The other day, I posted some remarks about my New Year’s resolution, which is to go “beyond asana” and cultivate a more well-rounded yoga practice. The specific areas I discussed were (1) Meditation, (2) Pranayama, and (3) Yamas/Niyamas. Today, I want to discuss what I have found to be a useful first step towards pursuing these goals. In particular, I’m going to discuss thinking about thinking. When we first take up yoga, most of our thoughts are what can be called first-order thoughts. For instance, in a long hold of Utkatasana (Chair Pose), we might think, “Ow! My legs are burning!” Or in Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), we might be thinking, “Got to get my hand down to the floor, turn upper shoulder open, tuck hip, breathe.”
Second-order thoughts, by contrast, are thoughts that we have about our own thoughts. That is, in second-order thinking, we reflect upon, assess, and evaluate our own thinking. This is not something most people do in the course of their daily lives, so it’s no surprise that it’s difficult to do while you’re in the middle of yoga class. But it can be done. From time to time, it’s helpful, perhaps even illuminating, to step back and observe your own thought processes while you’re doing yoga. It can reveal a lot about how you deal with challenges, how you respond to competition, how you handle stress, fear of failure, etc. But these revelations rise to the surface only when we take the time to notice.
I call this process “going meta” on your yoga practice. In essence, it involves the careful monitoring of your own mental states throughout your practice. This can be done in the moment — e.g., when your legs are burning in the middle of Chair Pose and you want to bail — and it can be done in retrospect, after your practice is done for the day.
Some yogis like to keep a personal practice journal so they can keep a running log of each practice session and track their growth/progress over time. This is a great idea, if you have the time for it. But even if you’re not inclined to keep notes about your practice, it’s still very helpful to approach your practice as a mental practice as much as a physical one. With each passing week, you may notice that this simple act of paying attention to how you think during your yoga practice will actually alter your practice is some subtle, and some not-so-subtle, ways.
My teacher Raghunath used to say that your “edge” in yoga is almost always an arbitrary limit set by your own mind, not by your body. For instance, when a teacher tells me to do something I’m afraid of doing — e.g., dropping back into Full Wheel — I panic and think, “No way! I’m going to break my neck!” In reality, though, I haven’t moved an inch, and the immediate barrier to progress is my own mind. Of course, it may well be that I’m not open enough to drop back into a deep backbend like that. But I will never get to the point of being able to do it if my brain shuts it out as a possibility from the get-go. If, however, I can get my own mind out of the way, perhaps I can start to approach the challenge, and maybe even overcome it one day. The first step towards doing this is to realize that my way of thinking about the challenge, and not the challenge itself, is the true barrier to progress.
I don’t think I need to go into a long explanation of how this sort of realization can extend to our lives off the yoga mat, and into the world. If we can learn these little lessons from our yoga practice, we stand a good chance of being able to take that training into other areas of our lives. This may manifest as a stronger commitment to ethical principles (Yamas and Niyamas, in yoga philosophy), or perhaps a newfound fortitude in how we bounce back from disappointment or even failure. And when this happens, we’ve cultivated something for quite powerful in our yoga practice — i.e., a way of being — which is far more valuable and lasting than a nice yoga butt or a six-pack.
Finally, it might sound like “going meta” on one’s yoga practice is somewhat counterintuitive. After all, why would we want to think about our thinking, when the objective of yoga is supposed to be the quieting of one’s mind? Thinking about thinking seems like an increase in mental chatter, not a decrease. What tends to happen, though, is that second-order thoughts about first-order thoughts have the effect of calming the first-order thoughts. When you notice, for instance, that your mind (and body) seizes up at the mention of handstand, this is a first step towards settling that thought down, so that eventually it’ll lose its grip on you and may fall to the wayside altogether. This process is not unlike Zen meditation, where we try to create a bit of distance or space from the continual flow of thoughts in which we are typically swept up. By creating this space, we can gain perspective.
Perspective itself may not quiet the mind. But it is a first, and all-important step.