Yoga for your mind, on & off the mat

Yoga for your mind, on & off the mat

Bill Hufschmidt

Has this happened to you? You’re cruising down the interstate, feeling great as your mind bounces from thought to thought, humming with the radio, planning dinner and reviewing your to-do list while navigating towards your destination. Then, a car from the other lane lurches in front of you, almost cutting you off, and now you are yelling at their bumper. “You #*&%!! What do you think you’re doing?” You may not even realize that you had this reaction, it happened so fast. Your heart and breath rate have increased, your muscles have locked and your adrenaline-induced fight-response has engaged, ready to do battle as your mind speeds through a barrage of phrases (mostly negative) for the unsuspecting driver. Unloading your road rage on an unsuspecting stranger probably will not have bad results. But what if you let that reaction fly on your boss, your spouse, a friend, or even your child?

An event occurs and our mind instantly shifts gears. We can judge the experience as negative (road rage), or positive, like when we are overcome with instantaneous joy. Our reactions generate so quickly that we don’t always have time to choose our response before it flies out of our mouth. In today’s fast-paced world, we are expected, even encouraged and rewarded, for responding without hesitation. But how often is our first response the best one for the situation?

Over the 5,000-plus year evolution of yoga, the practice has helped people gain an understanding of their true inner nature. In today’s world, most people first come to yoga to alleviate pain and tightness, to acquire flexibility and agility, and to feel more present and in control of their body. Many don’t realize that these same benefits can be experienced by their mind. Yoga gives you the opportunity to explore your mind’s habitual responses in a neutral and contained environment, thus using your practice on the mat to learn about how you live and respond to life off the mat. All forms of hatha yoga provide this benefit, from gentle restorative styles that incorporate blankets and bolsters to support your body with minimal effort, to invigorating vinyasa styles that stimulate your cardiac circulation as you twist, lunge, bend and balance your body to strengthen and tone your muscles and internal organs.

When you navigate and position your body consciously into the different yoga postures, you are, in effect, creating small-scale stressful situations. As you hold a posture, focusing your awareness on your breathing, you can observe the stream of thoughts produced by your mind, detecting patterns and habits that were previously unconscious. Your body and mind are the physical expression of all your experiences, thoughts, and actions. Each time you come to the mat, you bring a new body and a new mind to explore and experience. Thus, each practice session is never exactly the same; it changes as you live and evolve.

With time, patience and practice, we learn to observe and witness the patterns and responses we develop. Eventually, we notice when our mind creates reactions that are not the ideal first response. And at this point, we can make a choice: continue with the reaction first suggested, or choose another response, perhaps one less explosive, defensive, self-focused; perhaps one more inclusive, loving, compassionate.

The real measure of success for these practices comes when we engage in the yoga of daily life. As we encounter stressful situations off the mat such as a confrontational discussion, or an elating situation like seeing a friend from the past, we can observe our breath, our thoughts, our body’s reaction, and we make choices about how and what we will communicate. We can absorb more of life by remaining present for the events and our reactions, integrating the events of life as they occur, not letting life’s experiences imbed themselves into our muscles and connective tissue as knots, tightness, or fatigue.

Yoga is a transformational practice. Just by showing up on the mat, you change and evolve your inner potential for growth and peace. This practice can teach you how to be present, in your heart, your breath, your mind and your body. We can extend this inner peace to all other beings, so that all beings may know peace and joy, love and light. We have to start with ourselves.

5 Thoughts

As you move through your practice, you have the opportunity to observe your mind’s activities. Perhaps your mind starts with doubt: I can’t hold this, I’m too weak, or short, or tall, of fat. Or you jump to anger: I hate this posture, this teacher sucks, my stupid feet are slipping. You might experience distraction via comparison: wow, look at that person over there, they look perfect, or they can’t do this at all, I’m better. The mind can also explore the future and the past: remembering things that you did before yoga, of should have done, or could have done; same with the future, your mind can ponder what you’re going to have for dinner or the vacation you are planning to take.

Take a moment and identify five different thoughts that you often have during your yoga practice. See if you can find some patterns to explore the next time you visit your mat.

Bill has studied various styles of yoga and meditation for over fifteen years, using the practices to deepen his experience of life and possibility. Bill continues to learn and evolve as he shares his experiences with Thai Massage and Kripalu yoga in Candler Park at the Jai Shanti Yoga Studio:

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