The practice of mindfulness in Yoga is a continuous process. Discipline of yoga is not restricted to classroom practice of a set of yogic techniques. It is slow and methodical and requires vigilance, effort and discipline. In fact it almost seems too difficult a task and too lofty an ideal to follow, especially in a society that does not make it easy for us to stand back and watch ourselves. When everything is moving at such a frantic pace and so much of our attention is focused on just trying to keep up, how does one practice mindfulness? The answer is to make an active commitment to the betterment of ourselves which means setting aside a certain time that will be dedicated solely to self reflection.
Grounding the Awareness in the Body
Mindfulness starts with the physical body. Not only is this the easiest, most practical place to begin with, it is also the ultimate link to our hidden nature. Caldwell states that the “ability to express and feel our physical experience is the foundation of recovery”. We possess a physical unconscious, which, like the mental unconscious, is a rich source of information, memory and repressed life. This physical unconscious can be accessed through the use of awareness. We must learn to focus our attention on that which we have habitually kept out of the attention field.
Breaking the barrier of habits
Our habits are a very strong barrier to awareness which are formed unwittingly, many of which have remained with us since childhood. Certain experiences we may have had as children have determined our reactions and interpretations of later events and thus a habit forms. These subconscious habits cause us to pass many objects and experiences by, merely because we are following a habituated process which does not allow us to stop and look.
We have been using the body as a means of self-expression and learning since our birth. All our sensations make us more aware of our experiences and we just need to witness them – if we can become mindful of a clenched jaw, for example, then this may alert us to a feeling of anger or tension that we did not realise we had. It is for this very reason that Bioenergetics (a school of somatic psychotherapy) employs various methods to bring a person into contact with his/her physical sensations in order that they may perceive them. Thus a patient may be asked to mobilise or activate a specific area of his/her body by using an expressive movement, or the therapist may put physical pressure on certain areas of tension. In both cases the patient will then be asked to be mindful of any feelings and thoughts that may come up when an area of chronic tension or an area that had previously been ignored, is activated. The patient is then also made aware of how this bodily tension/neglect served to limit his feelings and of what other effects it has had on his attitudes and behaviours.
Methods to Practice Mindfulness:
Using Body as an instrument
Practices of bodily awareness are numerous. For example, one may identify lax areas in one’s body posture and exaggerate the quality of that posture. In this state, we can ask ourselves how the posture makes us feel and how would we characterise someone with this particular posture. One can go further into this experience by using the breath and breathing deeply into the posture and really concentrating on it. We have seen that repetitive gestures work to block a repressed feeling, so now we can work to focus on that gesture and see what it is doing.
We can play with the movement, for example, if we have the habit of nail biting we can experiment with the habit by consciously repeating the action or by doing a contrasting movement. We can find out so much about ourselves if we are just able to catch ourselves performing a bodily habit. If we are mindful- then we will be able to see what situations or thoughts cause us to bite our nails. If we are aware – we will be able to pinpoint any area of bodily tension. By tensing an already tight muscle we may be able to follow that tension to its core.
When we study ourselves with that attitude of curiosity then questions about our behaviour will arise. We will for the first time wonder why we are tense in a particular region; is it there because we are holding ourselves back from doing, or saying, or feeling something? Each time an area of tightness is released, there is a corresponding release of pent up energy and the positive effects are felt immediately: our face brightens and our mood lifts. Therefore, the more bodily tensions and tendencies we become aware of, analyse and remove, the more energy we will have.
Practicing mindfulness with the breath
If we become aware or mindful of our breathing then we immediately connect ourselves to the present moment. The moment we focus the mind on the breath in our nostrils, the chatter of the mind ceases, we stop talking to ourselves and become more aware of the world around us. We also become aware of the existence of the calm inner core that exists within us but is usually clouded over by our internal dialogue. Just because breath is an autonomic function does not mean that we should ignore it.
Breathing without awareness means that irregular habits can form which will in turn affect our mental and physical spheres. Breath is life – we cannot deny its importance, as we cannot survive for long without it. When we breathe consciously we are choosing to take in life and exhale any staleness. Mindfulness of breath also enables us to experience the connectedness that exists amongst all creatures.
Breathing without awareness basically means that the unconscious is breathing for us and we must become intimately aware of our breathing patterns and make any necessary adjustments
So, if we wish to work through and overcome our mental hang-ups, the first step is to become aware of what they are. Because a lot of these issues are unclear in their origin and make-up, it is most effective to become aware of the bodily interpretation of what is going on in our minds.