Yoga and the Art of Attention

Frequently, when I meet someone new, in order to begin to know me, they ask, “What do you do?” This question has always made me a little uncomfortable, and not because I regret the career I’ve chosen, or wish I could be doing something else. It’s just that the question is so limited. As a person, I am so much more than my job. And yet, the question is reasonable to ask. What else are they supposed to say?

WHAT is often our main focus. What are we having for lunch? What am I going to wear? What am I going to do? What am I going to say? And, for those of us who teach yoga, “What am I going to teach in my next yoga class?”

In my life, I have experienced numerous yoga classes and workshops which brought me to feel more whole, more connected with myself, others, and the world. I wonder how I was brought to that particular state? Is there a formula that can be applied? Certainly, the content of yoga classes prepared in a thoughtful sequence is an important part of that formula. And, a knowledgeable teacher who has had good training and years of experience is also necessary. But, all those elements are still not enough to explain the types of mental shifts I have experienced.

Truly great things are more than the sum of their parts. The “yoga” in yoga is precisely this larger quality, and can’t be fully realized when the parts of a yoga class are inspected individually. There is much more implicit content in a successful yoga class (successful by yoga measures) than students are consciously aware of when they take class. It is because of this that yoga is similar to an Art – a yoga practice somehow embodies the intangible.

Yoga is more than physical movement. It is the embodiment of a philosophy. It is the HOW. How we present ourselves, how we teach, how we walk, how we sit, how we eat, how we talk, how we use the hammock… how we connect with other people.

Imagine how different your experience would be upon meeting a new person, if they asked you, “How do you enjoy spending your time?” As opposed to, “What do you do?” The first question invites you to be creative; the second question has only one concrete answer.

One could say that setting an intention allows for this type of yoga connection. And although I can see how intention plays a role, still something more is needed. For me, the key is in attention and how we allocate our attention. Meaning that while the yoga teacher focuses on teaching her class – the execution of the asanas, and the comfort of the students, a portion of her attention needs to be used differently in order to produce the desired effect of yoga, of connection.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the word “attention” has a wide range of uses, and is translated as: notice, thought, or interest (full definition here). And yet, we usually equate “attention” to mean “focus,” which is something almost singular, linear. My definition of attention involves all of the sensory and communication systems that we as human beings have at our disposal – our sensory nervous system (visual, auditory, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory), the somatosensory system (perception of touch, temperature, proprioception, and pain), plus any and all other pathways that we might have and not yet understand, or have a word for it. All of these systems are necessary to “see” the whole picture, to be able to communicate and connect to other people and to the world around us.

Attention can and should be used in a focused manner when needed, but if we do so all the time, we inevitably lose a part of the “big picture,” the part that connects all of us. We end up missing out on large chunks of our lives by focusing on the what over the how. Think of attention as an artist’s camera – you can focus on something specific, use a wide angle, do a panoramic view, or you can get rid of the damn thing and take in the whole moment/experience. This kind of attention is the HOW of yoga – being in the moment, while being in the flow, using the camera lens, while simultaneously using one’s own senses to take in the scenery.

I feel that now, more than ever, there is a need to attune ourselves to one another while also staying attuned to ourselves. We can become related to one another and to all that connects us through being open and creating a new way of being. The new creation, like a work of Art, can’t be put into words because we don’t yet have a word for it, and maybe we never will. And yet, it will be more real than anything we’ve ever known.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *