We human beings spend a great deal of time seeking happiness and avoiding distress; we do this as a constructive means of handling the inherent ambiguities of human life. Contemplative practices like meditation and Mindful Yoga can be a tremendous aid in this endeavor, because they help us rise above life’s inevitable ups and downs. As a veteran yoga student and teacher, I have to come to appreciate my yoga mat as a living laboratory for training my mind. I’ve found that incorporating mindful practices into yoga improves my emotional and physical health.
This is not just my experience or the experience of those who practice yoga. In the last 30 years, there has been on-going collaboration between cognitive scientists and contemplatives, a new field known as contemplative science. Their research demonstrates that practices like yoga, meditation, and nature walks encourage positive emotions, mental functioning, and thus improve our lives.
My first hatha yoga teacher was an extremely disciplined woman who specialized in locating unexplored abdominal muscles through excruciating core exercises. Jill’s go-to pose was forearm plank. She would have me hold it until my body began quaking and shaking. Holding this pose, I would begin to feel angry with Jill and thought about quitting yoga as a way of relieving my inner disturbance. I didn’t recognize that the commotion was a result of my untrained mind, not the pose, practice, or teacher. I lacked mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the experience of bringing your attention to the present moment, noticing and accepting what is happening without judgment or reaction. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Buddhist meditation practices like mindfulness were uncoupled from their ancient spiritual roots and taught in non-secular environments. The motivation for this change came about through a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and numerous cognitive scientists.
During this same period, Jon Kabat-Zinn created the Stress Reduction Program and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine. His programs delivered measureable health benefits that the scientific community began to embrace because his results were so remarkable. Patients who participated in his program reported an increased ability to relax, and more energy and enthusiasm for life. Today, his meditation techniques and mindfulness methods have taken hold in schools, hospitals, universities and the military.
Now, many years later, I notice that my attitude on the mat mirrors my attitude in life. Just this week I found myself demonstrating forearm plank. The pose was not any easier than when I first started yoga, but my response to this pose had been transformed. I was not consumed by the physical discomfort. I kept my breath steady and did not react to my desire to come out of the pose prematurely. Instead, I held the pose, knowing that this experience, like all other experiences in life, will end.
Knowing the dynamic ways mindful practices have improved my life, I now share them with my yoga students. And I am able to teach with compassion because I understand the process and patience required to develop mindfulness. So the next time you find yourself shaking in forearm plank pose, don’t allow the experience to over take you. Instead, recognize that you have the choice to become frustrated or to simply breathe and welcome the experience you are having as just one small moment in the continuum of your life.