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  • Writer's pictureLia Devincenzi

You can take the yoga out of the mindfulness but not the mindfulness out of the yoga..

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

I've just advertised new classes titled Yoga for mobility and mindfulness.

How are yoga and mindfulness related? Which came first?

One of these terms is an ancient one, whose common definition has changed over time. The other is a relatively new and useful one, but confusingly it is the origin of it all. To understand how they are interlinked, inseparable but different, is to understand how language and culture consistently change each other as a feedback loop (which seems to be a common theme in my study of the history of yoga.)

The word yoga has come to be synonymous with postural yoga; fitness oriented, towards the body. Not just any fitness class though- as what most people may think makes yoga different from pilates or various gym fitness classes is that there are certain postures, that it might involve a certain breathing pattern, and that somehow, it's also meant to be relaxing. And maybe spiritual. Prayer hands and namaste come into it somewhere. As I mentioned here, its not yoga without namaste, apparently.

Yoga - the philosophy system that has roots in the Vedas, the ancient Indian texts (athough originally heard, passed on orally, and not written until later), abridged, critiqued, discussed, celebrated in the Upanisads, further discussed and elaborated on in the the Bagavad Gita, then finally systematically written down in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, and then the Hatha Yoga Pradipika -contains mostly mindful practices. The physical are just a preparation for the mindful. And they were not added into the practise until much later than you'd think.

Originally yoga was mindfulness.

In Patanjali's yoga sutras (PYS) he writes of 8 limbs of yoga: yamas (actions/attitudes towards the world), niyamas (towards yourself), asana (posture), pranayama (breathing practices), dhyana (meditation), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), samadhi (oneness with all). As you can see, only an eighth is physical/postural. The last one is the final goal and the rest could be described as mindful practices.

In fact, even the asana Patanjali mentions are not the postures we know today. He doesn't mention any. Only sitting; comfortably and steadily. All in order to meditate.

After some more creative years in tantric methods, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) not only includes a lot of spiritual guidance but acknowledges and expounds the physical. It includes practical elements such as diet and environmental reccommendations, and finally, 15 postures, as well as other physical aspects including some breathing and cleansing techniques.

Throughout British colonial rule over India, western fitness culture and postural yoga influenced each other, as I've briefly outlined here, and is explained in incredible detail in Mark Singleton's Yoga Body . The West's obsession with beauty and health centred the physical side of yoga and capitalized on it.

While it is beneficial to have physical wellness, the other mindful practices of yoga are often forgotten. Or rather, many of the other practices are rarely found in the yoga class. Today mindfulness has become a separate practise in it's own right. One that gets taught as a mental health aid. One forgets the original goal of yoga was to become mindful all the time, liberated from the restless mind that creates its own suffering.

Mindfulness is a relatively new word. A word of two suffixes. The noun of an adjective made from a noun. Used in the 15th century to mean 'attention, heedfulness; intention, purpose'. Chosen as the best translation for the Pali word sati, by Thomas William Rhys Davids between 1880 and 1910, it came from the Buddhist teachings in the satipaṭṭhāna sutta, which explains the "annihilation of suffering and sorrow..the attainment of the way...the experiencing of nirvana..". (Roots of Yoga, p303)

In the 1970s Jon Kabat Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School trialled stress-reduction courses based on the mindful techniques he found in the buddhist texts. He secularised and popularised the techniques by taking any mention of spiritual persuit out of the practices. He defines mindfulness as, “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”.

Popular mindfulness techniques include paying close attention to the breath or a particular activity such as eating, walking or drawing. Paying close attention to an activity brings you back to the present moment and stalls your thoughts. Thoughts often transport you into the past and future and potentially bring suffering.

Yoga postures or asana is practised mindfully. One is constantly drawn back into considering how they feel, if something is right for you today, where you feel the breath, notice the sensations, the quality of your mind in that moment.

Some people skip yoga and find their way straight into mindfulness practice via mental health practitioners, apps, or a specific type of meditation such as TM. For those who do start with the physical, asana can be a gateway into mindfulness.

It doesn't really matter where you start, if the goal is clear. The more you practise paying attention, the easier it becomes. And the more you pay attention, the better you understand yourself, your body, others and the world around you.


James Mallinson & Mark Singleton (2017), The Roots of Yoga, Penguin

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