Including Buddha in yoga: Mindfulness is of great relevance in asana practice
Contemporary yoga practice tends to reduce it to a mere physical exercise with most of the focus being on attaining a perfect asana posture
Contemporary yoga practice tends to reduce it to a mere physical exercise with most of the focus being on attaining a perfect asana posture and on quickly moving from one asana to another. Very little time is spent on observing the physical and mental processes and on attempting to unite the body, mind and breath. Practicing like this leaves very little room for the mind to become concentrated.
However, practicing the asana with mindfulness can change the experience significantly. Mindfulness is the English translation of the Sanskirt word 'smriti' and the Pali word 'sati'. The literal translation of 'smriti/sati' is memory but in the context of the yoga practice we can take it to mean a direct experience of the present moment, the ability to remember what is happening now and being able to sustain this sense of attentiveness over time.
To get a better understanding of what mindfulness means we refer to the Satipatthana Sutta (Foundations of Mindfulness) where the Buddha speaks about the practice of mindfulness. The word used to describe mindfulness of the body is 'Kaya Anupassana'. 'Kaya' means body and 'anupassana' can be translated as “seeing along” or “tracking”. So Kaya Anupassana can be translated as “tracking the body”.
In the context of a yoga asana, we can track the body as it changes slowly from the beginning of the posture into the final posture and back to the starting position. This interest in a changing body as it moves slowly can be an insightful process and can significantly change the asana practice.
The emphasis then is on observing sensation as the body moves. How does the ‘stretch’ travel through different parts of the body as we get into the asana posture. If we choose to stay in the posture and investigate the sensation of the stretch, what is the experience like? is it possible to keep our attention fixed on the location of the sensation over time and as we do so does the texture of the sensation change with the passage of time?
Let’s say we are practicing a standing asana. Before we start moving, there are two ways in which we can structure our attention in the standing posture. We can choose to pay attention to the movement of the breath in a specific part of the body (nose, chest, stomach) or we can simple be aware of the whole body and the clear contact of the feet with the ground.
If we were to move on to perform a simple asana, for example, hastapadasana (bending forward, head towards the knee) where could our attention be in the final posture? We could zoom in to explore the sensation where it might be the clearest. Say the stretch in the lower back. We can go right into this sensation and spend some time observing it. We can then zoom out and be aware of the whole posture and all the different sensations and movements. We could then choose to zoom in to explore the sensation in another part of the body, say the neck or the hamstrings. And then zoom out again. Experimenting with these two ways of paying attention could be an insightful process
To go deeper into the sensation in different asana postures, we could try to note and label the sensation.
Once we are in the posture and fix our attention to a particular sensation, how can we describe the sensation? What is below the stiffness? Hardness/heat/movement/tingling? Putting the appropriate label to the experience helps to make the awareness more precise.
In the teachings of the Buddha, the play of the elements of earth,fire,wind,water can be found underneath sensation. Earth would be experienced as hardness/softness, fire as heat/cold, wind as movement/stillness and water as wetness/dryness.
To take the investigation a step further, we could observe the breath moving from the place of sensation when we zoom in and the movement of the breath in different parts of the body when we zoom out. The former involves a specific point of focus while the latter allows for a traveling focus while being aware of the entire posture. How is the texture of the breath different in each case?
Experimenting with these methods as per one’s interest could be a worthwhile exploration. It can be quite insightful in asanas which operate on many different parts of the body.
Practicing in this way helps to develop sensitivity to anicca (impermanence), the first of the three universal characteristics of existence according to the teachings of the Buddha. We start to see the body as a forever changing process. We start to get interested in the dynamic nature of the body and the ever changing play of sensation. Practicing like this also prepares for advanced meditative practices where the focus shifts from the body to the mental and emotional states.
Keshav Mohta has been trained in Satipatthana Vipassana (insight meditation through mindfulness) in the lineage of Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma under Patrick Kearney and is a certified yoga instructor from The Yoga Institute
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