What is the mind to do in yoga practice?

Yoga is described as “a mind-body exercise.” What is the mind to do in yoga practice?

  1. Remember the asana
  2. Monitor and direct the activity of the muscles and joints
  3. Monitor and regulate breathing
  4. Observe the emotions

1. In remembering the asana, you recall all of the instructions for the asana. You attempt to align your body with the ideal posture of the asana. You notice where the body has limitations, either temporary and solvable or permanent, and still seek the primary benefit of the pose.

2. I find that bodily awareness is greatly lacking in many people. The exceptions are those who are highly athletic, but even then they may be accustomed to moving the body without attention. For example, I have seen professional ballet dancers without attention in their bodies and thus their performance feels mechanical. The cause for this lack of attention lies with the inadequate instruction of their previous teachers (both in childhood and adulthood), who ordered them around like animals instead of patiently educating them in human anatomy and body mechanics.

Fortunately, the body is easily accessed because it is solid and always available. My introductory meditation techniques focus on developing basic body awareness for this very reason. Yoga practice is an excellent opportunity to develop it by monitoring and directing the activity of the muscles and joints. Under the skin, we have an incredibly complex web of musculature and it is worth studying in detail. When you intellectually know the anatomy, then vague sensations will sharpen into clear signals from specific muscles and your ability to direct the muscles will improve significantly. The neuromuscular awareness and control obtained in yoga practice will become available in other activities and in daily life.

3. The word “vinyasa” is defined by Ashtanga Yoga Master David Swenson as the integration of the act of breathing and that of movement. The movement of breath is the metronome beat for the performance of asana. You should continuously sense and regulate breathing in such a way that feels nurturing to your body. The main term for this method of breathing is “Ujaiyi,” which specifies gently constricting the glottis so the breath is more audible and sensible. By concentrating on the breath, the mind is stilled, as it would be in seated meditation practice.

Note: If your yoga teacher ignores the rhythm of the breath and provides you with too little time for full inhalations and exhalations then slow down and move on your own time. If your yoga teacher discourages this, then you are in fact dealing with a poor aerobics instructor and not a teacher of yoga. For example, one of my students is a professional singer. She possesses remarkable skill in regulating her breath, so she tends to move at almost half the speed of the average student. I often praised her to the other students and explained the points above.

4. What goes on in your heart during yoga practice? I often experience surges of emotion and floods of memories in yoga practice. This is natural and helpful. Subtle energies do exist and our emotional states leave strong impressions upon them. Yoga, when practiced a true mind-body exercise, cleans and regulates the subtle energies.

It is important to distinguish between daydreaming and self-observation of emotions. Some days, you might simply be distracted and unable to concentrate. In this situation, do the best that you can to concentrate on the experience at hand. It is better to continue to practice poorly than not at all. In a state of concentration, emotions will arise. Pay attention to them. If you find it helpful, you might stay in the pose in order to better taste the experience and allow the process of purification to unfold.

You do not have “to do” anything with the emotions. Generally, experiencing them fully will allow the subtle energetic system to integrate and heal the total system. If you experience very powerful negative emotions or painful memories, then you will likely wish to seek the assistance of a psychotherapist and begin/increase a meditation practice.

When you are able to align bone, muscle, emotion, and mind, this is the greatest asana practice.

As I said, the essence of correct man’s work is in the working together of the three centers - moving, emotional and thinking. When all three work together and produce an action, this is the work of a man.
— G.I. Gurdjieff in Views from the Real World