How many times would you guess you’ve practiced Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog pose)? Or how about Trikonasana (Triangle pose)? Pick any one of yoga’s staple asanas and you may have placed your body in its requisite shape hundreds or even thousands of times. Does it ever feel like the same old, same old? How is it that some people can nurture a yoga practice for 30, 40, 50 years or more and not be completely bored with it?
Whatever kind of asana you practice, keeping your yoga practice interesting can be summed up in five words:
Be mindful of your body.
Being mindful of the body
Back in the 1980s on my first five-day silent Insight Meditation retreat, the boredom was excruciating. I sat on my meditation bench completely absorbed in inventing countless mental diversions from the sheer tediousness of it all. I never minded not talking on silent retreats—silence suits me just fine—but sitting and walking for endless hours, trying to focus on my breathing or the sensations of walking was so boring.
But after a few days, all this shifted. Being present with bodily sensations and movements became quite interesting. It was especially satisfying—even sensual—to stay completely present with my movements in the daily asana class. The teacher, Pujari Keays, barely spoke as he led us through our practice. We moved slowly and with care. Each movement—each incremental part of each movement—became completely absorbing. Soon, the concepts of “Dog Pose” or “Triangle Pose” were no longer relevant. When my body formed these usually familiar shapes, the moment-to-moment sensations passing by at lightning speed were completely new and unique. In being mindful of my body, moment to moment, my mind sank into each new sensation as it arose and passed. My mind felt more spacious and peaceful than it had ever been, even though my entire experience was based just in this body.
Mindfulness of the body is the first of the four foundations of mindfulness that the Buddha laid out. It is the cornerstone of all the other foundations of mindfulness: mindfulness of feeling (the pleasant, unpleasant or neutral quality of an experience), mindfulness of mental/emotional states and mindfulness of the dharma. This is because everything we experience, everything we can know, comes through our senses and is experienced in our bodies as sensation. All the other foundations of mindfulness are experienced as sensations in the body. For example, we know we are angry, sad, happy or tired because we experience these qualities as particular sensations in our bodies.
If yoga practice is meant to unify the body and mind, I can think of no better way to do this than to be mindful of our living, breathing bodies as we practice.
Mindfulness and the brain
As it turns out, mindful yoga practice may also be healthy for your brain. A recent article in The New York Times cited a study suggesting that mindfulness of the body changes the brain—for the better. All 35 participants were recently unemployed. Participants were given brain scans and blood tests prior to the study. Then half of the participants were taught formal mindfulness practice, awareness of all sensations—pleasant, unpleasant and neutral; and the other half were taught a form of relaxation practice that encouraged them to distract themselves from their stress and its source. One part of the study had participants practice simple stretching exercises. The mindfulness group was guided to be mindful of bodily sensations, while the relaxation group was encouraged to engage in conversation during the stretching practice.
What the study found
“At the end of three days, the participants all told the researchers that they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.”
What this means for your yoga practice
Asana is a physical practice. At any given moment, there is a multitude of sensations of which you can be aware. If you’re really paying attention to your moment-to-moment experience, your brain and nervous system—and therefore your whole being—benefit. When you are paying attention, you can’t be bored. Each Dog Pose is new. Each moment of each Dog Pose is new. When you are paying attention, there’s no room in the mind for boredom.
Let your body and your breath guide you. Every asana is a verb, a continuous process of expansion and release. You will never tire of your practice when you understand that every Dog Pose you practice is new. It is quite literally the first time you have ever practiced this particular Dog Pose. The only way to understand this is to look deeply and experience each moment as something new, which it is.
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.