My students sometimes ask me what I find to be the most difficult yoga pose. I’m quite sure they expect me to say some crazy arm balance or inversion (going upside down) . Secretly I think they are trying to ascertain my level of strength or flexibility. Imagine their surprise when I simply simply say “anything that the mind gets overly involved with.”
Our minds love to tell us how good or bad we are doing, often comparing us to others. Comparing our performance today to our performance yesterday. Often students are surprised to discover that their minds get overly involved in the simplest of poses – simply sitting comfortably or lying in shavasana (the rest pose often at they end of yoga class). The mind doesn’t like to be idle, so when it doesn’t have anything to do it finds something.
Often this shows up as mental conversation. It might be the comparisons or judgements about your yoga poses. It might be a running list of what you need to get at the grocery store on the way home. The more we give our attention to these mental conversations, the more they continue. This is why many find meditating difficult: as soon as you are still and quiet the. I don’t goes on overdrive to the point it becomes distracting.
In class, on our yoga mats, we practice observing thoughts show up, but letting them pass. I use the analogy of clouds in the sky: the clouds show up, maybe take a form, then continue to float past your area of perception. When you become aware of thoughts observe them, but let them pass by. No comments. No story about the thought. No engagement. It takes a lot of practice, as I am sure you can imagine.
Meditation isn’t about having no thoughts (a common misconception). It is about finding stillness amid those thoughts. When we first begin meditation practices (of which I consider physical yoga part of meditation as well) our mind gets overly involved. We haven’t cultivated the skill to allow the thoughts to pass without getting involved with them, so we get frustrated and maybe even quit. As we practice however, each time we meditate we get a little bit better at allowing thoughts to come and go. When this happens, we begin seeing the benefits of yoga and meditation: greater relaxation, better sleep, feeling less stressed.
In the seven years I have been teaching yoga and meditation, I have tried to help my students see how these practices are helpful even when they are not on a yoga mat. How can you use these practices at home, at work, in traffic on the highway? How can you use these practices when you are afraid, overwhelmed, or enraged?
We are experiencing unprecedented events right now. A global pandemic, economic shut downs, protests and violent riots. No matter your opinion on police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, you likely have a whole bunch of mental dialogue happening right now. When we engage in that dialogue – repeating it over and over and over – it feeds our fears, our opinions no matter how right or misguided they may be. This can cause us to feel more anxiety, more fear, more helplessness.
So how can you alleviate some of this? The same thing we do on the yoga mat: practice not engaging in the thoughts. Let those thoughts pass by like clouds as much as you are able to. Remember, if you have never done this before it will be difficult. Be gentle and easy with yourself. With practice thoughts about BLM, the pandemic, and social unrest won’t be as disturbing.
Why do this? First, for your own health and mental wellbeing. Secondly, when you are able to disengage from the stories running in your mind, you will be in a position to better look at information and discern fact from fiction. And when you can discern fact, you are in a better position – a calm, still position – to take appropriate actions. This is one way to be an ally, one way to care for yourself and others. Be safe, be well. And may thoughts that don’t serve your greatest good simply continue to float by.