For many people in the US, yoga is a wonderful entryway into the mindfulness and meditative practices. The use of movement makes it very accessible to those of us who struggle with restlessness and difficulty concentrating. In fact, asana (postures) is only the 3rd of 8 limbs of the entire practice of yoga. They were intended to prepare the body and mind for meditation. But, what specifically makes yoga a mindfulness practice?
When we first try yoga, it takes all our energy and concentration just to make the body approximate the postures. There is no time to regret the past or worry about the future. We are there on our mats, fully absorbed in the moment. We are absolute beginners, so we have few preconceptions about what to expect. This allows us to be focused, yet curious and open to experience.
As we become more adept at the practice, we have space to observe the feelings and thoughts that accompany our body sensations as they arise. We learn to let the process unfold in its own time, just being with what is in each moment.
Single Pointed Concentration
Yoga helps us develop concentration, which is essential for mindfulness and meditation. The 6th limb of yoga is dharana, which means “holding the mind steady”. Similarly, the practice of shamatha in the Buddhist tradition is a method for calming the mind.
Cultivating single pointed concentration prepares the mind for meditative absorption (dhyana – the 7th limb of yoga) and insight (vipassana). Mindfulness of breath is the most common method for cultivating singled pointed concentration. In vinyasa or flowing style yoga practice the movements are often coordinated with the breath. If you have a more traditional yoga teacher, pranayama (the 4th limb of yoga), which is the extension, expansion or drawing out of the breath, may be explicitly taught at the beginning or the end of class.
We may also use a drishti or gazing point as the object of concentration. In Ashtanga style yoga, every posture has a drishti. Finally, mantra, which can be a spoken, thought, or written sound, word, or phrase, may be used to focus the mind on a single idea. We experience this when we chant om at the beginning and end of class or when you see the ॐ displayed in the studio.
Yoga reconnects us with our bodies. Our culture makes it easy to live almost entirely in our heads or in the external world of other people and things. The messages we receive from society and the media can lead us to dislike our bodies, which may result in a disregard for or even abuse of our physical forms. Yoga asana (postures) help bring us back into our bodies and appreciate what they are capable of.
The body is inextricably connected with the mind and its sensations are often the first clue that something attention-worthy is happening inside us. Certified Ashtanga yoga teacher David Garrigues said, “Yoga has been [a] slow, intensely physical process of waking up to what is most alive within me…” When we are aware of what our bodies are telling us, we can make space to consider and respond wisely.
In addition, the body offers very concrete and tangible phenomena to observe with curiosity. Even the seemingly simplest of asana require a coordination of balance, flexibility and strength, so yoga motivates us to treat our bodies with more attention and care in order to nurture our practice. We enjoy the effects of our practice and we want it to continue.
Attitudes of Mindfulness: Compassion & Patience
Over time, the practice of yoga cultivates certain attitudes that are fertile ground for mindfulness. It can help us make friends with ourselves again – we gain appreciation for what we are capable of and we develop patience and compassion for our struggles. We see the tangible, yet incremental changes that occur over time and with dedication. We also directly experience the negative consequences of pushing and striving.
The compassion and patience we cultivate with ourselves naturally extends to others around us and the world we live in. This gives us space to fully experience what is happening in and around us, moment by moment, to see things more clearly, and to respond more skillfully.