Wednesday, December 8, 2010

BOOK CLUB: "Mind and Body at Ease" by Sarah Powers

I’ve long been a fan of Sarah Powers’ work, so I was looking forward to reading her contribution to Michael Stone’s anthology, Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind. Sarah’s essay is Chapter 7 of this book, and she begins right out of the gate, so to speak, asserting, “Hatha Yoga is an introspective path.” Of course she’ll have no argument from me on this point, but I wonder still how many practitioners understand it as such?

The next part of her opening sentence strikes me a bit strangely though, when she seems to place the “introspective path of self-transformation” that is Hatha-Yoga purely in terms of using “the body as a vehicle for harmonizing and strengthening one’s energy” that allows one to then – with this ‘balanced energy’ – be in a place of better understanding for freeing our minds with the “meditative awareness practice” that is mindfulness. She goes on to speak of “braiding” Hatha Yoga and mindfulness together as our practice life.

I say this strikes me strangely because I think that in our practice life, these are not at all two ‘things’ we braid together as much as one fully integrated, comprehensive practice. In cultivating a mindfulness of body, for instance, while practicing the postures and movements of Hatha Yoga, the practice jointly balances energy and cultivates understanding and freedom of mind. In my own practice, I cannot sense them as two when we approach Hatha Yoga as an introspective path.

I don’t wish to belabor the point here, but I do want to clarify that what may seem like two practices that complement each other can indeed be approached as one single, comprehensive practice. And honestly, this is how it feels when I’ve taken class with Sarah: seamless!

Her distinction between “active attention” and “receptive attention” is an interesting one. Of course, various mindfulness meditations emphasize these different forms of attention regardless of the posture one is in. For instance, the body scan most often used as either First or Second Foundation practice requires much active attention as one directs one’s attention throughout the body in a systematic way. While doing so, one is encouraged to maintain an ‘equanimous mind’ which is a non-reactive receptive state.

That she sees these two forms of attention as related to yang and yin approaches to yogasana is telling, and again makes sense. Whenever I am offering equanimity practice, I emphasize yin-yoga practice, though of course, again, this kind of receptive, non-manipulating kind of attention is also needed in more vigorous vinyasa as well – as Sarah also mentions. It is always, ultimately, a matter of emphasis. Almost always, distinctions made for didactic purposes over-emphasize the differences and make it sound like they are truly separate, while in practice, we find a more fluid relationship to these approaches.

One thing I really appreciated about Sarah’s contribution is her examples from her own life. It is important for practitioners to understand that this ‘practice’ is, as she writes, a ‘life-practice,’ so her use of her hot flashes as an example of working with mindfulness is very pertinent. One caveat: ‘awareness of sensations’ is more accurately associated with the Second Foundation of Mindfulness, and I suspect her referring to is as the First Foundation on page 92 is a typo or simply a slip of the pen, so to speak, which I think becomes obvious when she refers to the First Foundation of Mindfulness as “mindfulness of the body” on the very next page.

I completely feel at resonance with Sarah, especially when she writes about what I call ‘building a bigger container.’ When we rest in a more receptive mode of attention in the face of discomfort, we are doing so not to become more stoic, but to cultivate the ability and capacity to meet the unavoidable afflictions, disappointments and difficulties of everyday life “without adding suffering to our suffering,” as she puts it. This is a real freedom that is truly available to any of us, if we simply give ourselves the time and permission to stay in that receptive state.

I also appreciate her drawing attention to ‘self-talk’ as part of our mindfulness practice. So much of this self-talk can be so unkind and self-lacerating. Most people would be appalled at the idea of saying such things to others, but their minds lash out at them with such vitriol. And then there is all the under-mining self-talk that she speaks about.

In the chain of causation, there is what she refers to as the first and second ‘beats’ of stimulus and assessment, and the third and fourth beats as reaction and action. Mindfulness is a form of nirodha, or containment. We feel a reaction of grasping or aversion to a sensation that is assessed as pleasant or unpleasant and we consciously inhibit any action based upon the conditioning so that we can choose a more creative way to respond.

Sarah strongly makes the point that mindfulness allows us to see the choices our life experience make available to us. Without mindfulness, we live in an almost automatic mode of conditioned reactivity and end up feeling ‘victimized’ by ‘fate.’

Along with Chip Hartranft’s opening chapter, “Awakening to Prana” and chapter five, “Joining With Naturalness” by Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor, I find Sarah’s contribution to be my favorites so far. All of them offer solid, sound understandings and approaches that I hope are making the relationship between Yoga and Buddhism more clear among readers. What do you think?


  1. I too liked the way Sarah described "physical yoga practice" and the development of "active attention" and "receptive attention" and developing the capacity to be active and receptive on the mat as well as in life. And her reference to yin and yang styles peaked my curiosity as to what she meant (so much to learn!). I was delighted to hear those descriptive terms come up in a class Ann Currey was teaching and also in one of your classes, Frank. Certainly, these readings are complimenting what I am learning from classes. I also found helpful her reference to "paying attention to my self-talk throughout the day". Another tool developed and sharpened on the mat. All in all Sarah's essay was one of the most helpful so far in the book - lots of good tidbits to read and reread.

  2. Thank you for you comments on Sarah Powers contribution. I have her newest book and have practiced with her DVD many times. Her writing flows so beautifully. I really enjoyed reading this and your comments about it. I like her use of the phrase "practice life". I also really liked her breaking down one cycle of breath to notice the pattern of pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant all in just the in-hale. In reference to the 4 beats; stimulus, assessment, reaction, and action - she mentions that mindfulness starts with the 4th beat - action.
    First, I found it difficult to separate reaction from action. Isn't 'reaction' an action? Even if the reaction is tightening of muscles or clinching the jaw? Couldn't mindfulness start with the awareness of the stimulus? or assessment and become aware of our conditioned judgement?

    I benefited with the discussion of our habit of resistance "to what's happening" very helpful in my own practice. I loved her statement "Our attitude can become one of wonderment rather than abandonment." That word, abandonment is still resonanting with me.

  3. Also wanted to comment on your discussion of Hatha Yoga as an "introspective path" and Hatha Yoga and Mindfulness being "braided together". When I teach a foundation yoga class, I always introduce Yoga as an inward journey and from my experience sense that many students do not practice mindfulness during an asana practice. I can see them as separate in that sense, but also see mindfulness as a way (or approach) to practice asana (or anything for that matter).

  4. Thanks for your comments, Sally.

    That 'four-beat' model can use some further explication. In fact, in the early abhidhamma model of practice, mindfulness (and the yogic action of containment or non-reactivity) can occur at several places. In the chain of conditioning, the first step (for our purposes here) is sensory contact. That is, a sense organ makes contact with a sense object. For example, my tongue makes contact with a piece of dark chocolate. The second step is a sensation arises. The third step is the assessment that it is pleasant. The fourth step is the arising of craving, which leads to the fifth step of reaching out for another piece.

    It is indeed said to be possible to place mindfulness at the first step and prevent the whole chain from arising, but that is way difficult, and perhaps only able for an arahant! A more available place to apply mindfulness is at sensation, as well as at assessment. BUT, for most of us, these first steps are so fast that mindfulness is most likely to be awakened at the 'conditioned reaction' of craving. AND here we can -- with mindfulness -- choose NOT TO GRASP or reach out for the second piece of chocolate.

    Sarah is saying that 'reaction' is the mental volitional spur before any real action taken. I use the word reaction somewhat differently when I say that most of our 'actions' or behaviors ARE conditioned reactivity. Only a mindful response is an action that is 'freely' chosen.

    As to your second comment, I agree as I wrote above that for many students hatha-yoga is not approached as an introspective practice because mindfulness is indeed lacking. BUT, where mindfulness is practiced during asana practice, the sum practice is fully braided. I don't think any hard and fast distinction can be made between them as seemingly implied when Sarah talks of the 'introspection of hatha-yoga' being related to the energy/body and the 'introspection of mindfulness' being about the mind. Body and mind are too inter-dependent for such a clear distinction, I think.