Thich Nhat Hanh said “Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed”. And it’s true, isn’t it? We all know that what we place our awareness on, or wherever we focus our attention, has a big impact on our mental state and therefore the condition of our lives. We can choose to keep our awareness scattered about in a million directions, and thus feel frazzled and overwhelmed. We can choose to focus intently on all of the sorrows and tragedies of the world, and thus feel sad and hopeless. Or we can choose to focus on the beautiful things in life for which we are grateful, and feel a full and content heart (even despite our difficulties). And we can focus on opportunities for growth and positive change and feel hopeful and optimistic.
Yoga teaches us to develop the ability to truly focus our awareness in the direction we choose. Through the 8 limbs of yoga, we learn to direct and maintain our attention and awareness in places we know are healthy, rather than allowing mindless meandering of our thoughts and consciousness into those unhealthy or maladaptive habits that are so easy to fall into. No judgement if you find yourself falling into those negative places in the mind. This is a natural phenomenon called negativity bias, in which our ancestors were trained to focus on the things in their lives that were a potential threat to their well-being. For example, historically it was more important to be aware of something that might kill you than to be aware of a beautiful flower. So we adapted, over millenia, the tendency to focus on things that are potentially threatening, to focus on the negative or frightening things in our lives. So we must learn to recognize that and train ourselves to overcome that tendency, developing the ability to focus our attention where we choose, like a focused beam of sunlight.
In the physical practice of asana, we learn to focus our awareness because we have to do so in order to balance or hold our bodies in certain positions. We also learn to focus our awareness through the many different types of meditation and breathing practices in yoga. So this training will allow us to also be able to direct our attention and awareness in the rest of our lives, off the mat. This may be especially important for us as cancer survivors, or for anyone who has particularly difficult or stressful life circumstances. Because for us, it is very easy to fall into habits of negative thought patterns, like fear or anger. It is so natural to focus and obsess on our fear of recurrence or death, or to be angry at our situation, and frustrated with the cards we’ve been dealt, but of course we know this isn’t healthy or helpful to our recovery. Instead, we can use what we learn on our mat, and first notice when these negative thought patterns arise, and then gently bring our awareness back to something better. We can use our breath, our gratitude practice, a mantra, or anything we choose as a tool to focus that awareness. And we just practice, over and over, with patience and compassion for ourselves, bringing our awareness back to that positive thing. With practice, this becomes easier and easier, and happens more naturally, and eventually those “bad” habits begin to fade away.
As BKS Iyengar said, “The study of asana is not about mastering posture. It is about using posture to understand and transform yourself”. So keep coming back to your mat. Keep practicing asana, and in doing so, keep practicing focused awareness. Develop the ability to direct your awareness like a beautiful beam of sunlight, and see how your life transforms for the better.
p.s. This gorgeous beam of sunlight shining through the clouds occurred in Puerto Vallarta just a few days ago, and served as inspiration for today’s thoughts.