The articles our members submitted on our theme for the winter issue show that yoga offers many pathways for approaching the heart–mind connection:
Yves Panneton’s article Defining Yoga, provides an overview of the classical viewpoint that yoga is a holistic practice that reduces the dissonance we experience between the plurality of human experience and the unity of creation. Samantha Howick’s Move From Within unveils the heart–mind–body connection through a look at the koshas. An Ayurveda practitioner, Mona Warner looks at how the eight limbs of yoga work within the Ayurvedic tradition to support our health. Other writers provide insights into how specific aspects of a yoga practice provide a bridge between body, heart, mind and spirit. We even hear from young students about how yoga makes them feel on these different planes. The variety and richness of the articles are not surprising since a concern with how we integrate all aspects of ourselves, on both a personal level and within all of creation, is at the core of yoga.
I believe this is the reason that many of us are drawn to yoga yet, in many classes today, particularly those offered outside of yoga studios, yoga is reduced to strictly an asana practice. I am not advocating that we inappropriately push yoga philosophy at students who, among other things, may have primarily shown up for a workout, or who come from diverse cultural backgrounds and religious traditions, or who may find the more rarefied aspects of a yoga practice unpalatable. However, I do think that yoga offers us many “tools” that can be used to make these classes richer and which can open doorways to students integrating their experiences and the physical, mental and emotional aspects of the self.
For my contribution to the heart–mind connection, I offer a sampling of yogic practices that can be easily integrated into just about any class and which can help connect bodies, hearts and minds. (Not surprisingly, some of these practices came up in contributors’ articles.)
First, and foremost, pranayama. Encouraging people to become aware of their breath and to link breath and movement is one of the most basic ways of making an asana class more than just exercise. Integrating the breath brings awareness on another level, affects the nervous system and with that the emotions and focus.
While I always remind people that they may return to their own natural pattern of breathing if what I am keying is uncomfortable for them, I do prompt people (with more or less frequency, depending on the level and experience, of the class) to inhale as they rise or expand and exhale as they fold or contract. I also encourage deep, long even breaths. Along with that, I ask people to be aware that when their breathing becomes labored, short or rapid that they should look at what they are doing in asana and assess whether it is appropriate for them.
More advanced pranayama practices that can be safely and easily incorporated are Breath of Joy, Pulling Prana, Power Hara, Yogic Three-Part Breath, Bee Breath or Alternate Nostril Breathing. (Clearly there are other breath practices that would work as well but because I primarily teach people who tend to be shallow, upper chest breathers and who can benefit from deeper breathing, I tend to focus on pranayama that encourages that.)
Keying to sensation. I encourage people to be aware of what they are feeling on a physical level (e.g. discomfort, comfort, tension, compression), energetic level (e.g. relaxed, depleted, hyperactive…) or emotional level (grounded, content, agitated, impatient…) as they hold or move in and out of postures. This helps students build more self-awareness and develop an understanding of what the practice is eliciting. If postures are held for a longer period of time, it also allows for some reflection on why feelings are arising or why one is responding in a certain way.
Learning to identify different sensations ultimately leads to a better sense of one’s own equilibrium and better awareness of when something is “going off” or becoming unhealthy.
Sound and mantra. LifeForce™ training and a teacher with a love of mantras are to thank for this addition to my classes. Adding sound to some of the postures can focus the mind, open the heart or serve other purposes. A favorite in my Seniors’ classes is taking Goddess, deepening it with a couple of knee bends, then expanding up into a five pointed star, all accompanied by a loud, strong “Dhi-Ri-Ha”. It’s very empowering, particularly for people who are often silenced. Try it. Last time we did it, I looked out at 30 smiling people who were practicing not just with their bodies but also with their hearts. (For more on this see Amy Weintraub’s work.)
Incorporating mantra into your playlist or as spoken word in your classes is a simple way of facilitating a more meditative approach to asana practice (and may be more accessible to people who are not receptive to “traditional” meditation).
Meditation. While most asana classes do not lend themselves to incorporating long meditations, it is possible to make brief meditation a part of the class. A short period to close the eyes and focus on the breath at the beginning or the end of the class. A brief guided meditation (like visualizing a place that brings a sense of peace or joy, perhaps with contemplation of why it does). Savasana with a focus on the contact of the body with the ground… There are many possibilities and I like to vary my approach since what’s a way in for one person may not be a way in for another.
Svadhyaya. Although full-blown self-study doesn’t have a place in these classes, brief pauses in which people can reflect on their thoughts or feelings and, perhaps, begin to understand their origins, textures, meanings or manifestations are helpful. (e.g. “What do I feel/think when I am asked to hold a posture longer than is easy for me? What does this tell me?”)
Brief thought provoking quotations, stories or anecdotes.
Often teachers use these at the beginning of class to establish a theme or set the tone for a class. What if we ask people to dig a little deeper and look at their responses to these words? (e.g. Why do you like or dislike this story? Do you agree or disagree with the quotation? How do you see this at work in your own life?)
These are just a few ideas for encouraging the heart–mind connection in an asana class. I’d love to hear more from our members.
The articles published in Canadian Yogi represent the views of the writers. Canadian Yogi is a forum for our members to exchange ideas and information. Articles do not necessarily represent the Canadian Yoga Alliance’s position.