I had a student ask me a question after class the other day. She was commenting on a particular pose, the cueing I was giving in class and her own reaction to being in the pose. She wasn’t sure if she was doing the pose correctly and noticed a feeling of stretching past her accessible range in the shoulders.
We had a good discussion about the pose, the anatomy behind it and I assisted her a bit in the posture to reinforce the muscular actions. I love these kinds of questions because it shows a healthy inquisitiveness about the practice as well as a level of awareness in the student. Awareness in practice is not unlike awareness in meditation; it’s something to strive for but it’s hard to maintain. When we’re on the mat, even the littlest thing can interrupt our focus. It might be an errant wisp of hair that falls on our face, sweat on our body, a feeling of thirst, struggling with a pose or being annoyed by the sounds of the student next to us. As with all mindfulness practices, the best approach can involve simply beginning again with the breath and our gaze at one point (drishti).
There are signs that may arise which may indicate we’re losing a sense of awareness and presence:
Sitting in the joints: this refers to a lack of muscular support in the joints while in a posture. It reminds me of a hammock hanging between two trees. I often see this in lunges, as students sag through the middle of the body, while supporting the top end of the body with the arms and the lower end of the body with the extended leg. When students practice with awareness, they are fulling supporting the joints with muscle and each pose is held still by a combination of stretch, strength and relaxation.
Pushing each pose to the fullest expression: When we’re practicing without awareness, we may push ourselves outside the range of motion we’re ready to experience. I often see this in Downward Dog, as students leverage the floor and push their hips up, while locking their knees. I see this a great deal in Bound Side Angle, as students go for the bind without keeping proper alignment and end up wrenching their shoulders. Through greater awareness, we can practice in a safer way and one that will allow our bodies to stretch without strain. As a teacher, part of our role is to cue students to practice in an anatomically sound way but not without harping on them in a punitive way.
Rushing: When we rush, we’re not present. We may be impatient or feel as if we already know what the teacher is going to teach. We’re not “in the moment” but instead are making assumptions about what pose will come next. We move quickly, almost as if to say we’re there but we’d just rather get it done. As we connect more to our breath and listen to the teacher as a way to anchor to the present, we can find a pace that is more mindful and less impatient.
Practicing on auto-pilot: This is a hard one to avoid, especially if you practice a great deal with the same teacher. You may get used to his or her pace and sequence and may begin to anticipate what will come next. This one is a little tricky because as we get more in the flow, we move more in synch with what’s being taught and at times, it might look like we’re on auto pilot. As a teacher, you can see if this is happening with your students by picking a part of the flow and slowing it down significantly. Or you can hold a particular pose a bit longer than usual. This can sometimes catch students who are moving out of assumption instead of presence. Note: only use this technique sporadically as it can be a bit jolting and even somewhat harsh.
Competing with the people around us: When we let what others are doing around us result in our changing the way we approach our practice, this can also be a sign of decreased awareness. If we take a pose in a way that we’re not ready for, but only because we’re following the person next to us, this can not only lead to injury but it can take us out of awareness. There’s a difference between being inspired by a fellow student and letting what they’re doing compel us to do the same thing. Only you will truly know the difference and know what is motivating you to change your approach to practice.
Looking around the room at other students: There’s much to see when you’re in a yoga class. It reminds me of running in that there’s much to see when you go for a run but if you’re practicing presence, you won’t see all that much. Your eyes will be focused on the road ahead of you and you’ll be feeling your breath and steps on the pavement. If you find your eyes wandering, check in and ask yourself what you’re looking at and why you’re looking around. Chances are, there’s nothing to really “see,” but you’ve just chosen a different focus from the practice.
Practicing with awareness is a learned skill that can develop over time, even for the more impatient, distracted person. As this skill develops on the mat, the wonderful thing is it will translate to the way one approaches life as well. It will allow for greater presence at work, with family and just in the way one carries oneself throughout the tasks of their day.