In this piece, Stephen Cope, director of Kripalu's Institute for Extraordinary Living, investigates how and why practices like yoga and meditation create a sense of well-being and ease.
Recently, I was talking on the phone with my friend Sandy, who had just gone through an unexpected relationship meltdown. Her partner, Tim, she said, had suddenly developed "intimacy issues" and had fled the relationship "like a rat off a sinking ship."
For an hour or so, we talked about the difficulties of her situation. She expressed her sense of disorientation and sadness. Toward the end, she said something interesting: "Thank God I have my yoga practice." I could feel the gratitude in her voice. "It's a little island of sanity. Like coming home. That hour between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. has become the most important hour of my day."
Musing over our conversation later, I thought, I really know what she means. Coming home. That's my experience precisely. I go to my yoga mat almost every afternoon around 4:00. I look forward to it, and most days I find it remarkably soothing. As I go through my little rituals of preparation -- rolling out the mat, tidying up the yoga space, perhaps putting on some quiet music -- my body begins to relax. Even my mind begins to relax. And this happens before I've done a single posture.
Almost everyone I know who has a regular yoga practice experiences some version of this feeling. But how does it work? How, exactly, does yoga cultivate this sense of well-being -- one so profound that it can antidote even Sandy's current emotional devastation?
As a teacher, I'm often asked to give an explanation for the deep sense of well-being that arises in yoga. Some are looking for a complex scientific description -- perhaps a description of changes in cortisol levels or other subtle changes in brain chemistry. Some would rather hear about the mysteries of the energy body -- the raising of kundalini up the shushumna (central energy core of the body), and the opening of the third eye.
All of these explanations do apply, of course. Postures and breathing change brain and body chemistry: heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, brain-wave activity -- all these things change, and decidedly for the better. And subtle energies do integrate. That's true, too.
But more and more, the well-being -- the homecoming -- cultivated by yoga postures just seems much simpler to me. What is the potent active ingredient in our homecoming? I believe it is primarily the practice of being present for experience -- a practice that generations of seekers have called mindfulness.
What, exactly, is this "mind-full-ness"? Mindfulness is the direct, immediate, and vivid experience of whatever is arising here and now. It is a nonjudgmental awareness that does not get caught up in thoughts or concepts or "stories" of any kind. It is sometimes called "bare attention." Mindfulness is simply "knowing" an experience -- just as it is.
What's amazing is that we don't really have to learn this "direct and vivid knowing of phenomena" at all. This immediate knowing is the true nature of the mind and heart. When we momentarily drop all the other things we're doing with our minds -- thinking, analyzing, comparing, judging, craving -- mindfulness emerges quite effortlessly. It is like the ground underneath us -- always there, whether we're aware of it or not.
Don't take my word for this: Find out for yourself! Perhaps right now. Just for a few moments, simply sit, breathe comfortably (close your eyes if you'd like), and allow yourself to be at ease. Stop reading, stop all activity, and notice what happens.
If you took a couple of minutes to do this little experiment, you probably noticed that a whole spectrum of phenomena of which you were entirely unaware just a moment ago gradually came into perceptual range -- sounds, thoughts, feelings, sensations. I interrupted my writing to do the exercise, and here are the notes I wrote immediately afterwards: "The whrrrrr of the computer, a little rattle in it I'd not noticed before, the aching knot in my stomach, tightness across my brow, shrill talk outside my office door, the relief of a big sigh."
Notice how simple this is. When we stop, quiet down, and pay attention, there suddenly emerges into awareness a whole field of experience. Do we have to take a course in order to "know" these feelings, sensations, sounds? Of course not. The mind fills with the vivid whrrrr of the computer, and it takes no particular effort at all to perceive it! The sound is known -- directly and viscerally. This capacity to know is our nature, and we can do it without training in complex yoga philosophy.
For me, the discovery of the "already there" quality of knowing (and I have to rediscover it often) is an epiphany. There is nothing in particular to do in order to know sensation, breath, movement, stillness. It is our nature.
And it gets even better. This experience of knowing -- this mindfulness -- always brings a wonderful companion: wisdom. Wisdom is nothing more than knowing things as they are: knowing myself as I am, knowing you as you are, knowing the world as it is. As the Buddhist teacher Aachan Sumedho puts it, wisdom is seeing "how it is."
But back to our central question: Why should this knowing lead to a sense of well-being?
The answer to this question points us to one of the most sublime discoveries in the yoga tradition. And it's very simple: because mindfulness (knowing) brings us a direct and incontrovertible experience of oneness with the world.
To understand this, let's look more closely: When we know the world directly and vividly, we intuitively know the deep nature of phenomena. As yogis discovered, we know that all aspects of the phenomenal world are made of the same stuff, and we know all facets of this world to be one with our own nature. And this knowledge brings with it another wonderful by-product: the deep sense that everything is profoundly OK. Everything is already, ineluctably, incontrovertibly all right.
So far, this all sounds very lovely and spiritual -- this world of everything is OK! But here's the edgy part: This moment is full of everything. When you tune into "Channel How-It-Is," you will find that everything is reported. Pain arises as well as pleasure, difficult feelings as well as delightful feelings, angry feelings as well as feelings of loving-kindness. The full catastrophe.
When I spoke to Sandy about how she was getting along several weeks after the breakup, she said, "There are times when I'm in a pose and something intense comes up -- anger sometimes, regret, an overwhelming loneliness. Sometimes it seems really hard to bear. But I find that no matter how difficult the feeling, it is always a relief just to feel it. There is something about really experiencing even those difficult feelings that makes me feel more whole, more real -- closer to myself."
What an interesting discovery! There is nothing on this channel that we need to fear. Everything can be known. Everything is workable. No part of our experience needs to be exiled.
This is the miracle that happens on the yoga mat. In yoga postures, we enter into the field of bare sensation -- of feelings, taste, touch, sight, smell, sounds, and even the stream of thoughts, memories, internal images. We know these phenomena beyond our usual cognitive categories -- our tightly-held views, opinions, judgments, beliefs. And this knowing reminds us who we are, brings us back together with ourselves.
The best news of all is that this chain of events -- knowing, oneness, well-being -- can emerge at any point in our day. We don't even have to wait for the yoga mat. We can always stop and take those few moments to come home. To know the deep nature of phenomena. To see how it is.
Stephen Cope, MSW, psychotherapist and senior Kripalu Yoga teacher, is author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living. He is the founder and Director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, the largest yoga research institute in the West. His highly acclaimed new book is The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.
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