It’s the end of another long work day. You’ve checked the last item off the day’s to-do list and will manage to leave just in time to make the 6:30pm yoga class you’ve been looking forward to all day.
Just as you’re about to shut down the computer, the boss walks over and asks you to make one more phone call before you go. With a sinking feeling in your gut, you smile and say “Sure!” As you pick up the phone, you think, “Ok, if this takes just five minutes I can still make it to the 6:30 class, no problem.” The person answers and puts you on hold. Time passes…
“How long have I been on hold? Six minutes already. I’ll have to run to make the class. Then I’ll get there all sweaty and stressed and there will be no spots left. And what if I don’t make it in time?! I’ll have to wait for the 7:45 class and I won’t get home until 10pm! Then I won’t be able to sleep, and I’ll be exhausted tomorrow, and ARGH I JUST NEED TO GO TO YOGA!!”
Do you view your yoga or meditation practice as an escape from the stressors of everyday life? It may feel comforting to have a safe space where you feel removed from tension, anxiety, and busyness. However, this space need not be limited to your sticky mat or meditation cushion. In fact each moment of our daily lives can be an opportunity to practice yoga just as we do on our mats and to tap into the calm and peace we find there.
Throughout asana class, we listen to and observe our breath. The mind inevitably wanders: it drifts off into daydreams; it makes snarky judgments of the person on the next mat, or the teacher, or oneself; it curses the slippery rental mat. When we notice this churning of the mind we acknowledge it, let it go, and gently invite the mind back to the breath.
In so doing we create a gap: a moment of stillness amidst the incessant turbulence of the mind. It’s like pressing the pause button on the endless movie playing in our minds. Simply stopping to let go of thoughts and focus on breath allows us to drop into the present moment and relax the mind.
This quieting of the mind is the definition of yoga that Patanjali puts forth in the second verse of the Yoga Sutras: “Yoga citta vritti nirodhah”: yoga is the resolution of the agitations of the mind (translation by Judith Hanson Lasater). When these agitations are resolved the mind process has been mastered and there is a deep, profound calm. It is within this calm that the true unchanging Self may be perceived.
Quieting of the mind does not mean banishing thoughts. A common misconception is that if one practices yoga and meditation long enough, one will eventually exist blissfully in a magical thought-free zone. This is unlikely. The mind will always create thoughts, and thank goodness for this because we need some of these in order to survive and live our lives efficiently.
Through yoga and meditation we practice taming the mind. Rather than being a slave to our thoughts and emotions, spinning off wildly in whatever direction the mind turns, we instead master the mind process by quietly observing. We then recognize thoughts for what they are: stories created by the mind, like shape-shifting clouds that float across the clear blue sky of our true consciousness. Once we acknowledge their ephemeral nature we can let them go, then return to our center and experience the stillness within.
This experience of stillness, centering and grounding need not be limited to our yoga class. Whether we’re sitting in Sukhasana on our mats, hanging onto a strap on a crowded subway, or watching the papers in our inbox fill to overflowing at our desks, we can create this gap by letting thoughts go and tuning into the breath. As our attention draws inward, we go beyond the constant stream of thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, and reactions and tap into the deep peace and serenity that is our true nature. With this in mind, each and every moment becomes an opportunity to practice yoga.
Originally published on elephantjournal.com, June 4, 2013.
Christine Malossi is a yoga teacher and writer based in Manhattan.