How to apply mindfulness to a strong and fast-paced asana practice

by Catherine Haylock

Applying mindfulness in a slow asana class, where we hold postures for a longer time, is, for most people, more accessible than in a fast-paced and strong class. We have time to receive feedback from our bodies and observe arising thoughts and emotions. Directing our breath into felt sensations, finding stillness before moving on to another posture.

How can we notice all the above within 5 breaths when we do a fast-paced practice like Ashtanga? How can we stay mindful?

The secret is, as always, to break it down into eatable chunks. We can use the concept of the five koshas, going from gross to subtle matter.

Five koshas and how they relate to our practice

Before each asana practice, it is helpful to wire our brain on a specific aspect of the practice, stating our intention. This can be anything, like chanting, dedication, or just the resolution not to cut the practice short 😉

But in the case of learning how to apply mindfulness, we need to start with the gross layer first and over time, refine our awareness into more subtle areas:

1. Physical layer – Annamaya Kosha

If you are new to the practice, then your intention might be to build up strength and stamina to be able to do a whole class. It might be learning the sequence, knowing where to put your hands and feet, and how to align your body in asanas. As in Ashtanga, the sequence stays the same, allowing the body to build up muscle memory, leaving us mental space for the next step.

2. Energy Body – Pranayama Kosha

Once you start to understand the poses, you are ready to shift your focus on the breath. In strong asana practices, we use ujjayi breathing to control the in- and out-breath, igniting agni our inner fire to purify our mind and body.
Set your intention to be aware of your breathing, observe when and why you lost your breath during the practice.
With time, your body remembers, and ujjayi breathing happens as soon you step on the mat, leaving you with space again to focus on the next layer.

3. Emotional Body – Manomaya Kosha

Your next step is to dig deeper, using your body as an indicator to overcome emotional blockages. When discomfort arises, we need to learn to differentiate between physical pain due to bad alignment or ego, which wants to push further than the body allows. Thus, acknowledging today’s limitations and not going beyond.

Realising if discomfort is emotional, triggering memories, thoughts that result in fear, frustration or anger.
This state will be revisited over and over again, especially when confronted with new challenging postures. On this layer, many of our beliefs are being questioned. Difficult emotions can come up and need to be dealt with.
By now, your awareness capability has grown, and you can start turning towards sensations.

4. Wisdom Body – Vijananamaya Kosha

In my Vipassana retreat, one of our meditations was trying to feel each square centimetre of our outer body, from the head to toes. First, I could only get a tingle in certain areas, but after a couple days, I could send this tingle over the whole surface of my body.

Wherever you direct your attention, energy will follow.
When you feel sensations, like a stretch, tingle or tightness, you can direct the energy (breath and visualisation) into this area and soften it. The more you practice, the more sensible you become of your inner workings. This is an essential aspect of the practice and makes a big difference in refining your awareness. Leading to clarity, inner wisdom, knowing what is right and wrong without thoughts interfering.

5. Bliss Body – Anandamaya Kosha

In this state, we turn towards the subtle body. When you are in a posture, try to sense which chakras are being addressed. Do you feel them activated? Can you balance them by steadying your breath?

In yoga we activate and balance chakras to let energy flow undisturbed upwards, allowing kundalini to rise, connecting us to a greater place, where all is one. This is the state where we don’t feel separated anymore, where we experience calm and happiness.

Putting it into practice

So set one intention only, choosing one aspect before you practice. It is also a good anchor point to come back to when your mind wanders. On days where your mind is busy, focus on the breath. Days you feel emotional, focus on feelings and thoughts. When you feel calm and relaxed, see if you can deepen your awareness by focusing on sensations and the subtle body.

For many, the first four layers are enough for an asana class. Working on the bliss body might not be a reason why you are doing yoga. We tend to use yoga as a way to get to know ourselves and learn to deal with our surroundings in a non-harmful way. However, the urge for more is always looming in the back of our minds. And with time, we just might be missing the feeling of unity, realising that worldly things won’t make us feel connected.