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Exploring the Relationship Between Yoga and Mindfulness

By Scott Johnson

In 2002 I started practising ashtanga yoga. In 2013 I began practising mindfulness. In 2013 my ashtanga yoga practice subtly changed forever…

Cultivating synchronicity

A completely balanced practice of breath/movement synchronicity is what we’re developing as ashtanga yoga practitioners. Returning to the mat is to cultivate and work on that process. Cultivating this synchronicity can be hard, but that’s the point of returning regularly. It is, though, completely possible to keep that focus. Dedicated ashtanga practitioners are in this for the long run so anything that helps to keep us on the path is good, right? Life changes, we adapt. How we adapt is key.

In 2013 I took an 8 week mindfulness and compassion course. It helped me begin to notice deeper parts of myself and my life in a wider context. This wasn’t long after Ozge had passed away and I had taken on the role of running SYL myself. For the first part of the course we were asked to undertake a body scan for six days out of seven. A body scan is a formal practice in which you lie down still for 40 minutes and bring your attention to your whole body. It was interesting. It was boring. I got distracted. I came back. It was interesting again. However, over time it became very effective in its ability to concentrate and direct my attention. To concentrate the attention at a single point in the body, then eventually to widen that attention to the whole body. It was still sometimes boring. But it was mindfulness training, so I was enquiring into the boring. I mean that’s the point.

It did wake me up to the feeling and sensory tone of my body and allowed me to nurture a wider awareness of my body itself. Also, to be able to recognise moment to moment awareness. With this new insight, I decided to bring this body scan practice and lay it on top of my ashtanga yoga practice. I mean it couldn’t hurt, right? It would be an interesting exercise at least. And it would be less boring too.

In fact, it was a revelation…

Moment to moment awareness

My practice moved to a much deeper place. It became a felt experience, meaning when practising I was aware of the whole body in a process rather than a system of separate postures linked together with breaths. The breath was felt, the body was felt. I was only ever focused on that one breath with that one movement, in that one moment. The vinyasa became the moment to moment awareness. I soon realised that mindfulness was actually about the body. A body awareness practice. Being with what arises – and an asana practice is the perfect place to cultivate this. I also noticed the reverse, that the yoga practice helped shape what I thought. So yoga practice became about the mind too. About being mindful.

In Indian tradition the word citta has the same root meaning for heart as well as mind. So we could also translate mindfulness as heartfulness. So we not only learn to sit with whatever comes up for us (getting close to it, learning not to push or pull), but just to be with what arises. And perhaps with heartfulness we can learn to be more open in our acceptance of it too. Seeing if the filter of our emotional awareness can capture sensations. Seeing if we can move beyond language to capture something that we can’t explain, only feel. Cultivating a heart for our practice. A heart for life. Holding our life in open awareness with love, and perhaps loving our own life like we hold and love our closest. Not only can this filter into our practice, this can also filter into our lives. Can we meet our lives not only with a mindful quality but a heartful quality too?

A kinder approach

Importantly, what underlay this experience was the feeling of compassion. That I was practising to really look after myself. To be kinder. Not particularly to get any better (that was a byproduct), not to go in any particular direction, but to use this practice as one that supported me leading a more meaningful life.

I remember now. I began to meet my practice in this way all the time, with a mindful/heartful quality. There was a strong recognition that something was different. It was the same practice that had lasted for 11 years but there was a deepening of my connection to it. I had just changed the way I saw it, felt it and practised it. I think it might come down to when we practise we learn not to hit internal walls too hard. If we have a personal practice, whether in a yoga studio or at home, when we hit walls in our practice we learn to bump off them rather than crash into them. Eventually move through them. Keeping an open and honest approach to how our lives are developing, with the help of a yoga practice, helps us to merge when there are powerful indicators, like mindfulness, that land in us.

Mindfulness captured me in my practice and created a more open attitude. It widened the focus of my practice and helped me to let go of those things in my mind that held me back. It’s not easy – there are constant unconscious reminders and life keeps coming at you – but, for me in practice, it always comes back to the tiny moments.

The tiny moments

The subtle shift of weight across the soles of the feet. The soft feeling of that first bead of sweat dripping from my forehead onto the floor. The delicate sensation of our hands being received as we place them on the ground. Capturing the pauses between breaths. Catching the inner wind of the breath, as if we could feel it gently moving inside us. Moving our imagination toward bandha. The energetic shift. The change in awareness as a particularly challenging posture is met, then held. That moment in shavasana as practice falls away and the gentle sensation of movement turns into stillness. Capturing the moment that post-practice shine falls away and something else emerges. Reality…

As these tiny moments opened up for me in practice I began to notice the tiny moments of life. Those moments that we take for granted, but are always there. These moments, in fact every moment, can become a tiny moment of clarity and awareness. Remembering to notice them is the practice of mindfulness and the practice of yoga.

There are never places that can’t be noticed, looked for or dropped into. Practising yoga with a mindful quality creates a wonderful relationship of delicate movement with unlimited intimate connections to be discovered. This is how the ashtanga yoga practice can be. This is what’s mindfully possible…

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