The Visceral Value of Mindfulness in Asana Practice

When I first started practicing yogasanas or yoga postures, I found savasana or corpse pose to be the most difficult by far. I do not mean to say that this closing posture has become easy, however I believe that I am beginning to truly reap its benefits practice by practice. Initially, holding my body still without tension was incredibly challenging. My mind fluctuated and hence my body was tense and had a tendency to wriggle and jerk rather randomly when I was trying my best to stop the movements. I still find savasana to be decidedly challenging, however, the longer I hold it, the more I do not have the urge to move my body. I wonder, if slowly, but ever so surely my practice of savasana is improving over the years. I can only hope that with persistence, the stillness I am finding in savasana will translate to the rest of my practice. I can already see that my experience of a variety of asanas is changing significantly as a result of my experience studying in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Centre of Yogic Sciences. I wanted long holds and oh my did I get what I asked for – most days anyway (every once in a while Yogacharya Venkatesha takes it easy on us). He has an incredible talent for seeing our potential with adept awareness before we are able to see it for ourselves.

I find myself wondering if I can truly find a sense of ease in all asanas or if stillness will always elude me in the most demanding of postures. However, when I look at headstand (srisasana) posture as an example of the change potentially available to me, I have faith that more is always possible, always plausible if I do not stop until the goal is reached. When I first started attempting to balance on my head, the posture brought up an immense amount of fear, so much so that my feet would not leave the ground no matter how much I cajoled them. I felt frustration, fear and disappointment on a regular basis when it came to my headstand practice. I remember telling myself that I would not even bother going to study with my teacher’s teachers at Atmavikasa until I was able to develop the courage necessary to stand on my head. Ironically, once I had developed the ability to stand on my head, I thought that it was not nearly enough – I must be able to fold into padmasana or lotus on my head, otherwise why would the teachers at Atmavikasa want to waste time with me. Once I could fold into lotus while balancing on my head – I still witnessed those thoughts of inadequacy. It was only then that the pattern became truly apparent to me. I realized that conquering any posture, no matter how challenging, had little relevancy when it came to my progression as a yoga practitioner. It became painfully apparent to me that the only thing holding me back from furthering my study of yoga was my mind itself – the power of mindfulness in action. Thankfully it did not take much longer for me to work up the courage to take the leap to travel to India and fulfill my dream of studying with Yogacharya Venkatesha and Acharye Hema.

It is hard to articulate what it feels like to find stillness without tension in a yoga asana. I must admit that most postures requiring flexibility tend to provide an easier route to such stillness at this point in my asana practice. However, if asked to hold some strength based asanas for a prolonged period of time, it does not take long before my body shakes and my mind desperately wants to escape. Rest cannot seem to come soon enough when I am holding a difficult asana. While I can stay many minutes easily in some asanas, in others I notice my mind telling me it is impossible to stay even 30 seconds, let alone a full minute (intense pose or utkatasana – colloquially known as chair pose is a great example). While I have the flexibility necessary for the aforementioned pose, I have not yet developed the strength of mind and body necessary to stay the 3 minutes recommended by my teacher. I will figure out how to convince my mind that it is possible to stay and my body will gain more strength over time. For now, I have the opportunity to learn a very useful lesson every single time I practice this particular asana; it is incredible how much my mind fluctuates! A mere 30 seconds can seem like a lifetime – a seemingly unmanageable amount of stress with arise within my body and mind. I notice my mind proposing many a reason as to why I do not need to stay, including many pleas to avoid the sensations that are currently being experienced.

The longer I remain in a posture when all my mind wants to do is run away, the more opportunities I have to observe its habitual tendencies. I notice all of the methods my mind comes up with to avoid sensation and discomfort. This is even more apparent when I stay longer in a posture that I have sufficient strength and flexibility to hold and yet my mind still remains an obstacle. Standing back bending postures are a fantastic example of my mind becoming the primary obstacle necessary to conquer one breath at a time. I literally must bring my wandering focus back to every inhale and exhale in order to stay longer. When I remain longer in a standing backbend, all of my tendencies toward fear in the face of discomfort arise very quickly. Although I do not feel any physical pain in back bending, and very little physical stretch if any – I certainly feel a great deal of resistance in my mind. When tension is present in my mind, I find it incredibly difficult to remain still, let alone breath calmly and easily. On the contrary, when I return my mind to my breathing repeatedly, even in the face of visceral fear, I am able to do things that I never thought I could do. The most fascinating observation I have made is that if you stay beyond the fear and the desire to squirm, the mind becomes infinitely stronger than it was before you chose to stay. Not only, does facing my fear on the mat help me immensely in terms of deepening my asana practice, it also allows me to face fears that are present away from the mat as well.

Cultivating mindfulness in asana practice requires long, static posture holds, allowing for the mind to focus entirely on the breathing, despite possible discomfort in the physical body. The process of fixing the constantly fluctuating mind on an asana has unending potential. The practice of a posture or exercise does not truly become asana practice until we fix our attention and stay longer to observe our breathing and the fluctuations of the body and mind. We can learn a great deal about a posture as it transitions into an asana by attempting to stay focused on our breath rather than allowing the inherent fluctuations of the mind to force us to come out before we can go deeper. The more I focus my mind, while on my head for example, the easier it is to identify my tendency to hide when challenges arise. Although I certainly have more ability to recognize my inherent bravery now more than ever before, I still notice the urge to run from discomfort toward comfort. The human mind certainly likes the familiar and the comfortable. My mind is no different. However, I am finding more and more tools through mindfulness in asana practice to control the sly tendencies of my mind, no matter how much it squirms when asked to face the uncomfortable.

I have found that the Atmavikasa approach to practice consistently encourages me to cultivate single pointed focus when practicing every given posture – creating the potential to fully experience that asana. Classical yoga practice is not about moving quickly from one shape to another, rather it is about remaining still and noticing what comes up. Once you stay longer, you have the ability to observe what changes and what stays the same, allowing you to slowly but surely begin to understand the shape you are creating from the inside out. When staying longer in a posture, you become able to observe even the smallest of changes, the tiniest of movements in the body and the subtlest of precise alignments. It also becomes viable to notice your mind and all of its thought patterns. Within the context of asana practice, I am able to observe the thoughts that repeat in my mind, rather than becoming absorbed in them. Like most humans, I have a tendency to have one thought and then allow my mind to run away with further related thoughts, until my mind is no longer in the difficult asana in question – rather it is begging me to exit the posture. Even short holds of strong asanas frequently have this impact on many of us.

I find, even after years of practice, that my body and mind both are more than willing to quit, to drop all dedication in favour of rest. Obstacles are simply a part of this ancient science of studying the mind and its traps. In order to remain in the postures that challenge me most, I must ignore the pleas of the mind and muster my inner determination to remain long enough to build strength. I am not only referring to strength of the musculature but also the mind itself. Strength or flexibility might be available to many of us in short durations, however, if asked to stay longer, the body quivers and the mind revolts. So much can be learned through the action of remaining still even when both the body and mind want to move more than anything else. The most comical and desperate thoughts run through my mind when my body is struggling to hold an asana. Luckily my character includes lots of tenancity that helps me continue even in the face of failure. Unless my muscles are truly and fully exhausted – I always want to try again. Chances are this is part of why it is not uncommon for 4 or 5 hours to pass in mere moments during my home practice.

Exploring the resistance within my own mind is always the most challenging component of my asana practice – once I ignore that craving to escape discomfort, the sky is the limit to use a common cliche. The path of least resistance on the other hand, generally leads to confusion, fluctuation and lack of ability to focus. The longer you remain in a posture, the more likely it is that you will begin to approach asana practice, rather than a simple exercise. So often as directed by many lineages and approaches to yoga, students choose not to stay longer in postures, causing them to miss the rich potential available to them. We cannot really understand an asana if we do not remain long enough to be challenged or to become truly still. Stillness is hard to come by in many fast paced cultures and societies. The value of cultivating the ability to become still (both mentally and physically) does not appear viable to many people. I am baffled as to why so many choose to water down this traditional and scientific approach to practice – the value of yoga becomes less and less with each component of mindfulness that is removed.

Many styles of yoga posture practice can contain some value in terms of physical health, strength, and flexibility. However, I have experimented with a wide range of styles and lineages over the last decade and it is clear to me that staying longer is most certainly the key to reaping the most benefit from this classical practice of controlling the mind. Not only can moving too quickly through a sequence of postures cause injury or result in lack of focus, furthermore, you are likely to be left with less than half the potential benefit the asana has to offer. The longer we stay, the more we can begin to notice the nuances of a pose and really settle into the precise alignments. From my personal experience and that of my teachers, it is holding with precision and time that yields by far the most benefits. We are robbing ourselves of what could be when we rush from one posture to the next without truly understanding each and every asana. Studying consistently with the same teacher for the last few years of my practice has been immensely beneficial for me and travelling to India to study with my teacher’s teachers has been an incredibly inspiring progression of that experience. I remember reading somewhere that when the student is ready, the correct teacher will appear – I feel that that adage could not be more true in my case.

Some asanas are easier to hold longer, at least in my body, such as seated forward folds. It is not until I hold such postures for longer periods that I start to really become still. With practice, I have been learning how to find stillness to the best of my ability and remain with that stillness for as long as possible. As time passes here in Mysore, I find myself surprised by how fast some of the “long” holds go by for my mind. I have found myself wishing for longer holds in some postures where stillness is more quickly available to me. Such thoughts and interesting responses regarding moving to the next asana in the sequence at Atmavikasa have already inspired me to stay even longer in these postures during my home practice on the weekends. The weekend no longer feels like a time when I am obligated to practice, rather it feels like an exciting exploratory expedition, where I am unendingly curious as to what I might discover next! I challenge myself to remain until my mind struggles and then I do not come out until I am able to quiet my mind sufficiently such that the transition out of the asana is as peaceful as possible – or when my physical musculature fatigues completely (often whichever comes first).

Other postures challenge me so much on a physical level that I am far from true asana practice – I anticipate years of diligent work will be required before ease occurs in such postures. One of the asanas that brings up struggle and challenge for me is called shalambhasana (locust pose). Despite plenty of flexibility, I do not yet have sufficient strength to hold this posture for long. I imagine it is likely due to a lack of mental and physical strength, rather than just the latter. As I try to lift my legs from the floor, my breath begins to go faster, my heart pounds and my mind screams “impossible”. I find triangle pose (Utthita Trikonasana) to be a walk in the park by comparison. Until I can control my mind when moving into locust – I will be far from truly expressing the potential of this asana. Every time I am losing confidence in my ability to grow in an asana such as locust – I remind myself of how much my srisasana (headstand pose) practice has changed over the last few years. Over years of attempting repeatedly, even when I fell, even when I wobbled immensely, I finally came to a point where I could breathe and stay longer. At first, I almost entirely held my breath when trying to stand on my head. I learned more about holding my breath at first than headstand itself. I recall having a habit of spontaneously and unconsciously yelling out profanity when trying to find my balance. It likely would have appeared to have been quite a comedic production for the proverbial fly on the wall. Remembering how much my relationship with headstand has changed gives me hope for my ability to develop mindfulness in asanas such as locust as well.

Life is full of challenges, fear and potential suffering, however, when I face my obstacles on the mat, I am able to grow stronger with courage, not allowing tension to rise. Even more importantly, if tension or fear takes hold, I am able to notice those sensations and thoughts, stopping them in their tracks. The power and skill that is observation can be cultivated in the context of asana practice. If I am mindful when practicing a yoga posture, I am gifted the opportunity to notice all of my habits in the face of discomfort. Once I am aware of my mind’s habits, it is that much easier to throw out those old habits in favour of new habits with greater utility that will serve me now and in the future. I am consistently amazed by how growing courage on the mat allows me to become stronger in all aspects of life. Even when I am faced with the full gamut of human emotions in the space of a day or a week, I am able to tackle the source of each emotion with bravery and consistency. When I face a challenging asana and succeed – or better yet when I fail, and don’t let it stop me, I grow stronger and develop more mental resiliency that can be applied to all manner of circumstance.

One of the secrets I have learned for cultivating mindfulness in asanas is finding a sense of ease within necessary effort. Although it may seem like an inherent contradiction to be able to find both effort and ease at the same time, I assure you it is possible. Working hard is essential in some asanas, however it is just as important to find simultaneous peace and ease. I have been blessed with flexibility which allows me to find ease quickly in some asanas, however it also makes ease very difficult to cultivate in others. I imagine that eventually with consistent practice, and significant effort, that sense of ease will become available to me in every asana. Sutra 1:21 (one of my favourites) tells us that the amount of determination we apply to our practice is directly correlated to our success. I now find myself with more energy than ever before and intend to apply it vigorously to my practice in every sense of the word. I have not only learned how to be more mindful in each day of my asana practice, but also how to continuously apply such mindfulness to all aspects of my life. Whether I am spending time cooking for my family, looking after my mum, husband and dog, or enjoying time in nature. I know that I have the ability to be completely absorbed no matter what I have chosen as my current activity. I look forward to continually integrating all of this additional mindfulness into each and every moment of my life.

If you seek to cultivate serious mindfulness in your practice, you will find what you need in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences

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