Mindful Yoga – tautology or necessity?
First appeared in Om Yoga magazine.
Not yet heard of Mindful Yoga? That’s probably because until very recently, it didn’t exist. Not explicitly at least… Rather, the notion of mindfulness in yoga – being present, accepting limitations and focussing on the breath – was as important as the asana (postures) themselves. But an exponential increase in yoga’s popularity and availability, alongside an ever-expanding pool of teachers has meant that yoga’s magic has, at times, become diluted.
To many of us, our mats are no longer a place to practice a devotional mind-body discipline so much as a place to perfect our poses. It’s not all bad – I doubt I’d have arrived in my first down dog five years ago had I been instructed in anything other than the physical benefits (allowed to sweat and push and groan my way towards increased flexibility and a new pair of multicoloured leggings) – yet recently I became ready for something else. A deeper form of self-inquiry. A greater connectedness with the moment.
And that’s where Mindful Yoga comes in – a necessary tautology in an era where yoga has fallen far from the eight limbed tree. I tried my first Mindful class at yogahaven in Clapham, London, with French-born instructor, Laurent Roure, but other studios are quickly catching on, including Hot Bikram Yoga in London Bridge, which is now offering Mindful classes alongside their usual Bikram sequence.
So what does this Mindful practice involve?
It’s all part of a daily or hourly discovery about ourselves. We must then use this information to make changes, and adjust postures and intensity where necessary
“There are three main points to mindful yoga and they’re all happening at only this particular moment in time”, Laurent explains. We must try to accept where we’re at that day – if your back, hip, knee (etc) hurts then try not to push through it or wish it was any other way. It’s all part of a daily or hourly discovery about ourselves. We must then use this information to make changes (the second point), and adjust postures and intensity where necessary. This all relates to the third point – which is cultivating awareness, done via focussed breathing, meditation and using our senses (and that’s where the lovely relaxation part – Yoga Nidra – comes in).
One posture in particular exemplifies this: we lie on our backs with knees bent, holding our big toes. Little by little, we extend one leg and keep the other side pulled in.
“I see a lot of people practising yoga without an awareness, or acceptance, of their limitations,” says Laurent. “This is about your body and where you are today. Mindfulness is about working with the breath and our individual alignment, so if you have an injury or limitation you don’t force through it.”
I duly stop just as I begin to feel a stretch in the back of the right leg. It’s only then that I realise I’ve actually gone too far: it’s already shaking. I breathe through the frustration and wait until my muscle tells me to go further. It takes a while, but gradually I get to know my hamstring better than I have in five years of practising other types of yoga. What’s more, I breathe through hip joint stiffness that’s been annoying me for days.
I’ll admit I feel completely out of my comfort zone with this new, mindful approach. In most other classes, this pose might be done and dusted in thirty seconds, but here we’re encouraged to take our time and tune in to what part of us feels loose and what part feels tight, what analyses or judgements our minds are making and what we can learn from all of it put together.
It’s part yin and part meditation. Same, same, but different, as the Thai expression goes. These classes aren’t about teaching mindfulness per se, but about using its basic premise to influence the way the yoga itself is taught. As we know (since it’s the trendiest thing since Lululemon) one can practice mindfulness sitting, standing or during any kind of movement. In some ways the idea of Mindful Yoga classes reminds me of so-called ‘fortified’ cereal – where all the good stuff that has been ripped out during the cheap processing is put back in afterwards and then sold as an added bonus. Yet whilst I wouldn’t gladly chew on manufactured cereal, I’m very happy that in my screen-led, frantic world there is a yoga class emerging that puts the emphasises on moving slowly and consciously. I’m happy there’s a safe place where I can bring my fight-or-flight stress hormones down to a healthier level, reduce the endless mind-chatter in my brain, encourage a deeper relaxation that activates my parasympathetic nervous system and lets me work into muscle tightness with less risk of hurting myself. Tautology? Necessity? Perhaps both and neither. Mindful yoga is every yoga class and this particular yoga class; it’s the inhale and the exhale; an opportunity to explore or a chance to let go. Tautology? Necessity? It’s both and it’s neither. It’s same, same, but different. Just don’t forget to breathe.
– By Lucy Fry