Among Yoga practitioners there are often enlightening discussions about the appropriate level of the practice or the right balance between the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of the practice. I believe that each person’s Yoga practice is a reflection of his or her own ideas, bodies, body histories, beliefs, emotional states, interests, etc. For instance, in asana practice, the practice with most easily observable external signs, closely watching two different people’s expression of the same pose or the same sequence of poses will reveal subtle and not so subtle differences. In addition, each person’s own practice varies from one day to the next. Some days we wake up feeling energetic and ready for a physical challenge and other days we feel like staying in shavasana (corpse or relaxation pose) the whole day. Of course, we are in charge of our own practice, that is, we are responsible for making mindful decisions about how our practice should unfold each day. Nevertheless, as humans, we have a tendency to want quick answers that work in all cases, rules of thumb that, particularly in this day and age, make us act more efficiently. Unfortunately, many times these rules of thumb become shortcuts that keep us from thinking. For instance, some times a physically demanding practice is exactly what we need to feel energized, whereas other times a restorative practice is the right thing to do given what we have planned for the rest of the day. In either case, being fully aware of how we feel and what we need is the starting point for a mindful practice, that is a practice that is perfect for what we need at that time.
Types of Practice
Mindful practice does not necessarily mean serious or boring. Mindful practice can be a lot of fun. An excellent example of mindful practice is the type of Yoga that Erich Schiffmann practices and teaches, often called Freeform Yoga. He gives a succinct and helpful explanation at the beginning of this video:
However, if one feels compelled to practice according to a different structure, such as following the same specific sequence of poses every time, the practice can be done either mindfully or mindlessly. For instance, there are numerous examples of beautiful, intense and mindful Yoga practice following a tradition with a regular sequence of poses, like Ashtanga Yoga, as can be seen in this video with David Swenson:
There is nothing intrinsic to the type of practice that will make it more or less mindful, more intense, challenging or fun than the other. Instead, in my opinion, it is the quality of our participation that makes the practice deep and intense. The depth and intensity of the practice are a result of the level of integration of body, breath, mind and spirit.
My own way of seeing mindful practice in action is what I call reaching the Radiance Point. Some of the words associated with the idea of Radiance are delight, pleasure, joy, warmth, brightness and glow. In our asana practice, our expression of any pose moves along a continuum between softness and firmness and strength and flexibility. The Radiance Point refers to all aspects of the practice, breath, concentration, physical challenge. For example, we can choose to be in a pose with more softness than firmness, more firmness than softness or we can strike the Radiance Point, the perfect balance between softness and firmness. In other words, at the Radiance Point we are going neither beyond nor below our capacity and ability. The Radiance Point, most likely, almost certainly, will change from one day to the next, because it will be influenced by how well rested we are, what we ate recently, how we feel mentally and physically, etc. Obviously, the more we practice a certain pose, the Radiance Point will vary according to our evolving level of ability. We know that we have reached the Radiance Point in our practice when we experience a sensation of grounded lightness, balance, joy, delight and glow.
The Quality of Our Attention
We all practice Yoga for different reasons and with different objectives in mind. However, I assume that for all of us, our practice –whether it is expressed through asana, pranayama, Yoga Nidra, meditation, or any other way — regardless of the style or level of it, is a practice that leaves us energized, relaxed and balanced. The quality of our attention to the practice is what keeps it from becoming a mechanical repetition of techniques or poses. The quality of our attention, how mindful our practice is, helps us develop the sensitivity needed to fine tune and integrate the different aspects of our being to reach the Radiance Point. I think this is what Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra II.46 is about: Sthira-sukham-asanam, the pose is at the same time steady and comfortable.