“Stop monkeying around!” My brothers, sisters, and I heard this exclaimed a lot as kids. When the 5 of us got together we created havoc, much to our parents’ chagrin. We rebelled, we mucked around; we screamed, we jumped up and down; we were an unruly bunch; we had lots of energy; we had fun. Two decades later, I am repeating a similar mantra to myself during yoga practice, in a bid to calm my equally as energetic, chatterbox of a mind.
Monkey Mind is a Buddhist term which describes the persistent churn of thoughts in the undisciplined mind. In Bikram yoga, achieving a state of internal stillness during physical movement is challenging, especially when the mind is given free rein to battle with the heat, sweat, fear, boredom, that stressful situation at work, for example; all while trying to stretch the body into an asana – be it Cobra, or an elegant Standing Bow Pose. The mind monkeys around, so to speak. Or, as Bikram has been quoted as saying, "The human mind is like a drunken monkey... that's been stung by a bee..."
To get some insights into the best techniques to tame the Monkey Mind, I rounded up 5 NYC based Bikram Yoga teachers, who I know and practice beside. They each agreed to share their tops tips to further help others, myself included, find ease and stillness in the yoga practice. Try them out and see if they work for you.
DON’T MISS THE MOMENT.
The Monkey Mind is the mind separated from the body, or distracted from the moment. It is the reflexive mind ready to judge, worry, analyze, and compare everything in the moment, which is a good way to miss the moment. Therefore, you’re not only missing a chance to connect with Self, but in physical practice, you’re missing a chance to welcome healing and depth; possibly inviting injury.
OBSERVE YOUR THOUGHTS.
For me, one of the tricks in taming the Monkey Mind is to observe it without judgment. Something that kept getting in the way early on in my practice was thinking, “Oh, there is another thought coming into my meditation! Inappropriate! I am no good at meditating!” The Monkey Mind was judging itself! Your own body sensations can distract you from going deeper.
A teacher once suggested I let the thoughts float by like clouds without attaching to them. That approach has really worked for me. I realized that it’s not a crime to experience a thought when meditating; I can just continue to work on my breath and usher the thought through. Like a child attempting to interrupt a conversation for attention: if it is not urgent, then the child can be gently and kindly acknowledged, perhaps with a hand on the shoulder, without necessarily affecting the integrity of the conversation.
You can remain connected, but not attached. You can stay with your intention, in any environment. I like this quote, “The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.” ~Robin Sharma
One other thing I will do, when I have trouble stilling words going through my head - I will create a simple chant in my head of '...ommmmmmm...' For me, it easily replaces all the other thoughts.
My 2 ingredients for the recipe to calm the Monkey Mind in a Bikram yoga class are conscious, proper breathing, and stillness.
SYNC BREATH TO MOVEMENT.
Since Bikram yoga is all about the details, you must try to breathe in and out through your nose. When you breathe through your mouth, it stimulates the body's sympathetic, or "fight or flight" nervous system. This send a message to your brain that your body is in a state of panic, which accelerates your heart rate, and sends your mind into a whirlwind of thoughts like “I'm uncomfortable, it's hot, get me out of this room..!” Most importantly, you are wasting that much-needed energy that gets you through to the end of a class.
Our brains can be aware of many things at once, but by only focusing on one thing at a time - breathing in and out of your nose - you are sure to calm that Monkey Mind.
Resist the urge to fidget and fuss in between postures. In the Standing Series, we always come back to standing with feet together, heels and toes touching, arms down by the sides, standing tall and proud, eyes open, and breathing normal. This stillness in between postures is your Savasana. On the floor, we lay in Savasana in between each posture - stillness is still the goal. By resisting the urge to itch, fix your hair, or as Bikram so eloquently puts it, "scratch your ass" (!!), you gain mental strength, and get closer toward a deep meditation. Finding absolute stillness between postures, whether you are in the Standing, or Floor Savasana, is often noted as the most challenging aspect of the entire Bikram yoga class.
Once you have attained this highly cultivated stillness between the postures, you have truly become a skilled practitioner of Hatha yoga, and in my opinion, found an aspect of enlightenment.
OBSERVE. JUST BE.
For calming the Monkey Mind, I suggest humbling your mental perspective. Be really humble with your expectations. Don't try to compete with the person next to you, in achieving the perfect pose. Observing while actively trying to refrain from judgment is important. Observe your balance; observe the feeling of your hips in Standing Bow, but don't judge how much deeper you should go. Observe that you can go deeper, and do. Observe that those hips aren't opening any more today, and be.
LISTEN TO THE TEACHER’S WORDS.
Even though you've heard the same words for a posture for years, listen as if for the first time again. As you listen, consciously check off each bullet point the teacher verbalizes and actually feel it in your body. Monkey Mind is always there; he just needs something constructive to do. As long as he's in service to somebody, he behaves.
TAME THE MONKEY EYES.
Studies of imaging data of brain function have shown that the part of the brain responsible for visual creativity is the same part responsible for both visual attention and eye movement. In other words, when the eyes are still, so is the attention.
With eyes still, you have to be aware of what they are looking at. The brain gets the majority of its sensory information from what we see, even if it defies logic. So, if you are looking at yourself in the mirror and your expression is one of panic or distress, that visual image sends the signal to the brain that there is reason for panic (fight or flight). If however, your expression is one of calm and peace, that image sends a strong sensory signal that everything is ok.
Even if you are having the hardest class of your life, look as calm and peaceful as possible. It will create ‘brain confusion’ (the messages, "I’m dying here" and "It's all good," are both coming into the brain), and in most cases this will keep you from spiraling into the abyss!
CLOSER TO ZEN.
A Monkey Mind is a playful mind that easily and frequently gets distracted at any moment in your practice, or in your daily life. Some people may experience it more than others but I think through yoga and meditation, we can teach people how to quiet the mind at any given moment. We learn to put the monkey aside and give ourselves the zenned out inner peace our bodies and minds deserve.
1. Focus your eyes on one spot in the mirror, or the ceiling. When the eyes wander, the mind begins to wander.
2. Mantras can help with the Monkey Mind. We don't often teach it in Bikram but one of my favorites to tell a new student is, "Lock the Knee....Lock the Knee....Lock the Knee!" It works!