How to be mindful, according to the experts

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We chat with three inspiring yogis to discover how they embody mindfulness as both students and teachers of yoga.

Ryan Mannix has been teaching yoga and meditation in Australia and abroad for more than eight years. He is the co-founder of It’s All Yoga in Torquay (itsallyoga.com.au), is a Lululemon ambassador and leads trainings and a mentoring program for new and current yoga teachers. Instagram: @ryanmannix_yoga

How do you practise mindfulness as both a yoga teacher and student?

In terms of practising mindfulness, I think it’s the same thing — teacher and student. I like to practise mindfulness in a formal setting — a meditation practice — sitting in the morning and carving out a ritual to practise breathing, being in tune with my breath, and then using the practice of mediation as a means to steady the mind and be present with the experience. And [that practice] becomes a training ground to be more mindful on-the-spot. On-the-spot mindfulness might be just looking out at the ocean and being present with the direct experience of Mother Nature. Running is a very mindful practice for me — being in nature, feeling my feet. Often I’ll get lost in thought and then I’ll remember that I’m running – and then I’m present with running for a moment — that’s the on-the-spot practice.

Meditation helps me remember to be mindful. If I can train in being present and mindful, then it becomes more of a habitual pattern. So the meditation becomes a training ground to become attentive of the direct experience that is free from the narrative, the talk, the conditioned pattern of the mind.

The meditation technique I practise is a mindfulness technique — shamatha vipassana meditation — which is attention on one point: the breath. I just focus on the breath as an anchor to come back to and to notice when I’ve drifted. When my mind is super busy, it’s useful to have some kind of technique to come back to — an anchor point to focus on — and for that little glimpse of a moment, I’m right there in the direct experience of what’s happening, rather than having the moment fractured by thinking. Being mindful of my thoughts is useful because I’ll be able to notice if I’m drifting into storytelling and how that is leading me down a path of suffering and I’m able to change lanes. A teacher in Rishikesh once said that thoughts are like tickets to a destination. Most of the time, we get on a train of thought and off we go, yet if we’re able to use the power of mindfulness, we’re able to see where the train is going and if it’s not leading us in a direction that’s useful, then we’re able to get off the train. So, mindfulness encourages us to notice our thinking patterns so we’re able to discern and change lanes. In my meditation practice, I can notice thinking and then come back to breathing. I’m able to unhook from a thought and come back to what’s happening now. Generally, what’ happening now is fresh and open, and I can go in either direction: I can go back to that thought or I can change lanes.

Why is mindfulness an important element of a yoga practice?

What I understand yoga to be is twofold: The first part is it’s a practice of shifting energy in the body. That can be done through asana (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation. The second part is to do with the vasanas. We all have memories that are stored in our bodies — everything we’ve done is a memory. Some memories, if we keep repeating them, become habitual patterns (vasanas). So, the practice of yoga helps us to free up all of the vasanas — to loosen the bound knots in our own conditioning — to undo these patterns. And how yoga works with mindfulness is to become aware of our own habitual patterns — to become aware of where we shut down or block our capacity to be open, compassionate or loving. Without mindfulness, we’re never aware of these habitual patterns and we’re unable to loosen our own conditioned responses. Through the practice of yoga, we begin to free up and loosen that which binds us — the vasanas — and if you want to marry yoga with mindfulness, I think that’s where it fits. From the texts, but also from my own experience.

What do you think are the most challenging aspects of mindfulness?

The most challenging aspect from my own experience and from listening to other people is consistency with a mindfulness practice. It’s a snowball effect — the more consistent you are, the more mindful you become. There’s that old analogy that the mind is like an open, clear lake. When the water is still, everything can be seen. Yet when the water’s turbulent, nothing can be seen. So, the more you can work with your own mind, the more you can start to see where you shut down, where you’re judging someone, where you’re blocking love, where you’re reacting. Without the mindfulness practice, the water’s all churned up and you’re not even noticing that you’re doing these things or that there are patterns.

A second challenge would be that it’s not always easy. It can be confronting when you meet yourself. Self-inquiry starts when you take a moment just to meet yourself, and when you meet yourself, sometimes it’s not always that pretty. That’s mindfulness of self — and I think to some degree you have to work with self in order to work with other. If you’re not in relationship with self, it’s going to be challenging to notice how you’re in relationship with the world. We’re constantly in this relationship that’s dynamic with the world, but if we’re not noticing our own self and being mindful of our own self, then how can we be mindful at all of our interactions with others and the world?

What has been the most profound lesson you’ve learned from mindfulness?

I’ve been listening a lot to Pema Chödrön — I’ve done a few retreats with her — and she would often talk about how every moment is a fresh moment. Wherever you’re starting from, this moment is the seed for the next moment. There’s so much potential moving forward. That’s the karmic seed — this moment is going to influence what happens next. So, when using mindfulness as a practice, it’s important to remember that the seed of mindfulness is already within us — this ability to be mindful — it’s a natural part of the mind. The mind has its small, analytical thinking part but the mind also has this other aspect that’s aware, attentive and present. So, you can either train your whole life in strengthening patterns of judgement, reactivity, hatred, ego, clinging, or you can strengthen the capacity to be mindful. This moment is the seed for what happens next. For me it’s really useful because we’re all human and we all judge — this is the nature of being human — yet in any moment, when I’m doing that, I can pause and there’s a freshness to the moment amd I can shift the energy. I have the inherent wisdom to shift and change and discern. So mindfulness teaches me that wherever I am, there’s potential. And I don’t have to meditate for hours all day, I can just start right now with what I’ve got and I can grow that seed. I can spend my whole life cultivating the seed of mindfulness.

Rather than a self-help project that’s beneficial for you — mindfulness — you can also practise mindfulness to help others. That’s the Buddhist philosophy of maitrī [loving-kindness]. Mahayana Buddhism will often talk about being mindful so you can be of use to the world. Being mindful so I can help the oceans. Being mindful so I can help others in struggle. Being mindful of my own aggression or anger so that when someone else is angry, I can put myself into their shoes and realise what it feels like to be angry and try to do something that’s useful to that person rather than put wood on their fire. You can use the practice of mindfulness to understand self so that you can be of use to other. You’re doing it for the greater good rather than using the mindfulness practice just to “taste the raison” better. I’m going to use the mindfulness practice to taste the raison and so I can help other people taste the raison too. You’re not preaching it; you’re just living it.

Rachael Coopes (rachaelcoopes.com) is a writer, Play School presenter and yoga teacher trainer but, fundamentally, she is a storyteller. In her 20-year career, she has written, directed and performed in film, television and theatre in Australia, the UK and the US. She’s danced on the Play School stage for thousands of ecstatic toddlers and starred in Australia’s most-loved dramas, developed engaging television for kids and written award-winning theatre for the complex brains of teenagers. She believes we are here to thrive, not survive, and all of her work is created from this place. Instagram: @rachaelcoopes

How do you practise mindfulness as both a yoga teacher and student?

My current mindfulness practice is about staying conscious in the present moment (or atha in Sanskrit). As a student, I notice the moments when I lose consciousness. On the mat, it might look like big feelings about big poses, or an inability to stay with whatever is happening that day. I witness that, and try to pull myself into the present, accept what is and use all of the incredible tools the yoga practice gives us — like alignment, breath and drishti (focus) — to get me present again. Meditation is mandatory because it shows me that no matter how many years I practise and meditate for, concentration and presence are skills we have to work consistently in this day and age. For the past year, I’ve been doing [a] regular Nada Yoga practice too, as it’s so powerful in pulling me into the present, moving from gross to more subtle experiences, and feeling who and what I am beyond form.

Off the mat, I try to be practical and see how often the mind gets caught up in the vrittis, or whirlings of the mind, which takes me away from my current experience, especially in relation to others. Maybe I get triggered and move into one of the kleshas like ego or aversion. I notice when it happens and get curious … It’s fascinating to me how quickly, even after all these years of study, practice and teaching, we can so easily become unconscious and react from that place. Being mindful and taking conscious action is a full-time job!

As a teacher, I do everything I can to be completely present for my students in every moment. In terms of the teaching itself, I do my best to make sure there’s no element of class that is about me reinforcing me. I don’t demo, unless there is some confusion about something or I really want to show something that is challenging for people to feel without seeing. I plan my sequence, playlist and theme and once I walk in the room, I empty myself so I simply bear witness completely to the students. I teach to what is happening in the room in that specific moment, with my words, hands and by holding space. I honour my teachers to remind students, and myself, that none of this stuff comes from me. In every moment my intention is, “How can I get out of the way, so I can best serve this particular group of students in this moment?” But teaching doesn’t start when I start the class. Some of my key teaching moments come from what I say and do before I teach the first asana [pose]. In how I set up the room and hold space in the shala. Every moment of every day, I think it’s my responsibility to be a good teacher, so I try to embody that as best I can at all times — from seeing students in the street or at a café, to when they arrive at the studio or after class. I’m consciously checking in with myself to say what I mean, and mean what I say, listen and hear. I’m mindful of being of service to all students, while having fierce boundaries. I think about what I post on social media, how I carry myself in the community and how I represent the studio I teach for. Of course, I am extremely imperfect at all of this, so thank goodness it’s called a mindfulness “practice”.

Why is mindfulness an important element of a yoga practice?

If we see mindfulness as a state of being conscious and staying present, the practice of yoga gives us very tangible tools to do just this. Of all the words he could have used, Patanjali begins his profound book on yoga with “atha” — now. I honestly believe if we understand this first word, we don’t have to read the rest of his book. Because when we are in the present moment, when we stay completely conscious in every precious millisecond of this life we’ve been given, we are in a state of yoga.

As Shri Brahmananda says, we are in a state where nothing is missing. We’re not projecting into the past or the future. We’re not caught up in the vrittis of the mind. We’re not looking through the smudged glasses of our perceptions. We’re not hankering, hankering, hankering for the next coffee, relationship, experience. We are simply seeing things as they are. We become a witness to our incredible lives.

When he speaks about the eight limbs of yoga, the primary ethical practice Patanjali gives us is “ahimsa” or reducing harm to self and others. The only time we ever really cause harm is when we are unconscious, when we are not in the present moment or atha. So, the antidote then to causing harm — to yourself and your students — is to stay conscious.

What do you think are the most challenging aspects of mindfulness?

I think the pace and demands of the world today make it particularly challenging. Time is precious. And yet we spend it on all the wrong things. We’re always in a rush. We’re overworked and over-tired — Patanjali says fatigue is one of the major obstacles to clarity of mind. We’re attached to devices that are programmed by very smart people and algorithms to keep us distracted and unconscious. In our fleeting catch-ups with those we love, we don’t connect with one another with space and concentration. We’re conditioned to want more instead of sitting with gratitude in what we have. We get information from influencers who have a lot of followers but no knowledge, instead of searching for deep yogic knowledge.

What has been the most profound lesson you’ve learned from mindfulness?

My biggest mindfulness lessons have come from parenting since I’ve had my son, Gabriel. Every stage from the early postnatal days to the current boundary-pushing eight-year-old attitude have had their own challenges in staying conscious. Just recently, my atha was extreme-sports challenging: I sold my apartment, bought a new one, had some rather large challenges in the process of finance and approval, my credit card got skimmed in the week I was moving and a bunch of projects I’d been working on all came off in the same month with delivery imminent. One morning the week we moved, I lost my bundle over Gabriel forgetting a bag with his breakfast in it as we were racing out the door … In that moment, I lost consciousness. It was the last straw after a stressful few months. As a single parent, I had no one to yell at or share the stress with.

So, I unleashed on him: “I CAN’T DO EVERYTHING!” I told him that from now on he will have a “TIMETABLE. In his room. And a LIST of things that need to be done every day.” He quietly said “okay” and asked if I would write them in the order that I wanted them done in. And right there, in the heat of the atha, is the yoga. The opportunity to blame and shame my eight-year-old son for my lack of sleep and over-worked stretching-myself-to-my-limitness. Or to make a mistake, and acknowledge my own darkness, exhaustion and fallibility, and say sorry. I said I was sorry. And then, most importantly, I forgave myself. Yoga doesn’t want our perfection. It wants our presence. To wake up. Again and again and again. I went back and got the brekky. And Gabriel smiled and told me he’s going to use “stress of moving” as an excuse to lose it when he’s a grown-up too one day. There’s no end to the journey of mindfulness. You don’t just work really hard at it, wake up one day and that’s it — you’re a mindful person! It’s a process that never ends. But the more we can embrace the messy reality of trying to stay conscious in the world today with humour — the more we forgive ourselves and others when we stumble in the dark, using those moments of darkness as teachers — the lighter we become.

Naomi Annand is the founder of Yoga on the Lane in London (yogaonthelane.com) and the author of Yoga: A Manual for Life (Bloomsbury). Instagram: @naomiyoga

How do you practise mindfulness as both a yoga teacher and student?

Embracing complexity and the full range of the human experience is essential to yoga, from the way you live your life down to the way you place your mat. I practise mindfulness by accepting my lack of control while paying attention; whether that’s comforting my kids after they’ve hurt themselves, or in listening to a friend grieving. I can do my best to notice sensations in my body as I support others. Mindfulness teaches me to anchor myself.

Why is mindfulness an important element of a yoga practice?

Without our deep awareness, yoga asana [the physical practice] can very quickly become another thing you are trying to be good at. For me, this is the opposite of what I like to practise. Mindfulness is the invitation to acceptance and deep self-kindness.

What do you think are the most challenging aspects of mindfulness?

Having the discipline to do it when life feels chaotic and full. It can be hard to find the time, but once you do it, it just becomes how you live. You find yourself paying radical attention to everything you do. Modestly. Precisely. With as much refinement as you can. It’s not so much that you embrace the discipline, it’s more that you become the discipline unselfconsciously.

What has been the most profound lesson you’ve learned from mindfulness?

In the big pinch points in my life, it’s been a ballast. I’ve found I want to practise when things are hard not because yoga can guarantee happiness, or even necessarily escape. But because its animating principles — deepest acceptance and unwavering non-judgement — are precisely what’s needed in such situations.

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