Lately I have been thinking about the parallels between yoga and achieving good mental health. Specifically, I mean the mindfulness that is required in both of these endeavors. When I started practicing yoga 10 years ago, I did not realize I would be learning mindfulness. I started because I felt like I needed to do some sort of exercise and I had taken a few yoga classes in the gym and liked them. I started slowly, one day a week in a self-guided class. I chose this class because it was suitable for all levels and it suited my time slot. Little did I know I would be transformed by this class and not want to live without yoga. I was very consistent and attended this class faithfully every week. It took about a year before I started going more then one time a week and finally I wasn’t committed to the same day every week. But still ever since that day that I started, I have rarely missed more then a week or two. Looking back, it wasn’t the “exercise” that kept me attending, it was the way it made me feel and that was directly related to learning to be mindful.
Mindfulness is learned both by the teacher reminding you to focus on your breath and to come back to your breath when you find your mind drifting off, but also by the learning of focusing on your body and what sensations you feel in your posture. As you become stronger and more flexible, you also become more aware of using muscles to get into postures, to hold postures and to get out of postures. You become more mindful of the feelings and sensations your body is experiencing. You also become more aware of some difficult sensations in your body. Invariably when you engage your muscles or when you stretch your muscles, you will sometimes feel discomfort and staying in a posture means having to tolerate some discomfort.
This same idea of tolerating discomfort is central to mindfully tolerating feelings. When we experience feelings, we also tend to be able to locate a physical sensation in our body (lump in our throat, gnawing in our stomach, rapid heartbeat, etc). Once this sensation is located, we are then able to practice mindfully exploring and tolerating that sensation. This allows us to practice tolerating feelings, just as I have practiced tolerating physical sensations in yoga. Sometimes we have to practice tolerating emotions in yoga as well…..but that is for another post.