Attention! Meditation & Yoga
Are you going through the motions? How to bring meditation into action and why it makes a difference.
What is the difference between doing a forward bend in the gym, and a forward bend in a yoga studio? Sounds like the beginning of a joke but unfortunately for you I’m a yoga teacher, not known for my side-splitting punchlines.
Basically, whenever you do a forward bend, physical effort is required to sensibly warm up, stretch out the hamstrings, strengthen the muscles in the legs and around the knees, release tension in the back, get the hips moving. Useful for life when we bend to pick something off the floor, pick up a heavy object, play hide and seek.
The focus in a yoga class may be different which is where the mind/body attention comes in – as a yoga student, my aim is not purely to make a ‘perfect’ shape with my body, to ‘do’ asana (yoga pose)… but to notice my mind – am I comparing myself to other people in the room and feeling inadequate/pleased with myself; as I approach my feet, am I mentally adding a pedicure appointment to my list of things to do (marked urgent) or am I wondering when the teacher is going to tell us to come out of the pose because my back is killing me…and more importantly what can I learn from doing this posture? As we begin to notice sensation and let the mind's constant commentary go, there may be a shift from the ‘doing’ and what other people are doing, towards a more subtle experience, a deeper awareness..a deep listening, meditation in action. And a deep breath may accompany this shift, the mind lets go of the everyday.
When I first went to India, I loved wide legged seated forward bend (Upavistha Konasana)– the warm weather and a twice daily yoga practice allowed me to go physically very deep into the pose and I loved it because I was good at it, it was easy for me and I liked the fact that people noticed, especially the teacher. However, when I came back to the UK and showed off my perfect pose to a friend on her patio in the middle of winter, I realised I couldn’t do it perfectly, I couldn’t get my head to the ground. In fact, I pulled a muscle in my back. when
I was nervous about forward bending again, worried I might injure myself again, and had to adjust my attitude - my body was sending me a message - all I had to do was stay present and listen to my body.
What's the point?
When I made a conscious effort to bring a mindful focus to what I was doing, bring my mind back to the body with meditation on the breath, when I actually took notice of what my body was telling me, I realised that the point of yoga is not only the physical correctness of a pose but what I could learn, how movement and focus could serve me and support me in my life:
- the decisions I made about how far to go in a pose (or in any situation)
- when to go to the edge, or to know when enough is enough.
- have nothing to prove to myself on the yoga mat or others in the yoga space
- take insights on the mat out into my life to be clearer and wiser
I started to experience a new sensation – I felt like a large fern spiralling in towards my centre; I felt free of my body, free of my judgements. I could stay in the pose with the simple idea of just ‘being’ and ‘accepting, instead of ‘pushing’ and ‘achieving’ for a change. Riding on my breath like a gentle wave, my whole nervous system seemed to let out along sigh of relief. That sigh allowed all my physical and mental tension to dissolve and I found this primary curve deeply restful and nourishing. (I had a real sense of how beautiful life is, how similar my spine was to all kinds spirals in nature) a perfect sense of balance and peace. I was amazed by this new experience and used to for further enquiry - this is what prompted me to become a yoga teacher.
Finding the unique wisdom in your body can happen when you are least expecting it – in your first yoga class or after many years of asana practice..or even in the gym, or on a run in the zone.
Next time you are in a yoga class, don’t forget to notice your mind – draw your attention to what are your judgements of a. the teacher, b the other people in the class and c. yourself and what can you learn about life on and off the mat. As you leave the class, you may feel like dancing around the garden singing kum ba ya my Lord, you may head straight to the desk to book that pedicure, or you may have worked out the punchline to that joke you were writing – it doesn’t really matter as long as you’ve taken time to listen deeply to your inner wisdom.
Judy Hirsh Sampath teaches yoga, breathing and relaxation open classes and 1-2-1 yoga therapy in North London - FIND OUT MORE
She is founder of Yoga United, working ethically in partnership with women in India to manufacture soft yoga props that support the people who make them as well as the people who use them.