“If someone gets stuck when climbing up a tree, you do not tell them to let go; you guide them to find and hold on to a higher branch.” – A.G. Mohan
Today I had the good fortune of going to a Mindfulness in Yoga workshop with A.G. Mohan and Indra Mohan. I came away feeling hopeful, inspired and with a determination to put some of their key teachings into practice. What more can you ask?!
Without regurgitating the entire workshop contents (though highly recommend you go see them for yourself, if you get the chance), I thought I’d share just a few of their thought-provoking insights:
- Though the current ‘big thing’ and arguably the latest bandwagon as far as we stressed-out Westerners are concerned, mindfulness is nothing new. Classical yoga texts like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have been banging on about it for millenia! Mohan hinted at the potential for ‘turf wars’ between Yoga and Buddhist camps about ‘ownership’ of the whole mindfulness gig, but dismissed as a matter of religious politics, so I won’t indulge this line of debate.
- Mindfulness is cultivating the ability to focus the mind on our present activity or thought process. However, Mohan drew an important distinction: we can ‘mindfully’ drink a bottle of whisky (that would be red wine, in my case); we can ‘mindfully’ injure or harm another person. Mindfulness alone cannot lead us to enduring happiness and peace – samadhi (enlightenment). Rather we need to ‘mind our mind’: recognising the difference between a ‘dumb’ mindful awareness and mindfulness with a quality of discernment; tuning into ‘right’ thought or action. Not necessarily ‘right’ in a strictly ethical sense as the lines can be blurred, but in the sense of having the right intention to promote peace and happiness, within ourselves and the world at large.
- Mindfulness is simple. People make it seem harder or over-analyse it, which in itself can be destructive. The mind is naturally drawn towards pleasurable experiences, and conversely resists painful or unpleasant ones. The only way to encourage the mind to dwell in stillness is to offer it the chance to experience the pleasure of peace, the sattvic (light, pure) quality that can arise in the mind when we bring it to single-pointed focus on an appropriate object or concept. If we force the practice, or beat ourselves up because we lapse for a few days or feel like ‘we’re not doing it right’ the mind will naturally resist sustaining our efforts and it becomes a battle of will, which in itself is a barrier to happiness and wellbeing.
- Yoga is simple too…: it doesn’t need to involve complicated asana work: crow poses, headstands and the like. The simplest postures and movements, connected with breath and mind give us the opportunity to purify and unify our body, mind and breath.
- …Yet yoga still has immense power for self-transformation; but not if we do the postures without engaging our mind. This is pramada: which roughly translates as carelessness in relation to mental activity or lack of attentiveness; ‘tuning out’ or being swept away in the current of thought. Rather than being a ‘work-out’, yoga should be a ‘work-in’. One of the most effective techniques for this is to use the mind to link our voluntary movement with our involuntary (to a point) breath. We did some simple asana practice, containing simple, dynamic movements within each inhalation and exhalation.
- Finally, Mohan pointed out that although we may lack practical time (i.e. time to act) there is often no such shortage of mental time (i.e. time to think, to be mindful). Whatever we are doing or thinking, we can do so mindfully. Even in a busy day we can pause for a moment, be attentive to our breath, our bodies, our thoughts, repeat a mantra, focus on any object or idea that promotes lightness and peace. In his words, this is the only path to lasting happiness, and I have to say, I’m convinced.
What struck me most as Mohan presented his teachings was his own lightness of spirit, and not just in his delivery, which was frequently interspersed with light-hearted anecdotes and jokes. His was the antithesis of the ‘push the posture/beat yourself up/abandon all external pleasures immediately’, ascetic approach to yoga.