Since yoga entered the mainstream about 15 years ago, I’ve proclaimed again and again that yoga is not just about the physical practice. I spent five years writing a book about the eight limbs of yoga, of which asana, the practice of poses, is only one. But in the past few years, I’ve come to understand that even though yoga practice is not just about losing weight, gaining flexibility or toning our derrieres, the body is actually the key to opening to all the other limbs of yoga.
In his book, Sparks of Divinity (Rodmell Press), B.K.S. Iyengar says: “It is through the body that everything comes to the mind. It is through and with your body that you have to reach realization of being a spark of divinity. How can we neglect the temple of the spirit?”
When I first read Iyengar’s quote many years ago I interpreted this way: It is through our practice of asana, at those times when we lose the struggle and become the asana, that we see into our true nature, the spacious awareness that unites us all.
This still rings true for me. If we practice with complete commitment to being fully in each moment, asana practice can offer a glimpse into the free and settled mind that is intrinsic to all of us.
Yoga asana is a physical practice. But it’s not the accomplishment of fancy poses or extreme feats of flexibility that frees the mind. What separates asana practice from other forms of physical discipline is that in asana, we set an intention to be present. Instead of “doing” our poses, we relax into “being” our poses. When we relax into being our poses, our minds and bodies are not separate. When we are present with the moment-to-moment flow of sensations, our minds are open and calm.
Mindfulness and the body
The last three of yoga’s eight limbs are concerned with meditation: concentration, meditation and Samadhi. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness is how I’ve discovered and cultivated these limbs of yoga.
The first of Buddhism’s four foundations is mindfulness of the body. Those of us who have delved deep into meditation can sometimes begin to see all things related to the body as subservient to the freedom of the mind. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that awareness of the body is the foundation for freeing the mind.
The body is not just a gross vehicle that transports our minds from one place to another. The body is the window to everything we experience—everything. We perceive the world around us through our bodies, through sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Everything we encounter, whether or not we’re conscious of it, registers as sensation in our bodies. If we are ever to be mindful, we must drop below the level of thinking about our experience to being directly present with our moment-to-moment experience. In order to do this, we must direct our attention to our bodies.
Our bodies are always in the present. They cannot be otherwise. If you want to be present, tune into your body. Our bodies, specifically our senses, provide the window into each moment.
Mindfulness is incredibly simple, but I will never claim that it’s easy. Most of us have practiced thinking—especially planning, worrying and remembering—either consciously or unconsciously, our entire lives. As anyone who has sat down to meditate knows, our minds are constantly flitting from one thought to another like the Buddha’s well-known metaphor, a wild monkey leaping from tree to tree.
But the point of mindfulness is not to rid our minds of thoughts. Mindfulness practice helps us to develop a healthier relationship to our thoughts so that we neither push them away nor get carried away by them.
Thinking produces sensations in our bodies. We can tune in to the sensations that accompany thinking and propel ourselves right into the present, even when our thought tapes are running at full volume. So when you notice you’re lost in thought, try this: Don’t try to banish the thoughts. Just let them be. Instead, shift your awareness away from the tale your thoughts are weaving to the felt sensations in your body while your mind is running wild.
If you’ve got a body, you can be present
Through our sense experiences, we connect directly to each moment. In each moment that we fully connect, we are temporarily free of the stories and beliefs that filter our understanding of the present. When we are present in our bodies, what we witness instead is the constantly changing flow of sensation. We see the truth of impermanence, which leads—eventually—to freeing our minds.
At a recent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, meditation teacher and author Joseph Goldstein quoted the Buddha’s description of the enlightened mind: “In seeing impermanence, the mind doesn’t cling. When it doesn’t cling, it’s not agitated. When it’s not agitated, it personally attains nirvana (peace, freedom).”
It is through body awareness that we can experience the continuous flow of change for ourselves, not simply as a concept.
Body awareness is not a practice available only to a privileged few. It doesn’t matter whether we’re old, young, small, large, healthy or unhealthy. If you’re reading this, you have a body. You can cultivate body awareness, and open to the deepest truths.
In his classic book, Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a body awareness meditation based on these phrases:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.
Reflect on how fortunate you are to live in this body. Living in a body gives you access to everything there is to experience, your inner and outer landscapes. When you practice yoga, be present with the moment-to-moment sensations that each asana evokes. And through body awareness, you might realize you are a spark of divinity.
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. CharlotteBellYoga.com.