The subject of mindfulness is enjoying a lot of popularity recently, as it should. More mindfulness in the world can only be a good thing. The recent prevalence of mindfulness courses and the abundance of articles about mindfulness that have appeared in newspapers, health and wellness magazines as well as the explosion in the availability of mindfulness books (colouring ones in particular), prompted me to question myself. What I have been doing these last 20 years? How is the practice of yoga related to mindfulness? Have I been practising mindfulness by another name all this time? Or not?
Mindfulness (as defined by numerous websites and magazines) is an active state of attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them as good or bad. Instead of letting life pass by, mindfulness means living in the moment, maintaining a moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. By focusing on what is, rather than what isn’t, mindfulness can make us much calmer, happier and healthier.
I am suggesting that the practice of yoga is also these things.
When we practice yoga as prescribed by BKS Iyengar, we focus on the detail, the minutiae of each asana and how our body, breath and mind interact with that asana. When we attempt to improve our alignment in each asana, we start first with the gross elements of the body (arms, legs, shoulders, buttocks) and correct them or bring alignment to those parts, for example rolling the shoulders back and taking the shoulder blades in brings greater alignment of the thoracic spine area. As we progress in our sadhana (study), we move our mind to progressively more subtle levels of the body (for example big toe, little toe, inner knee ligament, outer knee ligament, etc). BKS Iyengar says that the mind is always ahead of the body. Mind moves in the future, body in the past and the self in the present. By focussing on the different parts of the body, we learn to coordinate and synchronise the mind, body and self in asana.
In yoga terms, the body is made up by five sheaths (kosas) or layers. They are:
- Annamaya kosa, the anatomical sheath, made up of bones, tendons and muscle groups;
- Pranamaya kosa, the physiological sheath, made up of the circulatory system including the respiratory, nervous, lymphatic and immune systems;
- Manomaya kosa, the psychological sheath, which includes the mind, feelings and the processes that organise experience;
- Vijnanamaya kosa, the layer responsible for intellect and wisdom; and
- Anadamaya kosa, the aspect of the body where everything is as it should be, a sense in the body of everything being ok. (Stone, 2008, p. 104). This layer is often described as the ‘bliss’ sheath.
For the asana to be a yoga asana as opposed to an exercise pose the performance of the asana needs to be performed in all five sheaths simultaneously. The asana needs to have a number of characteristics that relate to the different components or sheaths of the body to make it a yoga asana:
- In the annamaya kosa (anatomical sheath), the asana needs to be physically stable, firm, aligned, open, extended and expanded so that the bones, joints, tendons and muscles are all aligned, extended and made stable.
- In the pranamaya kosa (physiological sheath), the organs and systems of the body need to remain aligned in their place and depending on which organs and where they are in the body need to be softened, expanded, ‘expressed’ or ‘hidden’. For example the organs of the upper body such as the heart and lungs should be ‘expressed’ – opened and expanded, but with softness. The organs of the lower body should also be expanded but need to remain ‘hidden’. For example if the uterus or ovaries in a woman protrude or puff forward, they become hard and healthy function of these organs is compromised. Likewise the bowel and bladder need to remain soft and contained in the protective bowl of the pelvis. If the physical structure given by the asana is correct, then the organs are more likely to be in their correct place.
The breath needs to remain soft, smooth and rhythmic, breathing through the nose in the performance of each asana. Some poses will cause the breath to quicken and shorten, but it should still remain soft and smooth. If breathing is done through the mouth, or comes in gasps, is loud or rasping in the throat, the nervous system is disturbed and tension is created in the body. The asana has become an exercise pose and not a yoga asana anymore. The nerve fibres in the body should be lengthened, the nervous system should feel soothed and quiet, and tension should not exist anywhere.
- In the Manomaya kosa, (psychological sheath), emotionally, the asana should dissipate feelings such as fear, aggression, sadness, despondency and despair and engender feelings of confidence, determination, quiet joy, contentedness and satisfaction in the moment that the asana is being performed. If this is absent, the asana reverts to being a physical exercise pose. The mind needs to be present to achive this.
- To be performed in the Vijnanamaya kosa (intellectual / wisdom sheath), the intelligence needs to be applied to perform the asana and knowledge gained from previous attempts need to be utilised to improve the asana for this attempt. The intelligence should be applied to determine whether the parts of the body are doing as they should. For example the intelligence needs to check whether the knees are straight, the inner heels are extending and the shoulder blades are drawn down.
- To be performed in the Anadamaya kosa (everything is ok / bliss sheath) then the asana should feel just right. There should be an absence of tension everywhere, there should be a level of comfort in the pose even though intensity of effort is being applied. The asana is so perfect that the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the practitioner can glimpse a sense of the quietness of savasana (corpse pose) within the asana.
To achieve the asana fully as described above, attention needs to be maintained on every part of the body as the asana is performed. The mind is required to penetrate every cell of the body to create the asana in every layer of the body: the gross outer body, the organs, the systems of the body, the emotions, the intellect and the mind. Unless every layer is doing the asana from moment to moment throughout the duration that it is held, it is not a yoga asana. For this to occur, the mind needs to be engaged from moment to moment on the asana – in needs to be mindful.
The mind is ever busy. It gets distracted easily, it darts, flickers, wanders, changes – often all with great speed. Our thoughts jump from place to place. The mind never rests but is constantly restless, it is drawn outwards to the external world by material desires, duties, work, the desire for entertainment and pleasure. The mind needs to reside in the world outside of the body for some of the time in order to fulfil duties, earn money and experience pleasure. But when the mind only exists outside of the body it becomes tired, overwhelmed, sad and mental disorders such as anxiety and depression can set in.
The purpose of yoga is to bring a scattered incoherent mind to a quiet coherent state. During the performance of asana, we focus the mind on the constituent parts of the body and the mind is drawn inward. It is not possible to pull up the knees unless the mind is in the knees. It is not possible to take the back ribs in unless the mind is made to go to the back ribs. In going to these parts of the body, the mind can’t go elsewhere. If the mind absconds and leaves the body (to worry, dwell, shop, write mental ‘to do’ lists etc) then the asana is no longer a yoga asana. It has reverted to physical exercise only.
Yoga, like mindfulness helps to change established automatic thought patterns and habits, reducing feelings of stress, fear, anxiety and depression. Yoga cultivates mindfulness over “mindlessness”, with which we are all familiar. The moments when we are unaware of where we are, or what we are feeling or why we are doing what we are doing can make us unhappy and vulnerable to stress and poor mental health. These moments include: the tendency to eat foods that we know we would be better off not eating; spending time with people who cause us emotional pain; or engaging in activities that are stressful, harmful or distracting.
B.K.S Iyengar asserts that yoga deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one’s being, from bodily health to self-realization. Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day to day life. “The practice of yoga teaches us to deal with each task in the day as it arises, and then to put it down. This might include answering our letters or returning our calls, doing the washing up, letting anger drop as soon as the moment is past.” (Iyengar, 2005, p. 158)
If mindfulness is about living in the present moment, focussing on what you are doing from moment to moment, then yoga is mindfulness, by another name.
Iyengar, B. (2005). Light on Life. London: Rodale International Limited.