Photo by Jake Dockins
The practice of yoga has two complementary paths converging into one common road towards wellness. One path is physical: We move, we breathe, and our bodies and minds reap the benefits. The other path is mental: We focus our attention in a particular way, and this state of mindful awareness can lead to tangible benefits for our bodies and minds.
Mindfulness is commonly defined as paying attention to the present moment, nonjudgmentally. We practice mindfulness during yoga by repeatedly redirecting our attention back to our bodies and breath in a gentle and accepting manner. But how do we bring mindfulness into our daily lives, when our to-do list is growing and our attention is being pulled in many directions? How do we transport what we practice on the mat into our hectic daily lives?
Here are 5 ways to practice mindfulness on and off the mat:
1. Body & Breath Awareness
Aligning your body in a yoga pose requires you to turn your attention to the subtleties of bodily movements—hip joints, pelvic tilt, toe spaces, and foot angles. When you’re standing on one foot with all other limbs in the air, your full attention is required. By combining bodily awareness with focused breathing, no room remains for outside thoughts, which strengthens our ability to pay attention to our bodies and breath.
A new challenge arises when we move off the mat. When you find yourself faced with distractors competing for your attention, a simple strategy is to return to your breath and body. Take 10 seconds, 30 seconds, or even a minute to lower your gaze or close your eyes and notice your body and breath. If paying attention to the body and breath is difficult (which it most likely is!), count while you breathe. Inhale to the count of five and exhale to the count of five. Do this for 3-6 rounds of breath and simply notice how you feel. Aside from the physiological benefits of slowing down our respiration, we are also practicing paying attention. This control of attention is essential for bringing your mindfulness practice into the routine of daily life.
Our yoga practice changes from day to day. Some days we feel confident and other days everything feels awkward. Sensations, thoughts and feelings arise—discomfort, strength, fear, happiness, worry, and relief. Sometimes these occur in the same practice. Being on the mat is an invitation to notice these various thoughts and feelings as they make their appearance. The next step is to practice acceptance, to let the experience be as it is without judging ourselves for what we are feeling.
The time on our mat supports our ability to accept life as it comes and to be more resilient in the face of life’s slings and arrows. We can create space between an experience and a reaction. Take a second to simply notice. The next time someone cuts you off in traffic, your teenager walks his muddy shoes over your freshly vacuumed carpet, or your boss criticizes your work, pause. Create space to think about what happened, become aware of how you’re feeling, and accept the experience. By first noticing a thought or emotion instead of automatically reacting, we create a moment in time to accept life as it is and to make an intentional choice. Remember that acceptance doesn’t mean non-action, or non-doing. Rather, acceptance is an intentional act providing space for conscious action. Observing and attending to thoughts, perceptions, and feelings before reacting brings mindfulness into our daily lives.
3. Curiosity and Reflection
As we improve in our ability to notice and accept our experiences, we enter a practice of self-observation. Awareness of ourselves—of how we pay attention and how we react—often arises on the mat when we devote time to ourselves. Curiosity towards our experience, and our reactions to our practice, occur when we create space between stimulus and response. We notice things arising within ourselves that we weren’t aware of before. We see patterns of likes, dislikes, thoughts, emotions and feelings. We become aware of our habits and tendencies, whether it is with the way we always land our feet in Warrior One or our harsh self-criticism for not balancing in Tree pose.
To move this practice into our daily lives, we must strive to maintain this curiosity and reflection on a continual basis. Nurture observations with investigation and deep reflection. A tried and true tool for practicing curiosity and reflection is to keep a journal. You can physically write on paper, type on your electronic device, or record yourself on audio or video. We find the best way to journal is to have a guiding topic or question. Give yourself time to freely express thoughts about this topic as they arise; have no expectations and don’t worry about grammar or style. Give yourself space to declutter your mind by expressing yourself in a new format.
Have you ever noticed yourself comparing your practice, your flexibility, even your yoga clothes to others? Or have you noticed critical self-reflection or negative self-comments when you’re not able to practice a particular pose? We all experience insecurities when we practice yoga. Self-compassion enables us to recognize that we are not unique in our experiences; everyone has insecurities, everyone experiences self-doubt. To recognize that you’re not alone in your experience allows you to work towards bringing more compassion into your internal dialogue. Yoga is a great place to cultivate greater self-compassion. To pause for a moment and recognize how you are talking to yourself is a powerful way practice mindful self-compassion.
Having compassion for yourself also means being kind to yourself; treat yourself the way that you would treat your best friend. If your friend was struggling with her practice, would you criticize her? Would you tell her she isn’t good enough? Most of us would think this is unimaginable. As Jack Kornfield writes, “If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete.” The previous practices—noticing, accepting, getting curious and reflecting—set us up for cultivating more self-compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the scientific study of self-compassion, provides numerous self-compassion practices on her website. The key to bringing self-compassion into your life is simple: give yourself a break.
5. Awareness of Others
Becoming aware of our body, our experiences, and our emotions is critical for creating space between what we experience and how we respond. The benefits of awareness can be broadened to include others. We practice this on the mat when we are in tune with those around us paying attention to the collective synchrony of breath and movement.
Noticing others and having compassion toward their experiences can expand our ability to have more meaningful relationships with those around us. Mindful awareness is key in nurturing the spaces between us. A simple way to bring more mindfulness to our relationships is to practice listening—specifically, deep listening. Try this mindful listening practice with a friend or family member.
Instructions: Find a partner. You will take turns speaking and listening.
- One partner will spend 3 minutes speaking about any aspect of his or her life. Set a timer that will make a noise when the 3 minutes is up. Speaker: This 3 minutes is devoted to the speaker. If the speaker runs out of things to say, sit in silence. Whenever the speaker has something to say, continue speaking. The listener doesn’t speak. Listener: Give your full attention to the speaker. Be curious, but don’t ask questions. Acknowledge with facial expressions or by nodding your head. Try not to over acknowledge. You may feel an urge to coach, identify, chime in, or interrupt. This is normal. Just notice when this occurs and resist the temptation to act. Listen with kindness.
- After the alarm sounds after 3 minutes, set the alarm for 1 minute.
- The listener takes 1 minute to repeat what they heard from the speaker. Paraphrase.
- After 1 minute, the original speaker takes 1 more minute to clarify anything they feel the listener misunderstood. The speaker gets the last word.
- Switch roles and repeat steps one through four.
- Reflect on how it feels to be listened to so closely and what it felt like to listen deeply to another person.
- End by thanking the other person for listening.
Mindfulness as a Way of Being
We practice mindfulness formally—on a mat, on a cushion, or with specific practices—to become more mindful in our daily lives. While science tells us mindfulness can lead to tangible benefits including increased attention, lower stress, and better self-regulation, your own experience of mindfulness will guide your practice. Though the practices are simple, they aren’t easy. Practice is required. The act of compassionately bringing your attention back to the present moment, repeatedly, is the essence of developing mindfulness as a way of being. As the world-renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg tells us, “Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.”