Cultivating Awareness

Your yoga mat is an ideal place to cultivate the yogic qualities of concentration and discernment. Baxter Bell explains how.

With all the excitement and controversy of the New York Times’ excerpt of William Broad’s book, I’ve had some interesting conversations with colleagues and students about the topic of yoga-related injuries. One interesting factoid came from Yoga Journal contributing editor Jason Crandell, who discovered that each year there are about 86,000 emergency room visits for people who trip on their pets!

It made me consider how important it is to maintain a certain amount of awareness regarding your immediate environment all the time. Just as I would never consider getting rid of my loving pup just because I might trip on him due to inattention, so to I am not going to stop my incredibly beneficial yoga practice because of the much lower chance of injury.

I am not feeling defensive about the topic of yoga-related injuries. They are a reality, as are injuries with any physically based practice, which yoga asana is. I even teach workshops around the country to teachers in training on how to avoid injuring their students. And I myself have sustained a few injuries over the 18 years I have been enjoying hatha yoga. On one memorable occasion, it was directly due to my inattention.

On the very first day of my own teacher training, we were at the walls working on Handstands, and I was distracted and looking around the room as my classmate next to me came down from his arm balance attempt. Just so happened my hand met his descending foot, and I broke one of my metacarpal bones. From that day on, I have been very aware of those around me as I practice.

So what can you do to lower your chance of injury due to distraction and inattention? The Yoga Sutra prescribes a specific set of mental practices that have bearing on this idea: one pointed focus or concentration, known as dharana, is practiced to hone the ability to concentrate on the present-moment circumstances. And discernment or discrimination, known as viveka, is practiced to give us the opportunity to evaluate our possible choices moment by moment. (If you are looking for a great source to learn more about these concepts, check out Nicolai Bachman’s Yoga Sutra Workbook and audio CD collection.)

I use my mat as the place to practice these fundamental concepts. By setting the intention to focus on my poses, while simultaneously widening my field of perception to be mindful of those around me, I practice dharana. I practice viveka by evaluating my environment to pick the optimal spot to practice, and also to pause and consider the poses I’m being asked to explore, especially if I don’t feel prepared to do a more physically challenging pose. I have moved to a different spot in a room to better see the teacher, to move away from other students who don’t seem to be paying attention to what they’re doing, or just to have space to practice challenging poses, like Handstand.

I highly recommend integrating these yoga philosophy concepts into your yoga practice, boosting your attentiveness level and lowering the chance of these kinds of injuries. Plus, you’ll actually be present to win, as they say, the fruits of your endeavor!