Sunday, January 28, 2018

Yoga Without Mindfulness Is Not Yoga

Yoga without mindfulness is not yoga

Mindfulness, a very popular term nowadays, is a practice usually associated with the Buddhist tradition. However it is also an integral practice of the yoga tradition. As a matter of fact, yoga without mindfulness is not yoga, and I'm not talking only about body postures.

As I was sharing all about my experience practicing yoga last year in Mysore, in Yoga in Mysore: What I Love about It, What I Hate about It, I briefly stated that, "yoga without mindfulness is not yoga, and anything practiced with mindfulness becomes yoga."

Although this statement might sound pretty obvious to some people, I think it's not so obvious to the vast majority, specially to those who are new to yoga. But either way, the meaning is much more profound that you might think.

Let me explain.

What comes to your mind when you hear the word yoga?

There is no doubt, as the ancient yogis had predicted, yoga has conquered the whole world. Who hasn't heard of the word yoga today?

However, when most people think about yoga the first image that seems to come to mind is some form of workout routine with a lot of stretching. Wouldn't you agree on that?

That's the image that we've been sold by the media, yoga studios and innovative yoga apps. The focus is more on fitness and body appearance.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with practicing yoga with an interest in developing strength, endurance and stamina. Those things are actually quite important in a physical yoga practice.

But if that is the whole purpose to practice yoga then in my opinion it is not yoga anymore. It is just fitness business, and quite a good business these days.

If all we are doing is moving from one posture to the next thinking only about the good workout that we are getting, then that's all that we are getting, a good workout.

There is a lot more to yoga than just body postures and their health benefits. In reality, yoga has nothing to do with having a nice looking body, or being flexible and strong simply for the sake of being flexible and strong.

Yoga is not just body training

That's right, yoga is not just body training. Actually yoga is mainly and foremost mental training. Yoga it's all about mastering the mind through meditation. The physical yoga practices are there just as a support for that mental training.

The physical postures or asanas are part of what is known as hatha yoga. All modern styles of physical yoga are derived from hatha yoga.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the core text on yoga postures, makes it very clear what the purpose of these practices are: Hatha yoga (physical yoga) for the sake of raja yoga (mental training).

Raja yoga is the yoga that is talked about in Patanjali Yoga Sutras.

"The yoga described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra is raja yoga, the royal path. It encompasses teachings from all the different paths, and because of the variety of methods it includes, it can be practiced by people of varying backgrounds and temperaments.

Raja yoga is involved with three dimensions or realms: physical, mental, and spiritual. Through its methods one achieves mastery of all three and is thus led to full realization of the Self." Swami Rama. The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga

Swami Satyananda Saraswati writes in Four Chapters on Freedom: Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Sage Patanjali:

"Raja yoga is concerned with exploring the inner world and unleashing the power and knowledge contained within. It is the science of mental discipline and includes various methods of making the mind one-pointed."

Patanjali Yoga Sutras (YS), the core text in yoga philosophy, is THE meditation manual that describes a step by step meditation process with all preparatory practices that prepare the mind for the meditative experience.

The yoga sutras makes it very clear what is yoga and what is its purpose: to make the mind still and stable so that we can clearly see our own true nature (simplified translation).

To attain that stillness of the mind is yoga, and to practice for attaining that stillness of the mind is to practice yoga. And the main tool that the YS offers for attaining that stillness of the mind is the practice of meditation.

The practice of asanas, the yoga postures, exist simply to prepare the body and the mind for a sitting meditation practice.

The yoga postures alleviate the physical pains, strengthen the back muscles, increase spinal flexibility and remove toxins and energy blockages so that we can sit comfortably to meditate for long periods of time.

Yoga and mindfulness

Mindfulness, to pay attention to what is going on in the present moment with acceptance and without making any judgements, is also preparation for the practice of sitting meditation.

When we practice mindfulness the awareness is broad. When we do a sitting meditation practice, according to the yoga tradition, the awareness is focused, concentrated on one point.

It is actually not possible to sit for a meditation session, to focus the mind on one point, without first doing some form of mindfulness practice. This could be for instance a body scan, where we consciously move the awareness through each body part.

Now, the practice of yoga postures, besides preparing the body for a sitting meditation practice, also helps to prepare the mind for meditation if we practice the asanas with mindfulness.

We start our hatha yoga practice by being mindful of the breath, the body and our inner state so that we can bring the mind to the present moment.

We can be mindful of the intention to move into a posture even before we start making any movements.

We can be mindful of how we move from one posture to the next, mindful of the body in space and mindful of what each body part is doing throughout all these movements, or as we hold any particular posture.

We can and should be mindful of the breath, mindful of how each asana affects the breath, while at the same time trying to keep the breath long, deep and relaxed.

We can be mindful of our mental and emotional state. How distracted, agitated or calm the mind is? How are we feeling from moment to moment?

These are just a few ways in which we can practice yoga with mindfulness.

By practicing yoga postures with mindfulness we are moving away from a mere physical practice to an integrated practice that focuses on training the mind to be in the present moment. This is yoga.

When the mind is present it means that the mind is quiet and still, absorbed only on what is going on right at that moment. This is an important preparation for sitting meditation.

Anything done with mindfulness is yoga

But mindfulness is present in every aspect of a yoga practice, way beyond body postures.

To contemplate upon and apply the moral rules (yamas and niyamas) into our daily lives, such as non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya) or contentment (santosha), as described in YS II.29 is to practice mindfulness of our thoughts, words and actions.

To cultivate the attitudes of friendliness (maitri), compassion (karuna), delight (mudita) and equanimity (upekshana), as described in YS I.33, means to practice mindfulness of our emotional reactions to social interactions.

To observe a slow calm prolonged exhalation and a controlled inhalation as described in YS I.34 is to practice mindfulness of the breath.

All of these practices, along with asana, are the foundational and preparatory practices that prepare the mind and the body for sitting meditation.

Without mindfulness it wouldn't be possible to incorporate these practices into our daily routines.

On the other side, by being constantly mindful of the teachings of the ancient yogis, keeping these principles present in our minds and applying them into our lives as much as we can, we can practice yoga 24/7.

If we are mindful of not just how we move and what we do, but also of the motivation behind those actions, then all our actions can be transformed and become a form of yoga, a form of mental training to attain that stillness of the mind.

Mindfulness in the yoga tradition

About a year ago I consulted my meditation teacher, Swami Ritavan disciple of Swami Veda Bharati of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition, to find out where I could read about mindfulness in the yoga scriptures.

He directed me to study YS I.20 and the commentary written by Swami Veda.

Śraddhāvīryasmṛtisamādhiprajñāpūrvaka itareṣām

The samādhi of (some) others has as its precondition faith, strength, intentness, meditation and the awakening of wisdom in samprajñāta

Swami Veda interprets the Sanskrit word smriti from yoga sutra I.20 to mean not just ordinary memory.

"The word is derived from smṛ "to remember" and its conventional meaning is "memory." In the context of yoga it is seldom common memory, but rather memory in the way Arjuna, the hero the Bhagavad Gita, uses the term when he says:

I have gained memory. BG XVIII.73

In other words, I have gained the recollection of my true nature that I am Brahman."

Moreover Swami Veda points out that this sutra is identical to the five strengths (indriyas) as taught by the Buddhist tradition: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Within these five strengths smriti - sati in Pali - is the most important.

"Thus it appears that the true meaning of the word smriti as it occurs in this sutra is preserved in the Buddhist practice of sati-patthana, a mindfulness that is maintained not only on one's meditation seat but throughout daily endeavors.

This practice of constant mindfulness is taught universally by the yogis of the Himalayas, irrespective of their affiliations.

There is no doubt, therefore that smriti in this sutra is not ordinary memory, remembrance or recollection, but rather the practice of remaining intent upon self observation, such as being mindful of breathing."

Swami Veda also writes in his commentary of YS I.34

Prachchhardanavidhāraṇābhyāṃ vā prāṇasya

Or, by exhalation and restrain of breath and prāṇa (mind's stability is stablished).

"The technique is similar to what is known among the Buddhists as ānāpāna-sati, or among the Himalayan yogis as breath awareness. It involves a slow exhalation and inhalation and training oneself not to allow sudden, quick and jerky inhalation.

The slow exhalation is pracchardana, and the careful, slow inhalation is vidhāraṇa. The term vidhāraṇa not only means controlling the flow of the breath but also suggests the sixth anga [limb] of yoga, called dhāraṇā (mental attention).

The mind should be attentive to the flow of breath and observe it as taught in the Himalayan tradition as well as throughout the Buddhist world.

The verb root meaning of vidhāraṇa, "to hold or restrain," here does not indicate the well known practice of retention of breath but refers to holding a steady flow, restraining it to prevent the sudden and jerky intake that often occurs."

As you can see, mindfulness is an integral practice of the yoga tradition. It is present in every aspect of the practice, from developing the right attitudes to the physical postures and even beyond that.

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The goal is yoga, the path is yoga

The core teaching of the Indian yogis is to realize that we are not this mere physical body, mind and senses but rather the supreme consciousness and pure self.

To have this in mind is to practice mindfulness of our true nature, to be mindful of our spiritual reality. This is a form of remembrance, to remember who we really are.

What do yoga posture have to do with all this? They are just a little help and preparation for the attainment of that goal. The goal is yoga and the path is yoga.

By keeping the goal in mind, and the path for the attainment of that goal, all our actions can become a form of yoga. From brushing our teeth, to having lunch or to even doing our work, every action is yoga.

We can certainly practice yoga postures with an interest in strength, flexibility and health, but to make it truly yoga we shouldn't forget the aim: to master the mind, to make the mind still, calm and quiet so that we can get to know ourselves as who we truly are.

As I mentioned before, practicing the yoga postures without mindfulness is not yoga, and everything that we do with mindfulness becomes a form of yoga.

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