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Cultivating mindfulness, not mindlessness

By Amanda Mack

At a recent training I attended, participants were asked to write down some of our different identities and to then identify both positive and negative assumptions made by the broader culture regarding those identities. Yoga teacher was one of mine. Positive perceptions associated with yoga teacher included words like peaceful, calm, flexible, perhaps evolved even. On the flip side, negative perceptions might include descriptors like vacuous or not very intelligent. The exercise got me ruminating over the polarities of the yoga teacher identity. In a busy culture like ours, is being peaceful and calm synonymous with not being very smart? I resist this narrative that the earned state of mindfulness is unintelligent. Indeed, I would like to see our culture get to a place where the practice of mindfulness that we cultivate in yoga is taught, understood, respected and even revered. Mindfulness is a much needed tool that can help us navigate the pressing issues of our time with more love and compassion as opposed to the easier choice of fear.

Master yoga teachers like the late B.K.S. Iyengar or, for that matter, Lynne Minton, a highly respected yoga teacher who has taught so many of us for years here in Anchorage, are revered for their deep wisdom and understanding of yoga. That being said, when telling people that I teach yoga, the pause that follows often begs the question: But what do you really do? I know that is a question my parents have wondered about for years. My choice to be a stay-at-home mom and teach yoga on the side goes against their vision for how I might otherwise put my advanced degree to work. That made it especially satisfying to lead my whip smart 79-year-old mother into a state of mindfulness when she recently attended my yoga class. She, who always has a quick-witted response to any and all things, was without words after class when trying to describe how she felt. She finally stammered, “I feel so…mindless.” She was clearly anxious to jump start all of the familiar threads of intersecting thoughts about what she needed to do or what I should have already thought to do that are a constant whir inside her brain. But just for a moment after class, they were nowhere to be found. Miraculously, I had facilitated “the cessation of the fluctuations of her conscious mind,” a translation of the second of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a 2000 year old collection of verses that create the foundation for yoga philosophy. She was clearly unsettled by it.

In response to my mom’s use of the word “mindless,” I said, “Instead of ‘mindless,’ how about ‘spacious’? You know, it’s like having a clean countertop…in our mind. We are so much more productive with clean surfaces, right?” I knew she could relate to this analogy because miraculously our kitchen counter was never cluttered when I was growing up. “Yoga and meditation clean out the clutter in our mind so we can think more clearly, have bigger ideas, pursue solutions,” I added. She nodded and went home to nap off this strange earned state she had achieved yet not entirely willingly.

Over time, yoga practitioners begin to realize that the natural bliss state achieved through our practice is a reflection of our truest and highest self. We want to spend more time in that state of mindfulness and we learn ways of taking our yoga off the mat. For example, we turn to pranayama techniques to connect with the breath to regain our composure and make life-affirming choices in any given moment. We learn to align ourselves with our higher power – our highest and best self that is enlivened by a wisdom that is greater than the self – more often than we did before. The desire to cultivate mindfulness – a sense of well-being and good will toward others including ourselves, the sense that we are in the flow of life and inherently connected to one another – is the hook that brings practitioners back to the mat time and again.

Like my mom who in 79 years had never experienced the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, there are clearly obstacles that stand in our way to achieving more mindfulness in our lives. Inherent in yoga philosophy is tapas or purification through discipline. There are so many distractions in life that prevent us from committing the time to pursue what our broader culture and therefore individuals may perceive as “mindless” pursuits. For example, our cell phones that connect us to people, information, entertainment – whatever we want right now – are, at times, like a “mindless” drug that fills our minds beyond capacity with both useful and completely useless information and connection. How can we cultivate the ability to discern when to step away? And where do we begin the process of filtering out the useless information we have let in? What is our mechanism for releasing the pressure valves of our minds? We so often turn to a glass of wine or other vices to relax and unwind. The resulting numbing quality is similar to a yoga buzz in the moment but instead of working through, it promotes avoidance. With the mindfulness that results from tapas or committing to a sustained yoga practice, we grow, we move on from what no longer serves us, we evolve.

In general, we resist change. Yet, in the times in which we are living, it is imperative that we look anew at our daily choices. Instead of doing the things we have always done, yoga can help us find new solutions for old but evermore pressing problems like climate change. How can we reduce our carbon footprints to ensure a bright future for our children? As a culture, we need to face such challenges head on, assess how to accelerate our individual and collective rate of change, and then make those changes. To do it, we need to move on from avoidance and denial and, instead, cultivate healthy mindfulness practices like yoga to help us navigate a path forward. Mindfulness, not mindlessness, will move us forward. The space cultivated in our minds is where we set the stage for new ways of being and new actions to emerge.

Amanda Mack teaches Hatha Yoga classes at The Yoga Collective on Wednesdays from 12:00 p.m. - 1:00 p.m. and Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m....

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