The following is an excerpt from The Mindful Way Through Stress by Shamash Alidina.
Yoga as a Mindful Practice: Being Present in Your Body
Yoga is a superb way to mindfully train yourself to live in the present. And sometimes, when you practice yoga in a mindful way, you may experience a state of flow. Flow is a state of mind in which you are so focused that you notice only what you’re engaged in—in this case, yoga. Being aware of your breathing together with your body can often help create this mindful flow state. You forget about your shopping list or the gardening you need to do. You even forget one aspect of living that you’re so used to noticing—your sense of self. Your attention is wholly in the moment. You usually also forget about time, as your awareness is so fully present.
This flow state is something you may experience often, sometimes, or never. The most important point is not to try to get into any particular state. Simply be mindful, pay attention with curiosity and openness, and see what happens.
Trees can teach you a lot about yoga and stress reduction. Notice the way trees cope with the wind. As the wind buffets a tree, the branches move and the leaves dance around. They are not stiff or fixed. The top of the tree seems to move the most. But the base of the tree remains fixed and grounded to the earth. The base of the tree is almost completely still.
Yoga is similar. You gently stretch your arms and legs after being buffeted by the stress of the day. But the idea of mindful yoga is that you stay rooted in awareness—just as the tree would topple over without its roots, even though they are invisible. So awareness is your root. And the longer you practice being aware in the present, the deeper your roots and the less likely you are to topple with the stressors you face.
Here are a few tips to consider before you try the yoga practice:
• Yoga is not about how far you can stretch. Do you classify the best tree as the one that bends the most? Of course not. In the same way, yoga is not about how flexible you are. The idea is you begin with where you are. Even if after years of yoga practice you were just as flexible as you were when you started, it wouldn’t matter—that’s not the goal. What matters is the level of mindful awareness you brought to the experience.
• The key to mindful yoga is resting your attention on your breath and bodily sensations. That’s the secret. Just pay attention to your breathing and body. Your mind will wander to thoughts. Those thoughts include judgment, memories, interpretations, ideas, plans, and more. When you notice this happening, acknowledge and bring your attention back to your breathing and your bodily sensations. There’s no need to ban thinking. Just notice, smile, and glide your attention back.
• Yoga is not a competition. Competition is about comparison and judgment and striving with effort to achieve a goal—comparing yourself to others or to your past achievements. Competition can generate a great deal of motivation, but not usually a reduction in stress, which is what this book is about. You are not good enough now, and you want to be better. So where is your attention? Your attention is on where you want to be, not where you are. And so you are not living in the present. Mindful yoga is about letting go of striving for a goal and just simply being present.
Use your breath like a thread to weave mindfulness into your yoga practice. You can then observe how a posture changes your breath. One posture may deepen your breath, while another may make your breathing more shallow. Holding postures will also affect your breathing—you can watch this with curiosity.
Each time you enter a posture in yoga is an opportunity to discover something new: to discover the relationship between your body, thoughts, and emotions; to discover which muscles feel tight, your emotional reaction to any intense sensations, and the thoughts that arise in your mind.
If you’re an experienced yoga practitioner, you may want to do more advanced postures, and that’s fine. But even the most adept practitioners can learn and grow from practicing each of these postures with mindfulness and as if for the first time, with a sense of freshness and playfulness.
Shamash Alidina has been helping people to manage stress using mindfulness for more than 14 years. He is the author of the bestselling Mindfulness for Dummies. Shamash has had the honor and privilege of training with the fathers of ‘Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction’, Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD and Saki Santorelli PhD through the Center for Mindfulness in Massachusetts, United States. He has also trained extensively with the Centre of Mindfulness at Bangor University in Wales. Based in London, he teaches mindfulness internationally to health professionals, executive coaches, and the public. He also offers mindfulness teacher training programs online. His website is www.shamashalidina.com.