Do you struggle to focus your mind? Do you feel like the past is preventing you from moving forward?
Perhaps you worry about what comes next: the future of you, your friends and family, and of the planet.
All of those thoughts are, of course, entirely valid. We all have them, and we're all - at times - stifled by them.
So, how do you switch off your mind?
In this article, we're going to explore how yoga practice can help you experience the present moment; letting go of the shackles of the past, and freeing yourself from that feeling of dread that creeps in when we consider the potential of the future.
What is the past?
It seems like a stupid question. But, is there really any such thing?
The past - you could consider - is the gateway to your history. It's the things that have happened as far as you perceive them.
Time is an interesting structure for life because there's no such thing as linearity.
Two people may experience the same event. And those two people perceive the significance of that event in different ways. For some, it may have been formative; for others, it was a fleeting moment that drifted into the ether of insignificance.
So, is there any such thing as the truth? There are the facts, of course. The time and the act are likely to be recognised by both in the same way. But a person's physical, mental, and emotional response to that sequence of happenings might be completely different.
In one, it may have triggered feelings of euphoria. In another, it may have triggered feelings of anxiety, pain, rejection, or loss.
So whose account of that event is accurate?
The event's action might remain consistent, but memory is an emotional element of being, and the emotion is the element that we revisit.
If our perception of the past is an emotional one, then the past is a fiction. It's fiction in that it evokes emotion and that emotion is entirely our own. It's not the same as the next person's - so our recall of historical, formative events become of our own perception.
What is the future?
If the past is a fiction, then the future can only ever be a product of imagination. But it makes the future no less real than the past - it merely assigns the two to the realms of fantasy.
We're more powerful than our past and our future
Some believe that the past defines us: it's what makes us who we are.
But that doesn't have to be the case.
Lao Tzu said:
"If you are depressed, you are living in the past
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present."
Perhaps it's a little unhelpful to simplify a condition as profound and complex as depression into a simple platitude; like there's a magic wand and it can all be solved with a few insightful words.
But if we learn to draw our attention away from this fictional past - however dramatic or painful or brilliant that was - we can learn to release the mind, the brain, the body, and the breath from the very real physiological symptoms of depression.
The present is all that exists
The present moment is our tool of control. There's no way we can control the past - it's already happened, and regardless of how much we wish, it will never change.
Our perception of that past is a constant if we linger on it.
The future we have a little more control over. But we can't allow the spectre of the what-if and the chasm of the unknown to define us.
Now is all we have.
Now is honest and true because it's happening. Now.
We travel time
You could say that we're all time travellers. Our lives are defined by time; however you measure it.
It just so happens that our time travel occurs in one direction (forward) and one second at a time. And those seconds that are passing become the immediate past.
The Breath Is Now
One of the things that I return to time and time again in my yoga classes and in my own practice is the concept of now-ness: the ability to live in the moment; to focus the mind away from the stresses and strains of daily life.
When I get a class into a room, I want them to leave the shackles of life behind them. We're sharing a space, and we're sharing an experience, and I aim to get everyone to draw their attention to their breath.
In yoga, we treat the breath with great reverance: as the conduit to the present moment.
The inspiration (inhalation) is happening now. It can only ever happen now.
And the exhalation is the natural response to the action: every action has a reaction.
In yogic terms, the breath is energy (pranayama). This is significant because our energy comes when we connect with it (and we so rarely do). We stop feeling tired and lethargic when we draw our attention inward (pratyahara).
The breath connects us to the present moment - so when we practice an asana - let's say utthita trikonasana (Ep2 of the podcast) - we try to draw our attention to the physical demands of the pose, and to the breath.
The Five Kosas
There are said to be five sheaths (or kosas) of being; a little like a Russian doll. You open the outer shell, and you discover another doll inside. You open that one, and another doll is revealed, etc., etc.
The five kosas are:
The physical body (annamaya kosa)
The energetic body (pranayama kosa)
The mental body (manomaya kosa)
The intellectual body (vijnanamaya kosa)
The blissful body (anandamaya kosa)
I'm not going to explore each one in this article, but I will be returning to each one in future posts.
The Physical Body
Our outermost kosa is the physical body. It's the body that consumes food and water and requires light and air to function.
When we practice yoga postures, we're challenging the physical body; we're exploring how the body responds to instruction (although instruction is interpreted by the mental body (more about that in a moment)).
When we go to a yoga class, our teacher presents a series of precise instructions, devised to recreate a feeling that they feel in their own pose. They share their learning and try to translate into words and actions for their class to experience.
We use our words as darts of intention: rotate the inner thigh towards the outer thigh (Ep2 of the podcast).
That instruction doesn't immediately transfer into a physical action. You have to make your class find that feeling. You direct them with instructions, and encourage them to discover how that action causes a reaction somewhere else within the body.
We develop a library of experiences that build like the layers of a tree trunk. And as a tree develops layers, it gains strength.
As we develop our practise, we learn new layers that enhance our physical and mental attention, and further understanding hopefully emerges.
The Intellectual Body
You might call this library of experiences the intellectual body - it's the element of being that learns, observes, and analyses.
Perhaps the turn of the front leg pushes the back leg forwards - so the intellectual body drives the back leg to work in contrary motion with the front leg - and greater stability emerges from that combined action; born of new learning and embedded awareness from a previous session.
When we practice yoga, we try to inundate the consciousness with sensation, and we do this for very good reason. We give specific instructions so that the mind is encouraged to focus inwardly. As teachers, we try to draw our class's thoughts away from the mundane: the iron they suspect they may have left on (they probably haven't); the back door that might have been left unlocked (it wasn't).
The yoga room offers a holiday away from the outer world and an opportunity to look inwardly; to experience the body, the mind, and the breath.
Yoga offers us an opportunity to leave the external world behind. The external world is as much a fiction as the past and the future. We learn to be here. And now.
We learn to listen to the breath. We experience the breath as we inhale. We ingest the energy within the oxygen. We allow that energy to flood the body like a tsunami of positivity.
And when we focus on the breath within the pose, we connect the mental body to the energetic body; in turn connecting the mental body to the physical body, the physical body to the energetic body, the energetic body to the mental body and on it goes.
And through this process of concentration and focus, we experience the present moment.
The breath connects us to the now. It helps us live in the moment. It draws your world inward for a while: it's a holiday from the stress of the day.
Our yoga practice is a sanctuary; wherever it takes place.
Gratitude meditation can be potent.
It's a great start to the day because it helps to draw the energy of your day in a positive direction.
It's a meditation on the things that are good in your life; an opportunity to dwell on the positives for a change.
Gratitude meditation i a short time spent gathering together the things in life that make life worth living - however minute or tenuous. It could be a relationship, a pet, a friendship, an item of personal value.
Spend a little time considering the good things in your life before you get out of bed in the morning. What's good now? Regardless of the past, irrespective of the future; it's an opportunity to dwell on what now is.
Because now is fine.
Look beyond the past and the fears of the present, and you'll find your fine place.
Now is fine. It always is.