Mindfulness isn’t just about the mind. It’s a holistic approach to living that addresses the entire person. As we learn to monitor and direct the activities of our minds through meditation, it’s helpful to bring that same kind of conscious, compassionate awareness to our entire bodies. Yoga teachers frequently remind students to “listen to your bodies,” and with good reason. Scientific and medical studies have shown that physical ailments and pain can have their root causes in emotional traumas, stress and other nonphysiological causes.
“I have come to believe that the purely physical realm of illness—the part you can diagnose with laboratory tests—is only part of the equation,” the physician Lissa Rankin, M.D., has written.
Tuning in to our bodies is the first step in learning to take better care of them through proper exercise, diet and other vital lifestyle choices. Fortunately, the same Eastern spiritual traditions that have brought meditation to the West have also brought mindful forms of physical exercise such as yoga and Tai Chi Chuan, both of which have become very popular in America and Europe over the past few decades.
Westerners—Americans, in particular—tend to think of physical exercise in terms of competitive sports. And while tennis, soccer, baseball, football, etc. all provide a great cardiovascular workout and can improve muscle tone, they’re basically outward-directed activities. The whole point is to beat your opponent, which means you’re essentially reinforcing and acting out the same aggressive, competitive tensions you face in the workplace and other potentially stressful life situations. One might argue that competitive sports are a nonharmful way to work out these aggressions—leaving aside sports injuries for the moment. But you’re not really learning much about yourself that way—about why, for example, you feel so aggressive in the first place.
Yoga, in contrast, is an inward-directed form of exercise. It’s noncompetitive—integrating rather than polarizing. There’s no “us vs. them.” There’s just you and a burgeoning sense of your connection to all of life around you. The word yoga has its origin in a Sanskrit term meaning “to yoke”—that is, to realize and actualize a connection between the individual self and the universe. And while Tai Chi Chuan has its origins in the martial arts, it too is often taught as a form of noncompetitive meditation in motion in the West. Both yoga and Tai Chi Chuan can teach you a lot about how your consciousness exists in relation to your body.
Stone carvings found in India’s Indus Valley and dating from around 3,000 B.C. depict human figures in what appear to be yoga postures. So the modern practice of yoga may go back that far, if not further. The first historic written record of yoga is a mention in the Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas, which date from around 2,500 B.C. Yoga is a comprehensive spiritual system aimed at the attainment of enlightenment. Asanas—the familiar physical postures of hatha yoga—represent only one branch of the overall yogic system.
Yoga first came to the West when the Indian master Swami Vivekananda toured Europe and the United States in the 1890s. Many yoga and spiritual teachers from India followed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, including Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of today’s Self Realization Fellowship. Yoga got a big boost in the West with the consciousness-expansion movement of the late 1960s. Another revered Indian yogi, Swami Satchidananda, was chosen to open the Woodstock rock festival in 1969.
Yoga’s next major upsurge in popularity came in the 1980s as its physical health benefits became better known. In 2001, there were approximately four million people practicing yoga in the United States. By 2011, that number had grown to about 20 million.
But as Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health founder Amrit Desai once said, “Yoga is very popular today. But what’s popular today isn’t really yoga.”
Meaning that the commercialization of yoga in the capitalist West has slightly warped people’s perceptions of it. The promise that doing yoga will give you tight buns and a hot little body is used to sell designer-brand yoga wear and a host of yoga-centric consumer goods. You can find fitness-oriented exercise forms that have “yoga-sounding” names, or that combine a few yoga asanas with more strenuous activities. These will certainly help you develop your physique. But you’re not likely to develop much mindfulness that way.
So if mindfulness is your goal, you’re better off sticking to one of the more traditional yoga modalities. You’ll still tone and tighten your body, but you’ll also cultivate a beautiful—and happier—mind. Most yoga styles taught in America can be practiced without having to buy into a spiritual belief system and will still benefit both body and mind. While you can get the basics from books and videos, it’s best to learn from a certified yoga teacher, who can make sure you’re aligning your body properly, obtaining maximum benefit from the asanas and, very importantly, avoiding injury. You may have to try a few different yoga studios to find one that feels right for you. Fortunately, there are many across the U.S.
While instruction styles differ, yoga classes typically begin with some kind of activity that focuses and centers the mind. Often this is done by chanting the Sanskrit syllable om. But if that seems too “religious,” you can find teachers and classes that use other centering exercises. Fitness centers and gyms are good places to look.
After this initial exercise, the teacher will lead the class through a series of asanas designed to work each part of the body systematically—stretching the muscles and ligaments, aligning the spine and working to keep it flexible, limbering up the joints and improving blood circulation. There are classes for every level of experience, from beginners to advanced. The class atmosphere is noncompetitive. If you find an asana too strenuous or demanding, you can simply come out of the posture. Try to avoid comparing yourself with other students in the class or trying to compete with them. Again, yoga isn’t a sport. This is a different kind of exercise.
You’ll also want to maintain an inward focus. This is the mindful part of yoga. Pay careful attention to how each asana makes you feel, both physically and emotionally. The teacher may remind students to focus on their breath to help with this. This is another way of meditating—one where you don’t have to remain sitting on a cushion. Gradually you should feel yourself becoming more relaxed and tranquil, which is perhaps the main reason why yoga has skyrocketed in popularity over the past 20 years.
Toward the end of the class, the teacher will have students lie flat on their backs in savasana, or corpse pose. From there, they will be led in a progressive relaxation exercise, focusing in turn on each part of the body, from the feet to the crown of the head, and relaxing each part totally. After this, you will leave the class feeling refreshed and far less stressed than when you first walked in.
Yoga Journal magazine has listed 38 different health benefits to be derived from yoga. These include helping regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels and the adrenal glands; boosting the immune system; improving balance; maintaining the nervous system; strengthening the spine and relieving pain. Yoga can also improve digestion and help you sleep better, and it has proven effective in combating depression. But perhaps the most important item on the magazine’s list is Number 12: Yoga makes you happier.
Mindfulness, a very simple form of meditation, has been proven to increase calm, reduce depression and help combat anxiety associated with our increasingly frantic existence. In this special guide, the technique is explained in clear, everyday language, with additional information on its spiritual roots and present-day application