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Exploring Yoga As A Formal Contemplative Practice

By Scott Johnson

Pausing for thought

Before reading on, take a moment to contemplate these questions as they relate to you and your life:

  • Are you thinking about starting yoga? If so, what is it that initially compels you to want to start?
  • If you’ve been practising yoga for a while, can you remember why you started? If so, take a moment to reflect on this.
  • Are you a different person now as a response to the years of dedication to a yoga practice?
  • Importantly, is the reason you now practise yoga different to the reason you began?

  • Recognising your intention

    If you’re a beginner, just the idea of starting yoga is an intention, whatever the reason. The initial intention/reason to practise is a great boon to have and to notice, especially when we embark on a contemplative practice such as yoga. We all come to yoga for many different reasons, all of which can find a relief to the pressures of our daily lives.

    Interestingly, for experienced practitioners like myself, each time I roll out my mat this is an intention too, albeit one that becomes more established over the years. I roll out my mat as an intention to discover something more about myself, whether that be to experience a deeper connection with a posture, or to feel connected to something deeper within myself.

    Acknowledging the teachings

    The ongoing practice of yoga changes us, and the teachings of yoga, such as understanding certain yoga texts presented to us in a way that connects, are often what can help to wake us up. This is true whether they’re translated to us through a teacher, or by reading, watching or listening to yoga philosophy.

    Interestingly though, in my experience of being a yoga teacher, people have changed irrespective of knowing what the actual teachings of yoga are. Their intention has been what has compelled them to come to the mat in the first place and do the work required to see themselves in a new light. After that, encouragement from myself as a teacher has been key. So there is something that the yoga teachings represent that is akin to becoming more human. Something that is felt. That goes beyond words…

    Intention as a practice

    For me, yoga has intention at its base. In fact, yoga IS intention. To stand at the front of a yoga mat, or even just to stand if you don’t use one, with full awareness of breath and body, is to be open to what is going to happen next. In readying for asana, noticing the gross physical weight of the body through your feet, and feeling the subtle sensation of the crown at the top of your head rising, we can awaken to the space in between those two points of reference. Our body. Our conscious awareness. The earth from which I feel, the sky from which I sense. We are then able to notice the present moment, as it plays out for us.

    It’s simple but I feel it’s so important to remember that the body and breath, with which we sense the world, IS this human life. The continuous intention to notice this understanding is the potential to connect to the moment where we experience the fluid connection of life as it arises.

    So, the practice of yoga is the intention of experiencing this human life as we place certain conditions on it. These conditions are asana, pranayama, meditation and chanting.

    Yoga as a formal contemplative practice

    Answering the questions posed at the beginning of this piece is a worthwhile exercise, and continually asking ourselves why we practice is noticing how yoga is changing us. All things are born out of intention but something like yoga, which is a contemplative practice, encourages intention in a deeper way.

    Yoga offers us a way of truly understanding ourselves. I see it as a formal contemplative practice. This is a practice which we place as a benchmark, or front and centre, in our lives. One where we practise to notice ourselves intentionally and to return to it regularly. It is placed as incredibly important, because it is a process of seeing ourselves in a clearer way. We are able to work through and wrestle with all the physical and subtle aspects of our lives. It’s where we give actual time to the noticing and navigating of our awareness. How many see yoga as this possibility? How many have yoga as this intention? I’m not sure, but changing your view of yoga to seeing it as this potential is no bad thing.

    Discovering our habits

    There is, though, a deeper reward as a response to the intention we place on yoga practice. Because yoga is about feeling, noticing and becoming present, we begin to see how we see things in our lives. After a while we’ll be able to use practice to reflect back on what is going on in a way that helps our understanding of ourselves. Having a good yoga teacher is a great way for us to be helped with this.

    Importantly, dedicated and regular practice should help us see our habits. Habits we may even have in practice itself, whether these be while we’re sitting quietly watching our breath, flowing through a surya namaskar, or trying to hold a handstand for longer than 5 breaths.

    Waking up to the changes

    So, with the possibility of all this practice, all this contemplation, how does it change us? It changes us because we are moved by the process of practice itself. Giving ourselves time to place conditions on the way we see and experience our lives allows us to notice our lives in a different way. We can let go of stories we have held for a long time.

    It’s a simple premise, but having the intention of our practice as a formal contemplative process can help give us the focus to look and feel it as such. To actually become the thing we seek. To actually become yoga. Just for a moment.

    As soon as I realise that I am being changed by yoga I can wake up to yoga. To what is new. So, yoga changes me, therefore I change. It’s an experiential, guided process, helping us to feel more alive.

    As we practise, as we deepen, intention changes. But intention is always there. It never stops. It’s in the way I stretch when I wake up in the morning to feel my body. It’s in the smile I give the barista as I thank her for my coffee. It’s in the litter I pick up left by someone else. Being open to intention as a drive that shapes the process of our life is to be open to how we move and wrestle with this thing we are given TO notice. This breath, and the next one. And the next one…

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