“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
As I was riding the subway on my way to teach yoga last week, I was planning my class based on mindfulness: the simple act of paying attention to the present moment. I went back and forth between reading a book, scribbling notes, and ruminating on what I would say. I became completely engrossed in my mental preparations for the class. When I looked up from my notebook I discovered I had missed my stop!
How's that for a wake-up call? I was so caught up in planning what I would say about being aware of the present moment that I became completely unaware of the present moment!
My initial response was exasperation. I began to berate myself: “What an idiot. And even worse a hypocrite. On my way to speak about the beauty and joys of being present and I’m totally lost in my thoughts.”
But then I took a step back. I realized that this blunder was in fact the perfect opportunity to delve into the three essential components of mindfulness identified by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been researching and studying the practice for over 40 years:
§ In the present moment: My mind had strayed as I thought and planned and strategized, but my misstep guided me immediately back to the present.
§ On purpose: As soon as I realized I wasn’t paying attention, I intentionally let go of my plans for later in the day and consciously directed my awareness to the present moment.
§ Non-judgmentally: After initially chastising myself I had to laugh, shake my head, and recognize that it’s natural and normal to get caught up in planning for the future or reminiscing about the past. It doesn’t make me a bad person or a failure as a yoga practitioner and teacher. It just means I’m human.
In the practices of yoga and mindfulness, we misstep and stumble and find ourselves lapsing back into the past and projecting into the future time and time again. The mind strays, and we guide it back to the present. It drifts again, and we guide it back again. Over…and over…and over. That’s the practice.
And what a valuable practice it is! Mindfulness impacts physical health, mental health and emotional well-being. Here are just some of the many benefits attributed to practicing mindfulness:
-improved mental focus
-improved mood and emotional stability
-enhanced self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation
-lower blood pressure
-improved immune system and brain function
-lower pain sensitivity
-extended attention span
-increased self-monitoring capacity
-reduced cognitive decline associated with aging
Mindfulness isn’t exotic or out-there or weird or obscure. It’s available to each of us in every moment of every day. It’s as simple as pausing, taking a deep breath, and dropping into the here and now.
While mindfulness may be simple, it’s not easy. Anyone who has sat in meditation or tried to follow the breath during asana practice knows this firsthand. Being mindful takes work, just like anything worthwhile. But hopefully the more we practice, the more we discover how valuable and vital this work is and begin to experience the profound effects of being fully present.
--Originally published on MindBodyGreen.com, March 26, 2013.
“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” -Hatha Yoga Pradipika
It’s an interesting exercise to sometimes step back and ask yourself: “Why do I practice yoga?” Your answers are probably many and varied. For most of us one reason is that post-yoga glow: the calm, relaxed, serene state we experience after a yoga class. But why does yoga make us feel so good?
This very question has inspired much scientific study. Research has shown that the practices of yoga…asana (poses), pranayama (breathing exercises), chanting, meditation…have a measurable effect on our autonomic nervous systems. The ANS controls the automatic, unconscious, involuntary processes of our bodies (breathing, digestion, perspiration, etc.) and has two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Yoga has been shown to decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, known as the “fight or flight” response to stress. Simultaneously it enhances the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “relaxation response”. The slow, steady, calm Ujjayi breath that we practice in a yoga class has been shown to be particularly effective at initiating this relaxation response.
These are just the basics. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details of the science underlying yoga, here’s your chance to dig deeper! This link will take you to a research study conducted by physicians at Columbia University, Boston University, and New York Medical College. The paper not only discusses how yoga affects the nervous system but also the implications this finding has for treatment of epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Fascinating stuff.
Coherent Breathing is mentioned in the study as one breathing practice that has “rapid, widespread effects on brain functions” and consequently on the parasympathetic nervous system. Very similar to the Ujjayi breath that we use in class, this method trains us to breathe at a slow and controlled pace. To learn more, visit www.coherence.com.
To practice this anytime, anywhere, you can simply download a song from iTunes (artist: Coherence, album: Slow Down). Just by matching the pace of your breath to the recording, you’ll breathe more slowly and calmly and tap into the body’s relaxation response. I owe many thanks to my teacher Nixa DeBellis for introducing me to Coherent Breathing.
The next time the hectic pace of life starts to get to you and you feel your stress levels rising, maybe you’ll take a moment to pause…breathe deeply…and notice what happens.
It’s hard to believe we are already well into the fourth week of the New Year. With the hustle and bustle of the holidays behind us we are moving deeper into the winter season of rest and renewal.
In winter, nature stops its outward growth and turns inward. This pause allows the earth to restore its internal energy reserves. Our inner landscape reflects this cyclical slowing of the natural world. This is the time to pause, breathe, go deep inside. To let the body be still and replenish itself.
In the midst of hectic lives lived in a city that moves at a lightning-fast pace, this is much easier said than done. We all have many responsibilities to work, family, and friends that often leave us with little time for our own self-care. Finding 60 minutes for a restorative yoga class or 30 minutes to sit in meditation may some days seem an impossible task.
However, you don’t need tons of time to give the body and mind a chance to slow down. Start small:
- take one minute upon waking, either lying or sitting in bed, to close your eyes, connect to your breath, and clear your mind
- in the evening, lie for 5 minutes with your legs up the wall (Viparita Karani) while practicing deep breathing
- during your daily subway ride, take a short seated meditation by closing the eyes, focusing on the breath, inhaling the word “let”, exhaling “go”
These tiny pauses sprinkled throughout a busy day may not seem like much, but they can be just enough to calm the mind, rest the body, and open the heart. Gradually you may find yourself making more and more space and time to relax and restore.
Christine Malossi is a yoga teacher and writer based in Manhattan.