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Mindfulness and Yoga

Being a novice to yoga I was delighted to have our instructor closing off our sessions with a 15-minute mindfulness meditation. This led me to ruminate over the weeks of yoga and my own mindfulness practice about the similarities and differences between yoga and mindfulness. I see more similarities than differences.

Being a newbie to yoga I was under the mistaken impression yoga was simply a form of body movement. In reality it is really a philosophy. Ingrid Wirsig is a Toronto based yoga therapist, who is certified with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT) comments,” In the West, we have been taught that yoga is simply a series of postures with maybe some breathing and meditation thrown in. In fact, is an ancient philosophy, science, and practice with the goal of relieving human suffering. Yogic wisdom was originally passed down from guru (spiritual teacher) to student and eventually branched into various lineages. At its core is the principle that everything in the universe is connected – everyone and everything is part of nature and fueled by life force (prana) that is all encompassing and unchanging. Suffering occurs when we are ignorant of this connection, when we identify with what is seen (our thoughts, our bodies, our emotions, nature, etc.) rather than the one who sees (the Self). Yoga is a mind-body-spirit practice that helps us move away from ignorance toward enlightenment. It is not dogmatic. It invites each practitioner to find their own way and offers many paths.”

I think that in part both yoga and mindfulness train expend much effort so that you focus on the moment. For yoga it is what is happening to your body in the present and for mindfulness it is largely what is happening in your mind in the present. Of course if doing yoga you are concentrating totally on the body and much like mindfulness you are totally mentally absorbed in the activity.

Both yoga and mindfulness improve brain health and may act as an antidote to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

It is too easy to say yoga is physical and mindfulness mental. While I do not see much evidence of physicality in mindfulness there is a strong mental element to yoga. Its not simply pressing weights and somewhat mindlessly running on a treadmill but requires a keen attention to how your muscles, particularly core muscles, are reacting to a particular position. And yoga is a philosophy. I do not think mindfulness can yet be considered a philosophy although it is in many respects deeply influenced by Daoist and Buddhist philosophy. The way I have seen Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction used is that they have been stripped of spirituality. They are technical tools, It was only when I took university courses on mindfulness that the spiritual and philosophical influences were discussed.

“Mindfulness is an essential component of yoga because it teaches us to be aware of our thoughts, our emotions, of our sensations so that we can examine them. So that we can know our true unchanging self. Physical practice (asana) is one of the many tools of yoga because it supports mind-body awareness and helps us understand connection.” says Wirsig who continues on to say, “I think it is helpful and maybe even essential for most people to bring a physical awareness practice as part of their overall mindfulness practice. However, it may not be essential for everyone. There are as many paths as there are people.”

Both a successful mindfulness and yoga practice require discipline. You can’t simply leave a mindfulness or yoga training session and call yourself a practitioner of yoga or mindfulness. You need to practice outside the classroom to develop your practice. Developing a rich yoga or mindfulness practice takes years.

Like it or not both mindfulness and yoga have a rich historical and spiritual background however both can be taught without a whisper of spirituality. I had to obtain University of Leiden certification in mindfulness to get a glimpse of the Buddhist and Daoist traditions behind mindfulness. I think that this is because both commercialized versions of yoga and mindfulness serve a purpose. For yoga it is exercise and fitness. For mindfulness it is seen as a tool for cognitive therapy or stress reduction. I think it is through your own reading and effort you’ll be better able to understand the spiritual background behind mindfulness and yoga. Believe it or not yoga also has therapeutic uses”. Wirsig comments, “ Modern research around clinical applications for yoga has exploded in the last 10-15 years. While yoga research is still in its early stages, Dr. Timothy McCall, MD, C-IAYT (http://www.drmccall.com), a certified yoga therapist, has been compiling yoga research. It’s available in a document called “101 Health Conditions Benefited by Yoga (as found in scientific studies as of October 2016)”http://www.drmccall.com/uploads/2/2/6/5/22658464/101healthconditionshelpedbyyoga.pdf.

Both yoga and mindfulness have suffered from commercialization. They are both profitable businesses. Do yoga mats and apparel really have anything to do with yoga. Does mindfulness tea have anything to do with mindfulness? With profit there is often greed and selfishness not key components to your health.

Both yoga and mindfulness are creeping into the corporate sector. Why? The Human Resources Department will tell you a heart-warming story of destressing, coming together as a team and wellness. I’ll leave it up to you to assess that story. If the real goal is to reduce long term disability costs what a pernicious blow to yoga and mindfulness.

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