What A Subway Ride Taught Me About Mindfulness

As I was riding the subway on my way to teach yoga last week, I was planning my class based on mindfulness: the simple act of paying attention to the present moment. I went back and forth between reading a book, scribbling notes, and ruminating on what I would say. I became completely engrossed in my mental preparations for the class, and when I looked up from my notebook I discovered I'd missed my stop!

How's that for a wake-up call? I was so caught up in planning what I would say about being aware of the present moment that I became completely unaware of the present moment.

My initial response was exasperation. I began to berate myself: “What an idiot. And even worse, a hypocrite. On my way to speak about the beauty and joys of being present and I’m totally lost in my thoughts.”

But then I took a step back. I realized that this blunder was in fact the perfect opportunity to delve into the three essential components of mindfulness identified by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been researching and studying the practice for over 40 years:

In the present moment: My mind had strayed as I thought and planned and strategized, but my misstep guided me immediately back to the present.

On purpose: As soon as I realized I wasn’t paying attention, I intentionally let go of my plans for later in the day and consciously directed my awareness to the present moment.

Non-judgmentally: After initially chastising myself, I had to laugh, shake my head, and recognize that it’s natural and normal to get caught up in planning for the future or reminiscing about the past. It doesn’t make me a bad person or a failure as a yoga practitioner and teacher. It just means I’m human.

In the practices of yoga and mindfulness, we misstep and stumble and find ourselves lapsing back into the past and projecting into the future time and time again. The mind strays, and we guide it back to the present. It drifts again, and we guide it back again. Over… and over… and over. That’s the practice.

And what a valuable practice it is! Mindfulness impacts physical health, mental health and emotional wellbeing. Here are just some of the many benefits attributed to practicing mindfulness:

  • Stress reduction.
  • Improved mental focus.
  • Improved mood and emotional stability.
  • Enhanced insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Improved immune system and brain function.
  • Lower pain sensitivity.
  • Extended attention span.
  • Increased self-monitoring capacity.
  • Reduced cognitive decline associated with aging.

Mindfulness isn’t exotic or out-there or weird or obscure. It’s available to each of us in every moment of every day. It’s as simple as pausing, taking a deep breath, and dropping into the here and now.

While mindfulness may be simple, it’s not easy. Anyone who has sat in meditation or tried to follow the breath during asana practice knows this firsthand. Being mindful takes work, just like anything worthwhile. But hopefully the more we practice, the more we discover how valuable and vital this work is.

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