“If the body is not cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated,” said the Buddha. “There is one thing that when cultivated and regularly practiced leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and suffering. And what is that one thing? Mindfulness centered on the body.”
In the book The Issue at Hand, from which the above quotation comes, Gil Fronsdal tells us that his teacher once said, “Do not do anything that takes you out of your body.” This simply means, don’t go away. Don’t do anything that will take you away. Stay present, and pay attention to the body.
Not only are physical sensations present in the body, emotions are also felt in the body. Thoughts may be heard in the head, but feelings, physically or emotionally, must be noticed in the body. This is one of the big reasons that all forms of yoga are so great at taking us down the path to meditation. In yoga we feel the body, we feel the breath, and we notice anything that distracts us or takes us away from this moment of sensation. Consider a time when you felt a strong emotion – wasn’t there an accompanying tension or sensation somewhere physically? That knot in your belly, that quiver in your voice, the flush in your cheeks, the pain at the base of your neck Buddhist psychology teaches that emotions are embodied: we just need to notice them.
The Buddha was quite clear that there is a big difference between a sensation and our reaction, between pain and suffering. When we really pay attention to what we are feeling, we start to notice that what we thought was suffering is something else. In his book Who Dies, Stephen Levine uses this difference in a very helpful and skillful way for those who are dying or in constant pain. He teaches his clients to really investigate the sensations, to ask themselves to note exactly what they are experiencing. You can ask if the sensation is sharp or dull. Is it burning or cool? Where exactly is it? Does it move around, or does it stay in one place? Does it come and go, or is it constant? Does the size and shape of the affected area change? The more we can notice, the further away we take the sensation from any associated suffering.
As we meditate, we ask the same questions. If our original anchor is the breath, we seek to return to awareness of the breath. However, if a sensation in the body constantly arises that is so powerful that it pulls our awareness away from the breath, we change the object of our concentration and go with that sensation. We watch the sensation with the same curiosity and commitment that we were watching the breath. Curiosity is a wonderful gift to use in meditation. Strive to be as curious and as focused as a cat. What are you actually feeling at this moment?
Drop any ideas of what you think you are feeling. Often we allow a memory of some past pain (or pleasure) to replace what is really being felt. Or, without our noticing, a fear that we may begin to feel a new pain replaces, in anticipation, the actual current sensation. We imagine a feeling that hasn’t arrived yet. Don’t fall for these old tricks of the mind. Notice what is present right now.
Yin Yoga is an excellent time to develop our skill in watching sensations; there will be lots of sensations all over the body. If one becomes predominant, and prevents you from focusing on the breath, go with that predominant sensation. Notice everything, as Levine suggests. Also notice if, along with the physical sensation, emotions have arisen. This is not uncommon when we do any work with the hips. Often emotions such as anger or irritation will arise when we open this area. Be open to this arising.
Not all emotions need to be strong or overwhelming, of course. Most of the time, the emotions are so mild we don’t even notice they exist. But, they are there if we look for them. It is rare that we are not experiencing any emotion. The emotion may be contentment or mild joy, unease or mild anxiety. Irritation can arise for a moment. A common emotion, for students just beginning Yin Yoga, is boredom. The mind is used to being stimulated, and rebels at doing nothing.
Fronsdal tells us that there are four aspects to being mindful of emotions:
- Recognition – we first recognize that an emotion has arisen
- Naming – once we know an emotion is present, what is it?
- Acceptance – this is yin! Allow the emotion to be present.
- Investigation – drop any judgments about the emotion, and look at it with fresh eyes.
Fronsdal then goes on to suggest ways to become mindful of our thoughts. This is a much deeper and more challenging practice.