Buddhism - Mindful Yoga
by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Meditation in ActionMindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an eight-week programme in which patients attend a two-and-a-half-hour class once a week. Participants come with a wide range of medical conditions,
Mindfulness: moment-to-moment non-judgemental awareness
In the late 1970s, Larry Rosenberg (author of Breath by Breath, and Living in the Light of Death) and I taught back-to-back classes in a church. He would teach vipassana (Buddhist practice of mindfulness and insight), and I followed with mindful hatha yoga. The idea was that people take both classes, but most in meditation class didn’t want to do yoga, and vice-versa. We saw both as complementary but different doors into the same room, namely, learning to live wisely. The meditators would have benefited from paying attention to their bodies (which they tended to dismiss as low-level), and the yogis from dropping into stillness.
Over the years, my own experiences with mindfulness meditation and hatha yoga and the beauty of combining them into one seamless whole prompted me to experiment with different ways of bringing these ‘ancient consciousness disciplines’ into mainstream settings to explore their effectiveness in transforming health and consciousness.
How might they be connected? Yoga had the potential, I thought, to reverse disuse atrophy from sedentary lifestyles, especially for people with chronic illnesses. Since the mind was already known to be a factor in stress-related disorders, and meditation to positively affect autonomic physiological processes like lowering blood pressure and reducing emotional reactivity, training in mindfulness seemed ideal for cultivating intimacy with the mind/body and the ways that unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors undermine emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. This led to developing a clinical service known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
MBSR combines intensive training in mindfulness meditation based on vipassana and Zen, along with hatha yoga. Many programmes are taught by healthcare workers seeking to deepen the sacred reciprocity of the caregiver/patient relationship, and the need for a participatory medicine, in which the patient takes on responsibility for interior work to tap into inner resources for learning, healing, and transformation, starting from wherever one finds oneself in any moment, grounded in experience rather than the conceptual.
From the Buddhist perspective, hospitals can be seen as dukkha-magnets, drawing people faced with the immediacy of pain, suffering and uncertainty. What better place to make available Buddhist meditation, which is to do with suffering and its end, as an invitation to do something that nobody can do for you?
Mindfulness lies at the core of Buddhism. Yet its essence is universal; it is about refining attention and awareness. It is a uniquely powerful vehicle for cultivating deep insight into the ultimate causes of suffering and the possibility of liberation from them. It is appropriate that such practices be readily accessible to people who might derive great benefit from them but are unlikely to ever hear of them through traditional Buddhist institutions.
Hatha yoga is another of the great consciousness disciplines on this planet. My first taste came in 1967 at, of all places, a karate school, where it was used for warming up. I fell in love with it instantly. I was training in Zen and the two seemed to complement each other perfectly. That conviction has only deepened over more than 30 years of practice and teaching. The appeal is nothing less than the life-long adventure and discipline of working with one’s body as a door into freedom and wholeness, as per the original meaning of ‘yoga’—the realizing of the non-dual nature of self and world.
Yoga of Wholeness
Hatha yoga was never about turning one’s body into an elaborate pretzel, although the athleticism that is possible in yoga, if one can steer clear of narcissism, is truly remarkable. Today, we are seeing a marvelous flowering of interest in hatha yoga. Yet, how mindful is it, and is it oriented towards self-understanding, wisdom, and liberation, or is much of it just physical fitness dressed up in spiritual clothing? If yoga is to be meaningful, beginners have to be encouraged to start wherever they are, with gentleness and kindness toward themselves, and be continually reminded that there is really no place they have to get to in any conventional sense.
For a yoga of wholeness really has to do with the sincerity of your effort, with how awake you are, and how embodied in the only moment in which you are ever alive, which is now. It is important to realize, at first perhaps conceptually, but ultimately in one’s very bones, that mindful yoga is a lifetime engagement, not to get somewhere else but to be where and as one actually is with this very breath, whether the experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
What exactly do I mean by ‘mindful yoga’? It refers to a specific attitude and attentional stance that we bring to our yoga practice. This is in complete accord with the core principles of yoga as both a science of the body and its energies, and as an inquiry, exploration, human development, and ultimately liberation in any and every moment. Hatha yoga’s emphasis on the body through asanas makes it extremely valuable as one critical cornerstone of a comprehensive mindfulness-based mind/body approach to reducing stress and enhancing health, well-being, and spiritual development.
In mindful yoga, we teach hatha yoga as meditation. The postures (and flowing movements into and out of them) are used as occasions to cultivate a seamless continuity of awareness and discernment, just as in a traditional meditative sitting posture. And although there is exquisite attention paid to the body and body sensations, which are so rich because of the body’s configurations during asana practice, the field of awareness in mindful yoga includes the full spectrum of thoughts, moods, and emotions that are part of the interior landscape.
Allowing the field of awareness to be inclusive enough to contain our feeling states expands our ability to become intimate with our own hearts and bodies. It allows us to experience the connection between emotions, thoughts, and sensations in the body, often in specific and meaningful locations. It invites us over and over again to observe the arising and passing away of sensations and thoughts and emotions like clouds within the all-embracing sky-like spaciousness of awareness, and to observe our reactions to them.
In making a gesture of this magnitude, as we practice yoga in any posture, we may actually experience ourselves as being larger than we think we are, than our feeling states and our thinking mind. We may experience that our essential self is more akin to awareness itself, that we can listen to our thoughts and feelings and come to know them as events in the field of this awareness. We can begin to observe right then and there how easily we are caught in prisons of our own creation through a strong self-identification with our thoughts and feelings, even as we are doing the postures.
We can begin to see that we can actually choose not to get caught in identifying with them (or to see it if we do, for we invariably do), or with the body as who we really are. For mindfulness of emotions lies at the heart of what is now known as ‘emotional intelligence’ and a key ingredient in recognizing the wholeness of our being, its beauty in relationship to others and to the world, and its fleeting nature.
Exploring the Body
In a hospital or clinic, mindful yoga is used to mobilize the body to move into a posture to whatever degree possible, lingering in a spirit of ‘taking up residence’, and cultivating non-reactive intimacy with breath and body sensations, thoughts and feelings. This includes experiencing, with curiosity and inquiry, the body’s limits within the posture. Then, at one’s own pace, one moves out of it, maintaining mindfulness, into a neutral posture. This approach makes it possible for those with chronic conditions to at least attempt to explore the boundaries of motion in meditative awareness.
People often discover that they can reclaim far more movement and comfort than they thought possible because they have shifted from a fear-based mode of relating to the body to a gentle adventure-based mode. Confidence builds as we become familiar with the interior landscape of body and mind, and the boundaries of the body (and mind), which are often much less fixed than we thought. This is in itself a profound revelation when it occurs, and also shows the limits of our tacit thought patterns (and the emotional charge they can carry) regarding how inadequate the body is, or how great.
Using the Breath
Mindfulness of breathing, of course, is an essential dimension of mindful yoga. The breath is used as an ever-available anchor for the attention, and as a vehicle for helping us locate, feel, and give ourselves to the body sensations, including but not limited to where the stretching, strengthening, and balancing sensations are most predominant. As we all know, attention to the breath in any asana or movement reveals the life of the breath within the body, in all its beauty and complexity and makes infinitely more vivid the sensations of renewal and expansion associated with each in-breath and of release (and sometimes relief) present with each out-breath. These sensations, especially on the out-breath, can be powerfully felt in both the body and the mind as any tension or intensity from the posture releases and dissolves. Along with awareness can come a profound sensitivity to the air around, bathing, caressing the envelop of the skin, the fluid within which we live and move, and from which we derive life.
We attend to any and all sensations moment by moment as the breath and the sensations interact in the various regions of the body being most energized by the posture, and we attend to a degree as well to all the other regions of the body which are or are not involved to one degree or another but are also worthy of attention, since the body is one indivisible whole in every moment. Thus, we also refine an awareness of the body as a whole from moment to moment, breath by breath. Every posture then becomes its own universe. Every time one comes to it, it will be different, of course, and therefore new, fresh, mysterious, and potentially revelatory.
It is important to see such a practice as a way of life, and to nourish it both on the mat and in everyday life. When on the mat, we work from a place of non-striving, even as we may be continually listening to what the configuration of the posture is and making adjustments accordingly; or, as we settle in where we find ourselves for a stretch of time—which could be outside of clock time altogether if we let go into timeless presence, what J. Krishnamurti called ‘choiceless awareness’.
We work in this way as best we can without a spirit of competition, either with others or with ourselves through idealizations of what we ‘should’ be able to do or should look like or feel like. Instead, we give ourselves over to the experiencing of things as they actually are, and drop into total surrender to what is. Even so, from time to time, we may need to remind ourselves to let the yoga do (and undo) us, rather than think we are doing the yoga.
Bringing mindfulness intentionally into our yoga practice in these and a host of other ways invites us to inhabit the postures more fully, to be in touch with our skin breathing, with the direct experiencing of our muscles, our organs, and our bones and joints, our solidity and our transparency, with full non-reactive awareness. We tune to the universe of what is technically called ‘proprioception’, the body giving itself feedback on how and where one part of it is in relation to the whole, and to what the overall status of the whole is in time and space.
We watch as we respond to our own intuition about where the posture is pointing, or to our instructor’s suggestions for fruitful experimenting by adjusting or shifting in ways, sometimes subtle, we might not have chosen or even seen any time soon on our own. And we dwell in this interior landscape as best we can without forcing or striving. And if such impulses come up, as they sometimes do with exasperating persistence, we at least attempt to include them without judgment, with kindness and acceptance in the field of our awareness.
We can benefit in profound ways from bringing mindfulness to our yoga practice, whatever our ‘level’ of practice might be. This might mean slowing down, dropping in on ourselves, and lingering in postures with open awareness and timeless presence. We might come to see how much the mind’s incessant noise, the vrtti or fluctuations, keep us from being truly in touch with and accepting things as they are in the body and in the world, even in our yoga practice. And we may come to know how valuable it can be to recognize the waves of the mind for what they are, and hold them in awareness without losing touch with the silence and stillness, the heart of yoga that is always lying beneath the mind’s surface, available to us in any moment we can relax our judging and striving, and surrender to clear seeing and awakening.
Reprinted with permission of the author. First appeared in Yoga International, www.yimag.org, 800-822-4547.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the acclaimed Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, USA. He is author of the best-selling Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness and Wherever You Go, There You Are.
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