When I started to teach yoga I hadn’t really heard of mindfulness. Hard to believe in this day and age. I was lucky enough to have an amazing yoga philosophy teacher on the teacher training course I did and lots of integration of yoga philosophy, pranayama (breath work) and meditation into the training days, even the anatomy tutor started and finished all her sessions with meditation so for me meditation never felt like a separate practice, and mindfulness? Well I thought it was a fad, a part of a larger Eastern practice that had been extracted away from its spiritual context to suit a Western audience. I was a little aloof. Like a true yoga fanatic, for me yoga covered everything so why separate them?
While it is true that a holistic yoga practice can be mindful and in yogic philosophy there is an emphasis on increased awareness, breath awareness, body awareness and self awareness, I have developed an increasing awareness that not all yoga practices are necessarily very mindful. In lots of cases people equate yoga with Asana (poses) and come to class to get strong and flexible, even to sweat and lose weight. While there is nothing wrong with that for me it has always been a side benefit rather than my main purpose at yoga. Yoga for me has been more about mental health and how I feel when I focus my mind and body in the present on an Asana or pranayama practice, or even when I get on my mat and find I can’t keep my mind focused on my Asana or pranayama practice! I become aware of my energy levels, or what my body and emotions are telling me about how I am and what I need. I rebalance and come away feeling better. Maybe my first lessons in mindfulness came in 2003 when I stood opposite my first yoga teacher saying , yes, I’d come to the next class but was aware that I didn’t want to go. I didn’t like all the pushing pulling and stretching and I particularly didn’t like the sensation of feeling squashed and uncomfortable in shoulder stand, so why was I saying yes? A part of me needed the practice, a part of me recognized that. It was a way of coming home, of learning to stop running all the time and let myself relax a little. I found that stopping to relax was not the same as collapsing at the week and it wasn’t waste of time, it gave me more time, energy and focus.
As I watched myself over that first year and saw the difference in when I did yoga and when I didn’t do it it became clear that life was better with yoga. It still baffles me how just a little time spent doing something so simple, deep breathes and movement, can make such a difference in my quality of life. Anyone can do yoga and you can do it for free, it seems too simple to be effective yet it is. Mindfulness is like that too. There are different techniques and types of meditation but few could be simpler than just being present and aware. Try it now, reading this stop for a moment, close your eyes and notice, what do you feel? what do you hear? What thoughts come? Let then come and go. It doesn’t matter, just notice.
Anyone can do this anywhere and anytime and although there are beautiful lead meditations and practices which I highly recommend, it really its something we can integrate into every moment. Sounds easy, and it is simple but it’s a challenge and if it seems like its too simple to make any difference, well its not. It can change everything. What happens when we suddenly become aware of something? When we see ourselves respond in a certain way? It can be hard to ignore things when the spotlight of our awareness is shone on it. That is why witnessing is so important, it gives us a chance to rethink things, to alter behaviours, to be more present and careful with our thoughts, words and actions.
So now, call to action! I ask myself, and you, if you’re up for the challenge that just for today, try to witness, your thoughts and your words, what your body really craves (is it water or lunch or a walk or crisps?) Pause for moments. Be where you are. Free yourself from judgement as much as you can and notice, starting with just you, notice how you’re doing today and I hope its wonderful.