent so you won’t be tempted by it.
2. Tap into how you feel
It’s worth taking some time at the start of your practice to notice how you’re feeling in the present. Maybe you’re noticing any thoughts that arise, feelings, or sensations within the body. If you’re experiencing any pain or tightness within the body it is important to be aware of this throughout your practice.
3. Let go of any expectations
Letting go of any expectations or an agenda for your practice will allow you to truly be present. By doing this, we are able to let our practice unfold how it is meant to. Attaching expectations to your practice can lead to judgment if you aren’t at the place where you expected to be.
4. Focus on your own practice and not others
It can be hard when we’re practicing in a class to not focus on other people around you. Especially when those students are advanced in their practice. But this doesn’t diminish your own practice. It’s important to meet yourself where you’re at both physically and mentally right now, regardless of what is going on around you.
5. Be aware of how you’re feeling throughout
Take time during your practice to notice when you’re letting your feelings take over. In the previous example of Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), feelings of anger or frustration can take over because your arms are aching. When you notice these negative feelings tap into your own experience and breath instead.
6. There’s no shame in resting or modifying
As an instructor, I make it explicitly clear at the start and during each practice for students to rest or modify when needed. While it can be beneficial to push physically and mentally, there might be times when rest is needed instead. For each individual, a rest looks different, from a child’s pose, knees to chest, or lying down in a corpse pose. When you notice that you need a rest, take time to truly understand what type of rest you need right now.
7. Don’t skip relaxation
One of the most important parts of any yoga practice is the time we spend in savasana. There might be times during your practice that you want to skip or that you don’t have time for savasana. However, it is important to let the body and mind totally relax. It also allows us to tap into our experience and reap the benefits of our practice, as well as set the tone for your experience off of the mat.
The benefits of mindful yoga
The first and probably most important element of mindful living is awareness. Through practicing yoga mindfully we become more self-aware both on and off the mat. You’ll find yourself starting to catch moments during your practice or your day when you check in with your mind and body. Self-awareness allows you to adjust your practice based on your needs at that exact moment.
Deepens your relationship with yourself
Practicing mindful yoga allows us to connect to ourselves on a deeper level. Not only are we more aware of our needs and how we are feeling but it also allows us to practice loving kindness. By adjusting our practice based on how we are feeling, we are showing ourselves compassion and kindness. This can create a deeper relationship with yourself both on and off the mat. Yoga is a beautiful practice and allows us to modify at any point and any poses based on our current state.
It will start to become a way of life
When we practice mindful moments on our mat, over time we will start to notice how this trickles into our daily lives. You might start to notice that the little things that used to frustrate you no longer affect you as much. Or maybe you’re experiencing stress at work, however, you know that when you take some time to bring awareness to your breath you can find a moment of calm. When we are so used to paying attention to our bodily sensations on the mat, the easier it becomes to live mindfully off the mat.