Taking the Mind into the BodyMar 15, 2023
I sometimes joke with students that a side benefit of practicing with me is that by listening to all the verbal cues I give, they don’t have time to think about their problems. I’m only half kidding.
As a student of alignment-based asana, I was taught by teachers who used lots of words, words that guided me deeper in my practice, words that captured my experience and turned it into learning and growth, and words that gathered the energy of my monkey-mind and focused it inward to grasp ever more subtle aspects of my being.
The role of language - and by extension the intellect - in an embodied practice like asana is fascinating.
Using our intellect in asana is how we crystallize our experience so we can assimilate it, integrate it, and make it our own. The use of words, in particular, is crucial in this respect. Language is how we as humans make sense of our reality on every level, so why not our bodies in asana?
Of course, the mind isn’t separate from of the body, and we’re using it all the time in asana practice to feel, sense, and process our experience. Yet, how often have I (and perhaps you) come to the end of a practice only to recognize that while my body was going through the motions, my mind was elsewhere? It’s words that keep us focused on our bodies.
While feeling, sensing, and being with one’s experience is essential, so, too, is thinking, observing, analyzing, discerning, remembering, and articulating. This is especially true in learning-based styles of yoga, where we can move along a trajectory of practice to progressively refine and deepen our experience over time.
Although the workings of the intellect are sometimes considered antithetical to yoga’s central pursuit of thought-free absorption in the experience itself, I don’t think it’s an either-or scenario.
By bringing the mind into the body through engaging our intellect in asana we are practicing ekagrata - the quality of one-pointed attention that the yoga tradition recognizes as the gateway to absorption in pure awareness.
The benefits flow the other way too. Implementing refined and subtle verbal cues also serves, as one of my students recently put it, as "training" for my ability to stay focused for a longer period of time.
In these times of unlimited distraction, building the muscle of sustained and focused attention has become more important than ever. How wonderful to know that our practice can be a place to not only feel better in our bodies, but also to sharpen our intellect. In fact, the two can go hand in hand.