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Volume 2, Issue 4
Winter 2006:

Mindfulness and Yoga Practice

Britton Mann

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Winter; 2(4):a20

Based on presentation at Cell 2 Soul Conference
November 10, 2006

On a recent visit to New York City, I saw a yoga class advertised as an incentive for potential apartment buyers to attend an open house. The ploy seemed indicative of the frequency and recklessness with which yoga and other mindfulness practices are tossed about by marketing campaigns. Ads in health magazines would have us believe that soy-based sausage links are the vehicle to enlightenment. Stories in popular media offer little information about their essence.

It is safe to say that yoga and mindfulness will not assure you good housing in NYC, nor will it make soy sausages taste any better. There are myriad interpretations available. Mine are informed by where and with whom I have studied, and may not be pertinent to your path. Your own sense of "being mindful" may be more relevant for your internal process than anything offered here.

There is a remarkable similarity in the pre-verbal experience of being mindful that cuts across popular definitions and methodologies. Zen Buddhists sit or walk, Sufis whirl and make music, yogis stretch their bodies and regulate their breath. Though outwardly different, the result is similar. The Hindu maxim applies: paths may be many, but Truth is One. The mindfulness we strive to attain is a universal experience, even as it is an outgrowth of a particular methodology.

What is this state that we seek, and what is it we feel we lack? For many of us, it is that our attention slips from the present moment. We are not always "mindful." If your experience is anything like mine, you slip in and out of self-awareness. At any given time, your body tends to be engaged in certain tasks, your mind on other things, and your spiritual self is checked out and drifting aimlessly.

From this state of mindlessness, we may hope to become more consistently present with our physical surroundings, with our colleagues, our patients, our teachers, as well as with the internal processes of our minds. The assumption that what we are right now is in some way lacking may, in itself, be the cause of suffering.

What does it feel like to be consistently present? It might be more direct contact with our immediate experience. Or a feeling of lightness, unencumbered by the fear, worry, or eager anticipation that comes with projecting ourselves into the future. Or being free from brooding or from dwelling on greed, anger, manic elation, the past, or other states that pull us away from pureness and wholeness. The Japanese have a word, "satori," that describes brief forays into such a pleasant state.

Two approaches in listening to music help clarify different states for me. The first illustrates the mindless state of listening to music on my iPod, usually while washing dishes. During this activity, I am thinking about anything except washing dishes. I might be projecting into the future, thinking about other projects, conversing with others, or recalling a time in the past. The iPod experience is of hearing music, but my life energy (Qi or Prana in Eastern terms), is simultaneously being scattered among the past, future, conversations, dishes, and the iPod.

A totally different musical experience occurred when I attended a New York Philharmonic concert. There were many more elements at play in my field of consciousness than on any given night at my kitchen sink: the complexity of live music; the beauty of Avery Fisher Hall; the crowds of people; the dynamics of my family also in attendance; ruminations of my mind; the energy of being in New York City. Despite the stimuli, I found myself aware and in touch with all of it. I can vividly recall the events and feelings of the evening, remembering my energy as being contained and bright.

We all experience the phenomenon of having something "turned on" that facilitates connectedness and mindfulness. It is like the fifth grade phenomenon: we may not remember the daily events of fifth grade, but we remember a special class trip that was somehow more "real" than the rest of the year. The trick is to have that state occur more often.

Reality is that every moment is new, and there is nothing more real than our everyday moment-to-moment experiences. Hackneyed as this concept may be, when we listen deeply to its truth, it resonates for us. Then, moments later, we drift off again into our dull state of mindlessness. In the long run, it is spiritual torpor that rules our days, and not drinking each moment with a thirst for what it has to offer. It is realizing this state that encourages us to seek a practice that will help us become more mindful on a more consistent basis.

Being self-aware and self-reflective ourselves is important groundwork when we must reach out to those who are ill and in need of our help. Physicians and others in the healing professions often have eight minutes to spend with their tenth patient of the day. They must dig deep to make direct contact with the truth, with themselves, with that other sentient being, with a higher power. With mindfulness, we have a better chance of noticing every important detail in a patient workup.

Yoga practice is designed to get us out of our habitual selves and into our optimal state of being.

The Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms that codified the teachings of yoga, written between 200-800 BCE by the sage Patanjal, suggests that the habitual, dull state of being is ruled by "avidya," a veil of delusion. One of my yoga teachers, Richard Freeman, says that avidya causes us to go through life as if we were driving in a car with a dirty windshield. Because of the caked-on bugs and dirt (the equivalent of our built up habits and patterns), it is not clear where the road is or where we are.

Within the umbrella of avidya, the Yoga Sutras define "kleshas," or obstacles:

Asmita: egoism - the false notion that we are unique, isolated, superior (or inferior) to other sentient beings. Ramana Maharshi, a great sage of the 20th century, says that we are like an insular bubble floating on the surface of the ocean. As a bubble, we are the same as the ocean that surrounds and supports us, unable to see that truth until the bubble bursts.

Raga — excessive attachment to pleasurable things. This drives the urge to collect, consume, to 'do' in excess.

Dvesa — excessive aversion or hatred.

Abhinivesa — fear of death. This klesha may inform every choice we make and every action we take. Just ponder how much we act in our own self-interest out of fear for the end of our physical or intellectual self. This klesha seems to drive everything from the cosmetics industry to current foreign policy and national security decisions.

To clean the windshield and clear the kleshas, yoga gives us purification techniques-much like we have wiper blades and fluid for the windshield. Some of these techniques work on the outside of the glass, where the obvious impediments to clarity and peacefulness exist. Many find yoga techniques helpful in alleviating impediments such as muscular or skeletal pain. Other yoga techniques work on a subtler level, addressing habitual patterns that are more difficult to see and feel than a herniated disc or tight shoulders.

Beginning some sort of mindfulness practice could be motivated by a charismatic teacher, by a desire to improve your personal relationships, by a personal health crisis, by chance, or because it seems trendy. At the start, it doesn't matter why you have chosen to enter the river. Eventually, assessing the source of your guidance will be important to your progress towards centeredness, groundedness, and clarity. Indeed, such inspection is, in itself, mindfulness practice. In the long run, you will find that experiencing it will be considerably more gratifying and helpful than simply accepting what you read in an article. Hopefully, you will find a practice that expands your consciousness further on your path.

Suggested bibliography for further listening and reading:

Desikachar, T.K.V., The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Rochester, VT 1999. Inner Traditions International.

Richard Freeman, The Yoga Matrix: The Body as a Gateway to Freedom. Boulder, CO. Sounds True, Inc. Audio CD Series.

Iyengar, B.K.S., The Tree of Yoga. Boston, MA 1989. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Dikshit, Sudhakar, Ed., Frydman, Maurice, translator, I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Mujmbai, 1973. Chetana Press, Ltd.

Maharshi, Ramana, Talks with Ramana Maharshi: On Realizing Abiding Peace and Happiness. Carlsbad, CA 2000. Inner Directions Publishing.

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