This is part of my How I Teach Yoga series
“If there is no meditation in the practice, it cannot be called yoga.”
People have told me they feel like they get a "2 for 1" when they attend my yoga classes: yoga and meditation in the same class. Nearly all of my yoga classes could be labeled "mindful yoga" or "meditative yoga." Like many Kripalu Yoga teachers, I usually combine mindfulness meditation techniques with breathwork and the physical postures of yoga. During my classes, I encourage people to focus on the present moment and cultivate inner awareness, just like I do when I teach meditation.
My goal in teaching meditative yoga classes is to create a space where people have an opportunity to take their practice to a deeper level. A growing body of scientific research and my own personal experiences both suggest that adding mindfulness to a flowing physical yoga practice is effective for "stilling the fluctuations of the mind" (yogas chitta vritti nirodha), Patanjali's famous definition of yoga.
Here are some of the features of my classes that support mindful awareness:
Intention. Some people cultivate mindful awareness by setting an intention for their practice when they begin. Having an intention helps create a sense of purpose for the practice. I often invite people to consider the sequence of events that led them to my class or encourage them to set an intention. Many times that intention could be to stay present with each posture.
Breathwork. The breath is a potent tool for cultivating mindfulness in yoga. I usually encourage people to tune into their breath and observe its rhythm and depth. I encourage slow, deep inhales and exhales, emphasizing the connection between breath and body. The breath can allow people to slow down and pay attention to each movement and sensation. I encourage letting go of any need to accomplish something. Instead, I invite people to use their breath to embrace the journey of the practice.
“The uniqueness of Kripalu Yoga is that postures, pranayama (breathwork), and meditation are all happening simultaneously — not separately.”
Reminders. Just saying "let go of your thoughts" one time does not work. Most people have wandering minds, so I include a lot of reminders to keep coming back to the present moment, over and over, in different ways throughout the practice. Meditative yoga requires practice and frequent reminders.
Meditation. Each class includes some form of guided meditation. Sometimes I use a body scan, while other times I might encourage people to notice points of contact, their senses, aspects of the visible body, or countless other points of focus ("meditation objects"). Unless the class has "meditation" in the title, I generally keep the meditation short, probably less than 5 minutes for a 60-minute class.
Acceptance. Throughout class, I encourage self-compassion. Meditative yoga goes beyond simple awareness. I encourage cultivating acceptance for whatever might arise. Most people cannot simply let go of comparison or self-judgment, so if they feel challenged letting go of judgments, I encourage moving attention back to something real, such as the breath or the physical sensation of a posture.
Observation. I tell people that they do not need to achieve anything in my yoga classes. I encourage them to "let go of performance" and instead practice observing without the need to classify or judge.
Slow pace. As we move through the physical postures together during a class, I encourage people to notice moments of stillness and presence within any given movement. I encourage slow, deliberate movements, and invite exploration of sensations and the subtleties of each transition. I invite them to engage their muscles mindfully and experience each movement as an opportunity for grounding to what is real and true.
Surrender. By the time we arrive at savasana, I invite people to let go of doing and controlling. I encourage each person to surrender to the moment and allow the body to do what it wants to do. After lots of doing and controlling during class, savasana provides an opportunity to let go of controlling breath, movement, and attention. And yet, I frequently acknowledge that a true letting go might not ever happen.
My classes provide a container where people can slow down, become fully present, and cultivate self-compassion. There is nothing to believe. I create space to experience the transformative power of a meditative yoga practice.