The most profound shift in my yoga practice started on a beach in Japan.
It was a Saturday morning; it took three trains and a bus to get there.
I was there for a yoga class where the mats were laid out overlooking the water. During the opening meditation, I could hear the familiar beach sounds: waves crashing, tiny voices in laughter, squawking birds. After several moments in stillness, we started to flow.
Each time we entered a pose, the instructor, counted to five in an excruciatingly slow fashion.
She was teaching in Japanese, but for some reason the counting was in English. My reaction was resistance. I fidgeted and squirmed because my body wanted to move. I started to think about where the sequence was going and what pose we would move into next. It was so hard for me to just be in my body. Each pose felt like 10 breaths, even more so on the second side when I knew what was coming.
I started to explore my breath. Breathing provided just enough action to assuage my noisy brain, which I required before I could actually arrive on my mat. What I discovered from this particular practice was that I wasn’t even really in a pose until the count of four, and by then we were preparing to exit the pose.
I kept getting in my own way.
I found myself clinging to the basic vinyasa between postures because it was fluid and I didn’t have to really be there, my muscle memory took over. I was on autopilot.
There was no music, just counting and breathing. By the time we hit child’s pose to close the class, I felt myself again clinging, reaching, and craving. “No! It’s over?! Already? But I just got here.”
I wanted to be back in trikonasana, a place that I had 10 whole breaths to experience—on each side!
I wanted to set an intention, something I could have done in the opening meditation.
I wanted to remember every exquisite detail, only I wasn’t paying attention.
This opened me up to the staggering truth that my practice was becoming a distraction. Or perhaps I was becoming a distraction to my practice. My mat was an escape, an exit strategy. With this new awareness came the voice of one of my teachers, Silvia Mordini, who would lovingly remind me that “yoga is not an exit strategy, it is an entrance.”
What was happening on my mat was exactly what was happening everywhere else. I was clinging to distractions, reaching for temporary heals, and craving something I couldn’t define. I felt full, but I was empty. With so much abundance in my life, I was always excited and planning for the future. The only problem was by the time it arrived I was already onto the next thing.
It was only after a beautiful conversation had ended, after an embrace had released, or when I touched down in my hometown that I appreciated where I had been and what I had learned.
I desired to experience something real. Everything felt like a memory or wish.
If only this realization had come like so many awakenings that I have heard about from people I admire: as an instant of spectacular clarity that would change me on a cellular level and lay me down gently into the present moment, for good.
Instead, what I am beginning to understand is that staying present is a practice. It requires commitment and consistency.
Or maybe just counting to five.
1. Get Free.
Perhaps the hardest part about getting present is removing the attachment to the past and future.
Even the most innocent daydreams and romantic memories can pull us away from the fullness of the present. It isn’t the way we are wired, but we can train our brains to be okay with what’s happening now. It allows us more space to be creative and explore. We become more fluid and adaptable.
When we remove the expectation from an experience, we give it the freedom to unfold and expand.
2. Be sense-ational.
While meditation is an entrance to deeper levels of awareness that transcend the physical body, I have to agree with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his assertion that we are spiritual beings having a physical, human experience.
To be present to an experience, we have to paint a complete sensory picture. Do we often take time to appreciate the subtleties of our senses, individually? Do we notice smells that we don’t have to pay attention to? Like the smell of our home, something that is easily neglected until we’ve been away for a while. What if it provided us that same comfort each time we directed attention to it?
3. Go Green.
Just like it sounds, go outside and get dirty.
Find a place where we can withdraw from regular distractions and slow down. Go for a walk, breathe some fresh air and lose track of time. Let ourselves align with daylight, find time to wake up naturally with the sun and start to wind down when it sets. Create a specific practice each day that connects us with nature. It’s something we can take with us anywhere.
At least one day per week, unplug from our electronic selves.
Give our eyes a break and turn our screens off. Read a book, make time for writing or get moving and sweat outside—see number three.
5. Stay Relevant.
Make the practice of staying present tangible and relevant in our modern life.
For me, it required a daily reminder on my calendar. It required writing on my feet to remember to breathe in yoga class. It required sitting down to eat. You might find a “present partner”, someone you can hold space for in the now through conversation or physical touch. Have a mantra that taps you in to the pulse of the present moment, “I am here.” Use a mala to pair the mantra with texture. Set a timer for five minutes of pranayama upon waking.
Whatever it is, make it real and make it important.
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Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Flickr / Benjamin J. DeLong