According to the Yoga Sutras (II.28), the classical text on Yoga, the various Yoga practices enumerated by Patanjali gradually result in diminishing impurities, blockages and obstacles while at the same time unveiling greater knowledge, clarity and awareness. Thus, integrating these practices into our lives helps us gain a better understanding of ourselves so that we can discern between what is essential and what isn’t. One possible application of this is to use that greater clarity to affirm our connections to the ever-present, ever-changing web of life all around us. In this post a simple suggestion to increase our level of awareness.
In our daily lives we often recognize patterns in our circumstances, actions and their consequences. When we are pleased with the outcome of a particular set of actions in a specific setting, the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation we feel inclined to repeat our previous actions in order to replicate our desired outcome. This is a rational and effective way of learning. Consequently, over time, through trial and error, we create useful formulas or scripts to guide our actions toward the results we expect. Along the way, whenever it is possible, we generalize our observations so that our formula or script can be applied in more situations and contexts. Gradually, we gather these formulas to help us navigate many situations and to move through life with more ease.
Many times we use these formulas or scripts to save time, because by using them we feel as if we don’t need to analyze, as we regularly do, our setting, conditions and intentions before taking action. The longer we use a formula, we are more likely to ignore the particulars of a specific situation and assume that the formula will render the expected outcome. However, when the formula we have developed, learned or inherited is applied mechanically, that is without being mindful of our circumstances, needs and options, we might be surprised when our, previously effective formula, does not lead us to the results we have grown to expect.
Usually, the transition from mindful application of our formula to its mechanical use unfolds very gradually, almost imperceptibly. A simple example might help us see this more clearly. For instance, in asana practice, our useful laboratory for experimentation with self-awareness, we may notice that a particular sequence of poses seems to always have a beneficial result on our body, breath, mind or spirit. So we choose to practice the sequence diligently and with honest effort over a period of time. However, as time goes by, since our previous experience indicates the effectiveness of our sequence, or because we feel that we already know the sequence and how to perform it, we assume that we already know the outcome of our actions and focus on the outcome instead of paying close attention to the moment-to-moment experience of the sequence. As a result, we may overlook the feedback we receive constantly from breath, body, mind and heart during our practice. Thus, we choose, consciously or unconsciously, to give up our ability to respond to the particular aspects of the present moment experience, perhaps with unexpected outcomes that may not be necessarily beneficial. In some cases, obtaining unwanted or painful results motivates us to return to mindful conscious action in our practice.
Gradually cultivating imbalance
Many of us frequently feel that the pace of our lives keeps getting faster and faster, or that our lives keep getting busier every day. It is not surprising that many of us want to find shortcuts and formulas to help us save time. In many cases, we move toward mechanical action to save time by not having to pay attention to our moment-to-moment experience. For instance, when we need to walk from point A to point B, we just walk without paying too much attention to the details of the task at hand, because we need to get to our destination. Consequently, we may not be able to notice that we might be putting more weight on one foot or leg than on the other, or that we twist our pelvis slightly to one side with every step. As we repeat this action over and over again, we gradually, and unconsciously, cultivate a physical imbalance. Furthermore, that strong focus on results usually requires that we ignore the feedback we constantly receive at all levels, in our breath, bodies, hearts and minds. Hence, it is not surprising that, in order to capture our attention, the feedback we receive tends to grow louder, gradually moving from mild discomfort towards pain.
As it was mentioned at the beginning of this post, Yoga, through a wide range of techniques, helps us move towards greater clarity and awareness. One simple way to increase our clarity is to cultivate our ability to observe. When something moves fast, it is difficult for us to perceive with clarity the event and its characteristics. Slowing down our actions gives us enough time to notice what is happening because it forces us to pay attention to what we are doing. As we mentioned before, we can start by focusing our attention on our breath as a way to immerse in the present moment. Then we can observe the complexity of even the simplest action. For instance, slowing down considerably our pace when walking will help us notice with greater clarity the way we lift each foot the ground, how we move the leg and foot forward and we plant the foot on the ground again. As we continue this process we can compare the two feet. We can also notice how the pelvis, shoulders, arms and head move with each step. In this process we may start recognizing patterns that affect our gait and its level of ease and smoothness or lack thereof. Then we can choose consciously if there is anything we need to do to make our gait better. Along these lines we previously suggested to slow down our pace when eating to enjoy our food more and to improve our health, which aligns with some of the ideas in the slow food movement.
Slowing down in controlled settings
It seems we find ourselves at a crossroads. On one hand there are multiple demands on our time, energy and attention, requiring of us to focus on results, thus ignoring the minute details of life around us. On the other hand, slowing down seems to be a good way to gain a better understanding of our circumstances and actions, thereby facilitating a more mindful participation in life.
Clearly, slowing down all of our actions is not practical for most of us. However, slowing down the pace of some of our actions can be an excellent way to focus our attention on what is truly important. My suggestion is to continue using our Yoga practice as our laboratory for exploration. Slowing down the pace in our asana practice is a simple change that works at multiple levels. It can help us notice where we tend to be less mindful. It also requires us to breathe more consciously, thus improving our connection with the breath and perhaps even our breathing capacity. In addition, it may help us notice where different aspects of our practice need more integrity. In addition, slowing down our pace, strengthens our mind by making it stay focused on the myriad aspects of every pose. Moreover, practicing at a slower pace helps to improve our patience and can make our practice safer as we are paying closer attention to the feedback we receive from breath, body and mind. Finally, all of these benefits will eventually start emerging also beyond our yoga mat.
I hope these ideas are helpful in your journey towards greater clarity.