Merging the practice of mindfulness with the practice of yoga has led the way to a new and more intensive form of “Mindful Yoga.” Mindful yoga applies traditional Buddhist mindfulness teachings to the physical practice of yoga; it is the holistic approach of connecting your mind to your breath. Before we go any further, let us start with a brief overview of mindfulness and yoga, on their own.
According to meditation teacher, Guy Armstrong:
“Mindfulness is knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it. It is moment-to-moment awareness, has the quality of being in the now, a sense of freedom, of perspective, of being connected, not judging” (Sridhar, n.d.).
Jon Kabat-Zinn—referred to by some as the father of mindfulness—says:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Sridhar, n.d.).
Mindfulness is simple yet it is complex, in that, it is a way of training yourself to simply focus on whatever is happening in the present moment, yet it can be one of the most transformational tools for personal and spiritual development. It’s no wonder it has been a buzzword in our modern world, with athletes, corporations and wellness professionals alike, all claiming its incredible benefits.
Benefits of practicing mindfulness include, but are not limited to: increased concentration, memory, immunity to colds and diseases, feelings of happiness and contentment; reduction in chronic pain, blood pressure, stress, anxiety, and depression (Moss, 2018).
Mindfulness practice has deep roots in Buddhist tradition, but you certainly do not need to be a Buddhist in order to apply its teachings and techniques to your life.
The definition of “yoga” is a bit more complex, as there is no single definition of the word, though in Sanskrit the literal translation is “union.” It is described as a state of connection and a body of techniques that allow us to connect to anything. The experience of having a conscious connection to something is a state of yoga—a joyful, blissful, fulfilling experience (Saraswati, n.d.).
The term “yoga” is also used to describe a comprehensive practice and a way of life. It is estimated to be at least 5,000 years old, originating in India and brought to the west in the 1920s (Joshi, 2018). Yoga has been described as the ancient Indian science of self-realization, or the ancient science of self-culture. Or as the renowned sage, Patanjali, puts it, yoga is “a method to stop thought waves” (Yogamandiram, 2017).
The real secret to yoga can possibly be summed up in one word: awareness (Saraswati, n.d.). To many, the modern day understanding and practice of yoga is quite different, and perhaps quite a bit removed from its traditional meaning.
“Modern yoga is a physical activity consisting largely of postures called asanas, often connected by flowing sequences called vinyasas, sometimes accompanied by the breathing exercises of pranayama, and usually ending with a period of relaxation or meditation” (De Michelis, 2017).
According to the “Yoga Sutras” (ancient texts written by Patanjali), yoga asana is just one of yoga’s eight limbs (Joshi, 2018), but for the purposes of understanding today’s modern practice of “mindful yoga,” we will stop here.
What Is Mindful Yoga?
Mindfulness has always been an essential aspect of the physical practice of yoga. The difference between Mindful Yoga and the wide variety of yoga practices out there is that with Mindful Yoga, the main focus is on mind-body awareness, as opposed to alignment details and the exact physical posture. The point is to cultivate mindfulness, using asana as the vehicle in which to do so.
Bringing mindful awareness to any physical activity creates an alert focus to whatever you are doing in that exact moment, thereby transforming the movement into a form of meditation. Therefore mindful yoga is considered to be a form of meditation, and/or it is very often practiced before a formal meditation sitting.
Another characteristic of this type of yoga is its emphasis on observing rather than reacting. Although this should always be the case in yoga, this practice, in particular, places great importance on observing your mind and feelings while you are acting out the yoga pose.
Mindful yoga is a key component of the popular eight-week evidence-based program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—a practical training program developed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, that assists people with stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. (Kabat-Zinn, 2005)
Most indicatively, mindful yoga applies traditional Buddhist mindfulness teachings to the physical practice of yoga, as a way to strengthen awareness and presence both on and off the yoga mat. Specifically, this type of yoga applies the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness to systematically cultivate self-awareness and compassion through non-judgment, patience, beginners mind, trust, non-striving, letting go, and gratitude (Boccio, 1993).