Have you ever found yourself lost in thought during yoga class? Don’t worry, you’re not a bad yogi and you’re definitely not alone! For the most part, we spend much of our waking hours absorbed in thoughts about anything other than what we’re doing in that moment, including during yoga class. Although, the practice of yoga is meant to bring us into the present moment, and usually does, we are human, after all, with minds that like to wander.
The ability we have to remember the past and dream about the future can be a powerful tool in our lives, however it can also be riddled with regret and worry. Furthermore, it seems the present stands little chance in the modern world of constant distraction supplied by media, internet, social networking, ads, cell phones, etc. The disadvantages to this way of being are numerous, and countless studies have been done proving the benefits of present moment awareness. For starters, being in the present moment can reduce stress and anxiety as well as give us much needed perspective on how we view the past and future. It can bring greater mental clarity and even help us navigate change and challenges with a more positive outlook.
So why don’t we do this all the time? Well, it seems our brains do not always want to comply. The good news is that we have practices available to help retrain the mind to harness the power of the present. The technique known as “mindfulness” is one such tool that has been used for centuries. It is most commonly associated with Buddhism, as early teachings of the Buddha describe “sati” (clear awareness) as a way to free the mind from suffering through specific practices outlined in the Satipatthani Sutta that are still used today.
Mindfulness is characterized as moment-to-moment awareness or the state of being fully present in whatever we’re doing, whether washing dishes, meditating, or talking to a friend. It is paying attention on purpose in an active, engaged manner so that we are fully aware of what we are doing and thinking as it occurs. As Sam Harris, in his book Waking Up states, “Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves.” Thus, mindfulness is experiencing what we are experiencing as we are experiencing it.
Sounds good, right? So how do we do it? In yoga class we are often brought into this state of being by way of maintaining focus on the breath, bodily sensation, or simply by concentrating on how to make the shapes the instructor is describing. You may have even found that it comes easier with a regular practice as repetition is one way the mind learns to operate differently. Like anything, it takes practice, and practice is what we do, not just once but repeatedly over time.
One of my favorite ways, other than yoga, is by spending time outdoors and focusing my attention on a natural element. This not only cultivates present moment awareness but also connects me to a sense of my place within the greater earth ecosystem. This practice can be done anywhere on anything in nature at any time for as long as suits you.
Find a quiet spot on the beach, remove your shoes, and feel your feet in the sand and upon the earth. Take a comfortable seat facing the ocean, sitting in the sand, on a blanket, in a chair, or however you are most comfortable. Spend a few moments taking in the view, moving your sight across the ocean, the horizon, and along the beach. Then rest your focus on one area or thing and relax into simply watching and noticing every aspect of it, without judgment or mental commentary. Allow yourself to just simply be in the presence of this natural element as it is. Remain for as long as your concentration allows. If you find your mind wondering off in thought, bring your focus back to your object of attention. As you remain longer, you’ll find that you can notice finer and finer details, opening up broader and broader awareness.