If you’ve practiced yoga for a while, you’ve probably become more mindful. While you may not think of your new “skill” as mindfulness, you’ve likely heard the term. Jon Kabot Zinn, a pioneer in this area, describes mindfulness—specifically mindfulness meditation—as awareness. Being mindful means being able to see clearly and stay focused on what is happening in the moment, he says. Why is this important? Because it allows us to know what is true. Mindfulness, Kabot Zinn says, makes us wise.
How Yoga Helps Cultivate Mindfulness
Mindfulness is one of the most powerful benefits of yoga. It starts simply. The teacher invites you to focus on your breath. You learn to coordinate each movement with breathing in and breathing out. Eventually, you learn specific breathing exercises, and you realize that your breath is truly your life force. You can direct your breath in certain ways to calm anxiety, increase energy, focus better, and so on.
So, in yoga, we become mindful of our breathing, which in turn makes us more mindful about everything. In fact, to use our breath mindfully, we first need to be aware that we not breathing properly. Our yoga practice also helps us become more aware that we are anxious or lethargic, or that our “monkey mind” is chattering away and distracting us.
We become increasingly mindful of movement while we practice asana (the physical exercises of yoga). We also use asana to prepare our bodies to sit in meditation. And it’s when we sit, that an even more powerful thing happens.
Is Mindfulness a Substitute for Sitting in Meditation?
Mindfulness is a form of meditation distinct from traditional sitting meditation. Master yoga teacher Doron Hanoch explains that sitting in meditation has benefits mindfulness does not offer. While both mindfulness and traditional (seated) meditation lead us to awareness, sitting in meditation may offer a faster track to that goal.
Of course, for most of us, finding time to sit in meditation can be a challenge. The good news is mindfulness practice—being present throughout your day—does count as meditation. Our whole lives can be a meditation, in fact, and when we learn to see life that way, amazing things happen. We become less anxious, more energetic, more focused, and more truly ourselves. The practice of mindfulness meditation gives us an undeniable edge. Think of it as training for transcendence.
The Benefits of Sitting
But no matter how mindful we become, there is room for even more stillness. As Doron explains, sitting in meditation is so effective because we no longer rely on our senses when we do it. At least we don’t need to rely on our senses, since awareness is the only goal. We’re not doing an exercise or completing a task at the same time. And while you don’t necessarily have to push thoughts or sensations away when sitting in meditation, the mind becomes stiller more easily.
In sitting meditation, Doron notes, there is a “dropping away from the senses.” The result is a unique kind of awareness, one that does not require a label. This awareness is neither internal nor external. In other words, it is removed from sensory experience. As such, it can’t really be explained in words.
In the end, whether you practice mindfulness or make time to sit in formal meditation, learning to still the mind will make space for the wisdom that is always within you to come through.