Yoga therapy and the “secret sauce” of mindfulness

By Addie deHilster

Mindfulness practice can be an effective method for reducing stress, improving sleep, enhancing quality of life, and even changing one’s relationship to physical pain. But do you have to learn mindfulness through seated meditation?

Mindfulness refers to the quality of our attention: It is a practice of intentionally grounding our awareness in the present moment. Mindfulness reduces the tendency to get lost in thoughts about the past or worries about the future, and it helps us avoid adding extra layers of struggle to our unavoidable difficulties. These are just a few of the ways mindfulness can help those with health challenges. 

A movement practice like therapeutic yoga can be an effective doorway into mindfulness, especially for people who wouldn’t be immediately drawn to sitting still in meditation. There is a common misconception that yoga is for the body and meditation is for the mind. But this view overlooks how profoundly inseparable body, brain, and psyche truly are (not to mention the fact that yogic practice includes meditation!). Physical activity is a key part of brain health, and the mind has a major influence over our attitudes, perceptions, and experience of the body. 

Combining mindfulness with movement

Mindfulness may be the “secret sauce” that makes a movement practice like yoga asana (postures) so therapeutic, and yoga can be an accessible way to learn many of the mindfulness skills that meditators enjoy.

In one study on movement and mindfulness, participants reported a significant decrease in negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and depression when they engaged in mindful movement in contrast to regular exercise. Another study compared the benefits of a Buddhist-based walking meditation technique with ordinary walking in diabetes patients. The walking meditation group experienced improvements in blood pressure, arterial stiffness, and cortisol levels that the ordinary walking group did not. These studies show that combining movement and mindfulness can amplify the benefits of physical movement.

Cultivating mindfulness through therapeutic yoga

The classic sitting practice is certainly a wonderful option, but many peopleparticularly those living with pain or fatiguemay find it a bit daunting. Fortunately, you can also learn mindfulness skills through yoga therapy and gentle mindful movement practices. 

We develop mindfulness in yoga when we prioritize kind attention over physical performance–based goals and when we pause to check in with the body, which increases our inner awareness. A mindful yoga practice emphasizes continually returning our focus to the present moment. We also learn to pay attention not only to bodily sensations (which is important!), but also to emotions, moods, and thoughts as they come and go throughout the practice. These mindfulness tools can lead to valuable insights and new perspectives.

Whether you learn mindfulness in a meditation class or in yoga, you can bring the skill to all of your activities throughout the day: when you’re tying your shoes, engaging in a conversation, preparing a meal, typing an email, or going for a walk. With practice, mindfulness can help you intervene when you notice signs of an oncoming pain flare, anxious thoughts, or habitual behavior patterns. In this way, mindfulness helps us cultivate agency and well-being both on and off the mat.

Addie deHilster is an IAYT-certified yoga therapist and mindfulness meditation facilitator. She works with students facing challenges such as chronic pain, arthritis, and insomnia.