After reading an interesting article about mindfulness and yoga by Scott Johnson, I started pondering some questions that many of us practicing yoga and/ or mindfulness may ask ourselves: What are the similarities between mindfulness and yoga? What are the differences? Should they be practiced separately? Should they be practiced together? Should you meditate before or after doing yoga? Can you practice Vipassana meditation and follow your natural breathing if you also practice yogic breathing? Should you practice mindfulness or yoga? Should you practice both? Which style of yoga is most similar to mindfulness practice? Which meditation technique should I combine with my yoga practice? So many questions.
Ok, maybe I am over-thinking this. But maybe, someone else is asking themselves these questions too. As a novice meditator, a novice mindfulness practitioner, and a novice yogi, I cannot even begin to answer them.
So why am I writing this blog?
Firstly, I simply wanted to highlight the very interesting article that inspired these questions.
Secondly, I wanted to discuss my own personal experience of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. I tried yoga for the first time shortly after I started meditating. One of my first experiences of yoga was a weekend retreat in York, which focused on Sivananda yoga, some Yin yoga practice, and a lot of meditation. Being almost a total beginner at that point, I did not have any expectations about my practice, nor did I find myself competing with the other students during the retreat. On the last day of the retreat, our yoga instructor (and the leader of the retreat) actually pointed this out to me. She told me that I had the right mindset coming into yoga practice. Most people start yoga with some goal in mind: improved flexibility, increased physical fitness, weight loss, strength gain, better mental health, etc. Therefore, a lot of people end up disappointed at their slow progress, their inflexibility, or seeing other students who are more advanced than them. I went into yoga practice with a completely different attitude. I gave it a try mainly because I was studying mindfulness. Mindfulness was my reason for taking up yoga, and it was with this interest in mind that I attended my first yoga class. In this way, mindfulness potentially had a huge role to play in how I started my yoga practice. I tried not to have any expectations about my abilities, not to judge myself for not being at the same level as the others, and not to wish for progress to come faster than it did.
So what have I learned so far?
I am still a novice practitioner when it comes to meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. But here are my thoughts on it today. Mindfulness and yoga need to be practiced separately AND together. Whatever style of yoga you practice and whatever meditation technique you use, they can always complement each other. Staying mindful during your yoga practice helps you focus on your breath, on the sensations of your body and your surroundings, and on the experiences of the present moment. Additionally, mindfulness can help you focus on yourself, instead of comparing yourself to other people in the class. It can help you stay in the present moment, instead of wishing you were better or more flexible. It can help you notice when your mind is elsewhere, so that you can bring it back to the present and get the full benefits of your yoga practice. And it can help you observe the negative thoughts and feelings that may come and go during practice in a non-reactive and non-judgemental way.
The beauty of mindfulness is that it can significantly enhance your yoga practice. It does not matter if you choose to meditate before or after your practice, if you use formal or informal mindfulness techniques, or if you practice alone or in a group. It does not either matter what style of yoga you engage in, what kind of meditation techniques you prefer, or what you use as your focal point or anchor during practice. The skills learned through mindfulness practice are transferable and can be applied to any yoga style, any sequence, and any asana.
My yoga styles of choice are Yin and Sivananda (read more about different types of yoga here). Yin quite naturally works with mindfulness practice in that it involves holding asanas passively for up to 6 minutes per pose. In this practice, mindfulness helps me cultivate patience and acceptance, and keeps my mind relaxed and focused on the present moment for the duration of the pose. Sivananda is very strongly based on relaxation (Savasana) and meditation (Dhyana), as well as breathing (Pranayama), so it is similar to mindfulness practice in nature. But mindfulness can also be used with the more athletic yoga styles, such as Vinyasa and Ashtanga, through focusing on the breath and keeping your mind in the present moment during each asana, especially in repetitive sequences where the mind may tend to wander.
In conclusion, mindfulness will likely complement your yoga practice when you begin your practice, during your practice, but also after your practice. Mindfulness may prolong the feeling of calm and relaxation many of us experience after a yoga class, so that we can keep this mindset throughout the remainder of the day. Above all, mindfulness and yoga complement each other in a reciprocal way, and if practiced correctly, can take the mind-body connection to a whole new level.
More wonderful articles about yoga and mindfulness below. All credit to the authors!