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Cultivating Awareness Off the Yoga Mat

About 10 years ago, I read the book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunyru Suzuki. It was a pivotal read in my early meditation practice. Not long after, I read Suzuki Roshi’s biography, Crooked Cucumber and in the book I first learned of the San Francisco Zen Center which Suzuki Roshi founded. Among many things, the book talks about how the dining hall, which has tile floors with heavy wooden tables and chairs, is located directly above the zendo, or meditation hall . Suzuki Roshi realized during meditation that one could hear loud noises above as people dragged the chairs across the tiles when they pulled them away from the tables in order to sit down for their meals. He taught that one should not drag the chairs across the tiles lazily, but gently and quietly move the chair with awareness. He taught that this should be done in order to not disturb the meditation going on below, and also because that is how one should treat all objects as well as ones actions – with quiet, gentle awareness.  

After reading the book, I went to stay at the Zen Center. Sure enough there was the dining room, directly above the Zendo, with it’s tile floor and it’s heavy wooden tables and chairs. Every time I went to sit in a chair I moved it away from the table gently and quietly. I found this simple task to be a profound practice in awareness. However it wasn’t just moving the chairs around where awareness was being practiced at the Zen Center. The awareness of how one moved and interacted with the environment and the people in it permeated the entire day. Walking up and down the stairs, cooking, cleaning the bathroom floors, opening and closing doors. Everything was done with awareness.  

At the yoga studio I teach at there are times when you can hear people talking outside on the side walk and trucks roaring by. I have always welcomed those noises, as they are a part of life, and I feel that practicing yoga and meditation in a room on a street corner versus a silent void helps us to learn how to strengthen our focus when distracted on the mat and therefore how to deal with distractions as they come up when we are off the mat.  

And yet…

I have invited my students to bring their awareness of how they interact with the world with them when they come to practice as I was finding the level of noise when they came into the studio was sometimes not very conducive to a practice of awareness. When you go to your yoga class, you can start your intention of awareness the moment you touch the entrance door handle. At my studio the entrance and bathroom door can be quite jarring when opened and shut in an unconscious manner – particularly when someone must arrive late, leave early or use the restroom during class. In fact, the doors can be opened and shut in almost perfect silence, and every time I open and shut the doors in silence, I am reminded of what it is like to be precisely aware of my actions. You can continue this same practice with how you take off your shoes, how you put your belongings down and even how you roll out your mat.

Spend some time cultivating this practice of awareness before the you even begin your yoga practice. Then look around at how you move about in your daily life. Do you get home and just drop your things on the floor. Do you tap your pen on the desk noisily at work? How do you treat your possessions? Do you take care of them? Do you enter a room full of people and just start talking with out waiting to see what kind of situation you are entering into and possibly interrupting?

The more you start to cultivate awareness in your daily life, even when performing simple, everyday tasks, the more you will begin to cultivate awareness in other aspects of your life. If you can become aware of how you fold your laundry then you become aware of how you react to others emotionally, how you treat you body, how you interact with money and time etc. For every bit of awareness you cultivate, the universe opens up to you.

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The Wandering Yogi