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Yoga Basics: Mindful Movement

June 28, 2010
In the classical yoga tradition, movement and breathing practices are considered mere preludes to seated meditation. Asana and pranayama are offered as tools that cleanse and heal the body, preparing a practitioner to sit quietly for long stretches at a time.

But you don’t have to sit in lotus pose in order to cultivate a meditative state of being. When practiced mindfully, yoga asanas themselves can nurture many of the same gifts as more formal meditation practices: mental calm, balance and clarity. Explored in this way, yoga postures transform from mere stretches into meditation through movement.

How can we infuse our daily asana practice with a more mindful quality? Try a few of the following strategies to help you wake up to the present moment while moving through your favorite yoga postures.

Practice what the Buddhists call “bare attention,” attuning yourself to the raw sensations coursing through the body during your daily practice. While in a particular posture, take a moment to notice where you feel muscles stretching, where in your body you sense resistance and tightness, where you feel tension, and where you feel spaciousness.

Notice the warmth or coolness within your joints and organs, the firmness or softness of your muscles, the smoothness or roughness of your breath. Break the ingredients of the moment into their simplest elements, focusing not on judging the sensations but on simply witnessing them.

Use the breath as a resting place for the brain. In many schools of meditation, students are trained to quiet the mind by continually returning their awareness to the breath. You can use this strategy while moving through your daily yoga practice, too. Notice when you’re inhaling and when you’re exhaling. Notice which parts of the body move to the tune of the breath and which do not.

Notice whether the breath feels smooth or jagged, hard or soft, enthusiastic or half-hearted. When your thoughts begin to stray beyond your body, gently coax them back to the awareness of your breath. Over time this practice will teach you to maintain one-pointed attentiveness for longer stretches of time.

Intersperse your practice with periods of stillness. Begin and end your practice with restorative postures that enable you to experience both the benefits and challenges of physical stillness. In the middle of your practice, insert a resting pose between more demanding asanas and use this as an opportunity to nourish quiet attentiveness.

Or try holding a familiar pose for a few moments longer than usual, simply asking your mind to witness the shifting sensations within. Over time you’ll learn to cultivate an inner oasis of quiet tranquility even amid the most demanding yoga asanas.

Ask questions. Stay curious and engaged by continually challenging yourself to articulate your inner experience. As you explore a particular posture ask yourself what benefits it offers. How does it change your breathing? How does it alter your mood? Does it calm or energize you? And what can it teach you about yourself and the world around you? You may be surprised by the answers that bubble up from within as you move through your daily asana practice with mindfulness, attention and curiosity.

This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (September 2003)