Mindfulness seems to be a buzzword at the moment. The internet is awash with information on mindfulness and hardly a week goes by without a newspaper or magazine article on its benefits. I am bemused by the way it is often presented as a quick fix, cure-all technique. My own experience as a yoga practitioner and teacher is that years and years of practice are required to develop a state of awareness that is mindful.
Alongside the phenomenon of mindfulness touted as a quick fix, cure-all, we now have yoga taught like a fitness class – hot and fast. The ground for mindfulness is not laid when yoga afficionados flit from one fast moving, drop-in class to another. This pick ‘n mix approach to yoga will ultimately be as unsatisfying and unsatisfactory as a surfeit of sweets – a route to mindlessness perhaps!
In a piece published in the Guardian last Saturday, the safety of mindfulness is questioned. It is defined in the article as ‘the practice of sitting still and focusing on your breath and thoughts’. This exemplifies common misconceptions surrounding what mindfulness is. Perhaps these misconceptions arise when mindfulness is taught as a crash course or just learned as a technique from a book. Firstly it is not essential to begin sitting still, secondly focusing on thoughts should never be an aim in moving towards mindfulness. It isn’t surprising that when taught in this way, problems sometimes arise. The writer describes her own panicky feelings and difficulty in breathing normally during a mindfulness lesson. She then goes on to describe someone who was triggered by a mindfulness class into panic attacks and re-emergence of traumatic memories from childhood.
As psychotherapist and trauma expert – Bessel van der Kolk says ‘Yoga is a much easier way to become mindful than meditation’. He also goes on to say that yoga practice is a much safer way to begin moving towards mindfulness than meditation. He does not advise leaving vulnerable people alone with their thoughts or ‘breath focus’ – he says this can indeed be potentially harmful for some people.
In recommending that yoga asana be learned before meditation, Van der Kolk talks about the importance of the yoga teacher’s voice, which needs to be calm, kind and reassuring. In addition, a good yoga teacher will gently invite students to make movements in synchrony with the breath. The movements might, for example, involve focusing on the placement of a foot or a hand ‘just so’ and noticing the simple sensations that arise in this process. The effect will be a gradual quietening of the mind and increase of presence in the moment.
If mindfulness is the aim, awareness is all-important. Ron Kurtz – founder of the Hakomi method of psychotherapy, said ‘When you turn your awareness toward something, you automatically lower the noise. When you start to pay attention to something ….other things will automatically fade out – the noise will lower by itself. If you draw attention to movements in slow motion…you will start to notice things that you did not notice before. This is mindfulness. …the more time you take, the more information you get….The focus is on present experience.’
Here, therefore, are some elements of a good yoga class that can lead to mindfulness:
1. The teacher will have a calm, reassuring voice arising from their compassionate approach.
2. Structured class. The safe container of the class structure will reassure students who regularly attend class with a well-trained teacher. The teacher will take especial care over the beginning and end of the class, with satisfying, well-considered content in the middle. Safety will be ensured through attention to these boundaries
3. Awareness of natural breathing. Students will gradually become aware of how natural breathing feels. In this process, they will notice any personal habits of breath restriction and what happens to their breathing when stressed. Breathing techniques will not be taught until students can breathe freely in a natural way.
4. Asana – the poses. Presence in the moment grows when yoga poses are practised slowly with precision and awareness. Feeling the relationship between surfaces of the body with the ground whilst practising, can help to develop feelings of security and increase body awareness – e.g. the ground beneath the feet, the back of the body in contact with the yoga mat when lying down, sitting bones in contact with a chair.
When meditation is eventually introduced in the yoga class, students will know their teacher is there to support and ‘hold’ them. Students will also have learned to tolerate bodily sensations and feelings that may arise, to witness flurries of thoughts and emotions moving through their consciousness, without becoming panicked by them. Finally, students are secure in the knowledge that the session will end at a fixed time and they have not been abandoned.
Eventually mindfulness will become the ‘default setting for being’ through a gradual process of dedicated practice over many months or years, with guidance from a well-trained teacher – always remembering the words of Ron Kurtz – ‘Mindfulness is not just another technique. It is a state of consciousness.’