For most people, yoga is a physical activity where you try to get your body into all kinds of interesting shapes and figures. Usually, an hour or so of yoga makes you feel good and it can’t really hurt to stretch those tight muscles and tissues.
Little is known about the more philosophical side of yoga which is mainly practiced off the mat. Interestingly enough, this philosophy part can seriously improve your physical yoga practice.
Around 200 BCE, a sage called Patanjali, wrote down everything that was known about yoga at the time. In these scriptures, referred to as the yoga sutras, there is not a single description of a downward or an upward facing dog. On the contrary, the postures are hardly mentioned. The only thing that is mentioned about the postures is that they should be steady and stable – remember that next time when you’re balancing on one foot! The main focus of Patanjali was to show us a way to still the fluctuations of the mind.
What are you attending to?
Why is it so valuable to train the mind? One of the main advantages of mind training, or meditation, is that you get a grip on your thoughts. Better yet, you can start choosing what you attend to. It’s all about attention. What gets your attention and what do you observe but not zoom into?
‘Let the hearing be the hearing’, a phrase that is often mentioned in meditation. This means that you observe the sounds but the sounds are not getting your full attention. We are choosing something else to be our object of attention.
Sharpen the mind
To be able to meditate, we need to be able to concentrate and concentration requires relaxation. This is where yoga and meditation start coming together. Practicing yoga postures without meditation is kind of like walking through life on one leg. It is often said that yoga is meditation in motion.
Making it practical
You can very easily incorporate this concept of attention into your yoga class. For example, just before starting your yoga class, you can take a moment to become aware of what your body and mind need after a stressful day. Do you really need a soft and gentle yin class or do you need to sweat and push the body a little bit to get out of a sluggish state and go for a vinyasa style class?
When we pay more attention to how we feel and what we need, we train ourselves to step away from living and practicing on autopilot. The more aware we become, the less likely it is that we just go through the motions.
During yoga, when you find yourself in a certain posture, you could bring your full attention to the body and wonder where you could possibly relax a little bit more for example. Or the opposite, you can really tune in and check which muscles need to engage more to get more benefit from a particular pose.
More awareness means that you will notice when you wander off or when you’re distracted. Lots of injuries in yoga come from distraction or from pushing through because there is not enough alignment between body and mind to prevent you from going beyond your appropriate edges of flexibility.
By training your attention skills, you will be able to fully focus during a practice so that a yoga class becomes a constant exploration of your own body and mind instead of just a nice workout.
More attention might even be the missing link to progress in the more physically advanced postures. When we keep in mind that the real goal of yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind, we might just be giving ourselves the break that we need to be successful in yoga.
Rachel Bonkink holds a Masters Degree in Commercial Sciences and has had a corporate career as an operational director. As a meditation and yoga teacher, Rachel guides people on her worldwide retreats and online meditation challenges. Rachel’s book: Flex Your Mind, 10 powerful Yoga principles for less stress in a busy world is available wherever books are sold.
For more information about Rachel’s retreats and meditation challenges, please visit www.revealingvajra.com