stack of still rocks next to rushing river

The Essence of Stillness

My son Will is a dreamer, a thinker, a creative mind kind of kid. Sometimes I’ll catch him just sitting still, staring at this elaborate set up of LEGO vehicles and figures on his bedroom floor. I once asked him what he was doing. In a voice dripping with annoyance, he responded: “I’m playing. Obviously.”

No doubt an elaborate story line was playing out all in his head while he was just sitting there.

And also, Will needs to move. A lot.

He was recently banned from the couch because he continued to insist on using it as a trampoline or a crash pad.

There is a direct correlation between the frequency and intensity of Will’s movement and times of physical stillness where his creative mind performs best.

This is true for all of to some degree.

As the yoga philosophy and practices based on this premise remind us, this has been the case for ages.

Simply put: in order to find stillness, we need movement.

stillness in warrior III pose with a strap

Guided by the imagery and wisdom of The Upanishads, this fall’s classes are exploring the relationship between movement and stillness in standing poses.

“Sharp like the razor’s edge” is a great metaphor for the balance challenges of warrior III.

The Bodhi tree’s seemingly magic growth patterns where roots drop down from the branches inspires us to drop our own roots in tree pose.

Rain running down the sides of the mountain encourages us to channel the steadiness of tadasana so we are unaffected by any movements around us.

And yet all of this exploration in standing postures is about something deeper.

The movements and postures that get us to stillness in the physical body are really just one step towards finding stillness in mind.

This morning I taught a 7:30 am class. I reminded everyone that the stillness we seek for mind isn’t the same thing as the sleepy dull just-woke-up feeling most of us brought to our mat.

Instead, we aim for purposeful, focused, single-pointed and undisturbed attention. It is a feeling of bright alertness. Ekāgratā, as the practice is called is the Sanskrit.

It’s a little different from what’s happening when Will sits still. In his mind, he is unfolding elaborate stories about the LEGOS on his bedroom floor.

Ekāgratā invites us to hold our attention in a single-pointed stream and not to allow the mind to spin up stories. That is hard work these days, especially when the external world offers us up so many distractions and worries.

But it’s just like I say all the time: we keep moving in the direction of and the strategies below can help.

3 Strategies for Finding a Still Mind

stillness in mind and stillness in body

First, come to a position of stillness in your body that you can sustain. Doing some asana can help. Movement of the body prepares us for stillness of the body. You can use these techniques from a sitting position or from lying down. If you are feeling especially tired, I recommend sitting upright. It’s much more likely you will fall asleep if you are reclining.

Then try one of these:

  1. Focus on your breath.

    No need for fancy breathing techniques or anything specific. Simply allow your inhale and exhale to hold your attention. When you find yourself thinking of other things, bring your attention back to inhale and exhale. It often helps if you

  2. Focus on an image.

    Visualization is a technique that is used in many meditation practices. If this idea resonates with you, choose a simple image to hold in your mind that you associate with a peaceful feeling. Image of things in nature work well. Imagine ocean waves, a tree or forest, mountains, or a snowscape or a clear blue sky. Hold this image in a static way in your mind. When you find your thoughts wandering, bring your attention back to the image.

  3. Focus on your intention or mantra.

    Is there a quality that you continue to cultivate in your yoga practice? Perhaps your intention is for peace or equanimity. Maybe you practice for a sense of empowerment or inner strength. Take the quality or phrase that resonates with you and repeat it to yourself over and over again with your full attention. The mantra I use often is: “Peaceful thoughts, peaceful words, peaceful heart.”

Give these techniques a try and let me know what you think.

If you are ready to move and be still with me in real time, join my weekly classes or monthly Restorative Yoga sessions.

Want to read more? Check out my friend Joanna’s lovely reflections on stillness here.

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