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Shambhala Sun | July 2009

Taking Mindfulness to the Mat

Applying the Buddha’s four foundations of mindfulness to hatha yoga asanas, says Frank Jude Boccio, can enrich practitioners’ experiences and cultivate awareness of the unity of body and mind.

For many practitioners and nonpractitioners alike, yoga has been reduced to, and synonymous with, the postures and movements of hatha yoga. Yet for most of its history, meditation has been the essential aspect of authentic yoga practice. The word “yoga” comes from the root yuj, meaning to “yoke or to harness,” signifying both spiritual endeavor and the state of integration. Buddhism, a bona fide child of the yoga tradition, offers a model of yogic theory and practice, and, like all authentic yoga, is moksha-shastra, a liberation teaching designed to free us from suffering.

The Buddha instructed us to observe the breath, and gradually extend our awareness to include the whole body. He said the practitioner should be aware of the movements and positions of the body while standing, walking, sitting, lying down, bending over, or stretching. He said nothing is excluded from mindfulness, that no aspect of our lived experience lies outside of practice.

In hatha yoga, when we combine awareness of breathing with asana practice, we can observe how movement and posture affects the breath, and how the breath affects the body. We become aware of habitual patterns of reactivity. For instance, do you hold your breath when reaching out with your arms into a deep stretch? Do you unnecessarily tense muscles not involved with the movement you are making? Do you compare one side of the body with the other? When engaged in repetitive movements, does your mind wander?

The Buddha taught four foundations of mindfulness as the basis for establishing mindfulness throughout our daily life. They are body, feelings, mind, and dharmas. Each foundation includes a variety of meditations and contemplations. When practicing asana, we can choose to devote our practice to any one of these, or work through them sequentially. Asana practice need not be viewed as a complement or preliminary to sitting practice. It’s simply another way to practice mindfulness.

First Foundation

Awareness of “the body within the body” is the first foundation of mindfulness. This phrasing reminds us that we are not distant observers of the body, with awareness located in our heads watching our body as an object. Rather, awareness permeates the whole body, like a sponge saturated with water.

The Buddha’s first instruction is to bring mindfulness to breathing. We’re encouraged to simply know an in-breath as an in-breath, an out-breath as an out-breath, free of all manipulation. We become intimately familiar with the experience of breathing, noticing the varying qualities such as deep or shallow, fast or slow, rough or smooth. Since mindfulness is a friendly, nonjudgmental, fully accepting kind of attention, we are already cultivating a transcendence of the pairs of opposites.

Expanding our awareness to include the whole body, including its posture and movement, we deepen our sense of embodiment. The body and breath do not get lost in the future or the past, so if attention is fully absorbed in the body, there is a fully integrated sense of presence. The body and breath keep us anchored to now. Only when we become entangled and identified with thinking can we feel distant from life.

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