Tag Archives: meditation

That Elusive Mindfulness…

If you’ve ever been in a Yoga class or Zen meditation workshop, the idea of mindfulness may have come up. Practicing mindfulness on the mat is easy, but how does one go about it “in real life”, and why is it even worth it?

To begin with, what exactly is mindfulness? Well, to me (and my notion of it may be completely different from yours), it’s a portion of awareness, laced with a dose of compassion, and topped with a splash of non-attachment. Awareness is probably the most important aspect of mindfulness, but without compassion and non-attachment, it’s not terribly useful. We need non-attachment so that the thoughts, desires, etc. that we become aware of, e.g. during meditation, do not produce an intense emotional reaction. But we also need compassion to do deeper, to understand and accept the reasons behind these thoughts and desires.

How does mindfulness translates in everyday life situations? Well, the most striking example I can think of is the way we feed ourselves. Do you multitask (i.e. work, watch TV, read, etc.) while eating? How about mechanically taking a bite here and there while cooking? Have you tried doing nothing during mealtimes but eat? You may find that the flavors become more intense and enjoyable – or that your food is so unpalatable that you need something to distract you into eating it. In addition, you may find you become full on much less quantity than you thought you needed. Try out mindful eating when you’re having a solo meal and see how it affects you.

Another area where we could benefit from practicing mindfulness is exercise. I bet many of you follow a set fitness plan. How often does following that plan override the state your body is in? How often have you pushed yourself when you should have pulled back? Being mindful means that you listen to your body. How are you feeling today? Are you recuperated enough from your last workout? Did you skimp on your warmup even though your body feels like it needs more prep? You’ll need to be careful, however, to avoid stagnating in your comfort zone. This is where non-attachment proves its worth in that it allows you to separate needs from desires: e.g. do you really feel you’re not strong/flexible enough try out a new exercise or is fear holding you back?

In Paleo, there’s the wonderful notion of play that allows us to practice mindfulness in conjunction to our fitness plans. One way of doing that would be to structure just a handful of workouts a week and label the rest of them “Play Days”. What is your body telling you to do on those days? If you have energy to burn, why not go dancing? If you’re feeling wiped out, why not try some self-massage, foam rolling, or restorative yoga?

The most difficult settings to practice mindfulness in are probably social ones. You need to be mindful not only of your own state of mind and position in a situation but also take into account the people around you. In essence, it’s about not being reactive. How often have you found yourself getting worked up during an argument? Have you paused to consider why you’re getting so upset? What about what the person you’re with is feeling and why? I won’t kid you, it’s damn hard jumping off the emotional train once it has left the station, but it’s doable and it gets easier to maintain an open (and, ideally, unattached) mind with practice. That’s why we practice mindfulness on the controlled environment of the mat.

So, is it worth it? I dunno, you tell me. I know that every minute I spend being mindful on the mat makes me more mindful off it, but this is a highly personal matter. And I doubt that I’ll ever be able to be mindful 100 per cent of the time, but I don’t really want to anyway. So, do you think it’s worth it for YOU? What changes does it bring to YOUR life?

Yoga for Health vs. Spirituality

When I first started to practice Yoga, I used it to retain flexibility. Then, I discovered Yoga could also help me rehab injuries and rebuild strength. My practice was exclusively physical – no chanting, no meditation, not even pranayama (except for Ujjayi) – and that didn’t really feel wrong for me. But then, I started doing Yin Yoga to work on my ligaments, and the most remarkable thing happened.

In Yin Yoga, you need to hold each pose for 3′-5′, a completely new experience for me as I was used to much shorter holds (30″-1′). You’re also instructed to “breathe into” the area you’re stretching. So, I started to relax into the poses and focus on my breath. I was aware of thoughts bouncing around in my head, but if you were to ask me afterwards what I’d been thinking about, I would have no clue – I realize now that I was actually in a meditative state. And when the timer would go off to signal a pose switch, I would wonder whether I’d set it up wrong – it felt too soon to get out of the pose! This was truly amazing, but was it a spiritual experience?

Well, the day after my very first Yin Yoga class, I had an incredible outburst of anger. Everything seemed fine, but for no reason I just suddenly snapped. After calming down, I took a step back and tried to analyze what had happened. The only way I can explain it is that the practice had forced my mind to quiet to such a degree that long-suppressed feelings of disappointment, hopelessness, and bitterness were brought to the surface. My defenses (i.e. the constant verbal chatter in my head) were down and I was forced to face issues I thought I’d dealt with – apparently not. What followed was an emotional release the likes of which I’d rarely experienced before. This prompted me to start incorporating meditation into my practice.

Whether that was a spiritual experience (a communion with one’s higher self?) is a matter of perspective, I guess. In the end, I’m a creature of cold, hard logic and prefer to think of it as an intense therapy session :p

Does that mean that doing Yoga for (physical/emotional/psychological) health is the same as doing Yoga for spirituality? Well, they overlap at times, but I believe the intention set at the beginning of a session is what truly sets them apart. When I approach a class intending to connect with my body and quiet my mind, I’m experiencing it in a completely different way than someone who sees it as a spiritual practice. On the surface, we may be doing the same poses, moving our bodies the same way, but what happens deep down is another story.

Although I doubt I’ll be chanting in Sanskrit (or any other language for that matter) or honoring Indian elephant-gods anytime soon, I truly believe people who approach Yoga as a physical practice would benefit greatly from incorporating a few of its less physical aspects into their lives.

Whatever path you choose, though, Yoga remains a transformational experience. Among other things, it can help you change your body in a subtle but profound manner, alter the way you deal with emotions, and restructure your self-image. Ultimately, the You that steps onto the mat is never the same as You one stepping off it.