Yay! Dale, a dancing friend, asked me something about my “mental practices” blog post last week and we had a real life conversation because of this blogging-business. I bet you can imagine how excited I am about that. (swelling happy heart)
So in our conversation, we were talking about mental practices of yoga vs.plain ol’ stretching and Pat, a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method, joined in. He made a solid point: he said that we can’t really have a physical practice that doesn’t involve a mental practice; “We aren’t bodies walking around without brains, and there aren’t any brains walking around without bodies out there.” Mind and body aren’t ever truly separate, right? This got me thinking…Our bodies and minds are connected and they work together. Sometimes the result is positive and sometimes not.
Habits vs. Practices
We all have patterns of movement and ways of thinking that are habitual and we reinforce these patterns every time we repeat them. Habits are established, sometimes for a good reason, and then we continue the action without having to spend our every moment making decisions about hot to react or what to do or what comes next because a habit is in place. Sometimes, we need to evaluate whether the habit continues to serve us and helps us to live the life that we want . If the habit is brushing teeth every night before bed, then after evaluation, you’ll probably conclude that teeth are valuable and you want to eat solid food when you are 90 so that’s one worth keeping. If the habit is hunching in the shoulders (for girls this can start about the time breasts start to emerge) and at 35, the slouching habit is still hanging on, then maybe you’ll decide to ditch the slouch.
Practices are conscious choices to behave or move the body in a particular way. Practices are mindful and done with intention and we change our habits with practices that continue over time. Sloucher will need to practice strengthening the rhomboids between the shoulder blades, the erectors along the spine, lengthen the pecs and learn to rotate the arm bones externally so that the collarbones are lifted. Sloucher will also practice different ways of thinking so she can stick with the physical practice, let go of embarrassment of breasts, or whatever mental habits were getting in the way of lovely alignment and healthy posture.
Can stretching be a mindful and intentional practice? Sure. Can stretching aim to change unwanted patterns of mind and body? Yep. When stretching is done mindfully and with intention, is that really all that different from yoga? It depends. In the Anusara yoga training manual, John Friend gives us his thoughts on the topic.
The three A’s (Attitude, Alignment and Action) distinguish yoga from mere exercise or stretching. The main intention of stretching is to increase flexibility and mobility. Stretching often aims at creating maximum sensation, usually in a localized area of the body, whereas yoga, performed with the three A’s, has a profound spiritual intention, a high degree of mindfulness, precise alignment and balanced energetic action. Also, yoga focuses on extending the light of awareness evenly throughout the body.
I like this. Attitude, Alignment and Action with spiritual intention and a whole-body awareness set yoga apart. Notice that asana (the physical practice of postures) isn’t specified here. The “mental-practices” of yoga can happen in anything that we do—zumba, stretching, gardening, painting, if it includes the mindful awareness and intention mentioned above. The 8-limb system of Yoga is special because it offers us a comprehensive, time-tested and spiritual approach to the integration of mind, body and spirit. Through yoga, the mental and physical practices are a means through which we can unite with our true nature.