Yoga is a Present Moment Practice

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With asana and pranayama, we can tune into the present moment through our yoga practice.

Yoga comes in many forms and expressions. Even the Bhagavad Gita defines yoga in many different ways throughout the text. However, a common thread that weaves through all our conceptions of yoga is that it is meant to bring us to the present moment.

The asana practice is by far the most popular expression of yoga. Combining breath with movement nudges us toward a disciplined way to stay in the present moment. Once we learn the poses, embody the Ujjayi breath, our minds quickly find an inroads to our practice. It asks us to anticipate the next pose, to correct the alignment of our current one, to “hang in there” when we just want to leave. The mind notices your belly folding more than you would like it to as you bring your head toward your knee, sees the cute outfit (and body) the girl in front of us has, can keep us striving, or beg us to collapse. Suddenly, our yoga practice becomes a mirror to the mental processes we engage in off our mats. The very thing that is meant to help us change our minds, drop the critical voice, and clear our heads can inadvertently become a practice of more of the same.

Luckily, this marriage of breath and movement does seem to slow the chatter down a bit. Most often, by the end of practice, the mind can wind itself down and Savasana can gift us with a few moments of blissful, wide-open awareness.

What if we could assist the process during the rest of our practice? What if we could continually bring the mind back to noticing the body and the breath in a bigger way? To get really good at something, one needs to practice. So instead of a 5-minute practice of present moment blissful silence at the end, wouldn’t you prefer a little more time spent truly in the moment?

The mind is always there and it loves to help us out by piping up. As a physical therapist with a more alignment-based asana background, my mind was excessively good at seeing where I could tweak a pose - tighten my thigh, lengthen my spine, rotate a bit more, have the correct Drishti. How I could "be better" was a part of myself that I was already quite practiced at. This non-acceptance. The “If only I...then I can have....”

Alignment does matter because it keeps us safe. However, alignment isn’t yoga. Achieving a rewarding arm balance that you've dedicated effort toward is fantastic, but the pursuit of perfection isn’t yoga, and wishing you had that cute body and style like the girl in front of you definitely isn’t yoga. The coolest part about the yoga practice is that it never ends. Like most things in life, there is always more to learn and embody.

Because the mind likes a job, it may help to give it one. We already have the mind moving us from pose to pose, inhaling and exhaling through the structured moments. Try training it now to curiously watch and feel every moment of your movement and to acceptingly notice the poses you hold. Notice the miracle of breath flowing in and out. Notice what the mind says, how it talks to you, and just like in your meditation practice, gently guide it back to the body and breath. Listen to the teacher as she guides you to the next pose. Even if you know where she’s going, wait and see. Pretend you don’t “know” and instead, receive the words. Pay special close attention to the transitions between the poses and observe in wonder that your body can do these complex movements. Notice the places that hold more tension than necessary (check your jaw and face, for example). Change the things that are keeping you from feeling good, but also bask as much as possible in the actual experience of your asana practice.

When you get those blissful pauses in your practice, let yourself settle instead of anticipating the next cue. Take your time and when it gets hard, notice how your mind reacts. Let it be hard, all the while taking care of what your body actually needs. Like alignment, the messages from your nervous system are there to keep you safe. Nonetheless, be curious - is it safety you actually need or is this just an old message? Should you hold the pose a little longer or adjust what you’re doing?

Curiosity opens your system up to allow for many possibilities because it keeps you grounded in the moment. The mind likes certainty. It likes to know. Try adjusting your perspective toward one of wonder and awe at your body, your breath, these strange shapes you’re bending into, and the patterning of your thoughts. Find a greater sense of appreciation for your teacher’s voice and the miracle of the community around you who decided to gather to do these funny movements for a common purpose. It changes your perspective. It encourages you to be here now. Unknowing and existing spaciously beyond your thoughts. Now you are doing yoga.

About the Author

Lisa West

Lisa West is a physical therapist, bodyworker, writer, and yoga teacher living in Ventura, CA. She specializes in helping people get into and fall in love with their bodies, and has an especially keen interest in finding ways to soothe the nervous system so we can find more peace and welcome ourselves home. Lisa is the author of "Follow the Feeling: A Roadmap to Emotional Freedom", available on Amazon or through her website.


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