One of the most important teachings of yoga is that life happens in the present moment. The past is over – it’s just a memory. The future is yet to come – so there’s no point living there either. If we’re always stuck in memories of the past, or having constant daydreams of the future, we miss out on our lives as they happen, in the present moment.
It’s the nature of the mind to go from one past memory to the next – from one future fantasy to another. This is totally normal. However, with the tools of yoga and meditation, we can access higher states of consciousness by cultivating present moment awareness. It takes work. We have to train the mind to quiet its thoughts. But when we do, life becomes so much richer. There’s so much beauty in the present moment, but we often overlook it because we’re always grasping to pleasure or trying to avoid pain. Sometimes the present moment isn’t so fun. That’s our biology kicking in – our survival instinct.
However, true happiness arises when we can get free from these desires and aversions, and develop the capacity to accept and let the present moment unfold effortlessly in front of us. This takes a great deal of surrender - something we’re not conditioned in our society to do. We believe we have the ability to control our lives, but this controlling creates inner conflict. This struggle creates suffering. So how do we become deeply rooted in the present moment?
#1 Focus on the Body and Breath
First, we can get really embodied by practicing yoga or meditation with focus on the body and breath. In the West, we live so much of our lives up in our heads, but all the sensations that happen in our bodies are happening in present time. This is a simple fact. Therefore, when we bring our attention to our bodies, we’re becoming grounded in the present moment.
#2 Slow Down
While practicing yoga, cultivate presence by moving through your postures slower than you normally would. When you’re synchronizing your breath with your movement, the thoughts will slow down as your physical movements do. You can also take the time to become really focused upon your breath as you move through your yoga practice. The breath also happens in the present moment – another simple fact to remember. When you regard your yoga practice as a breathing practice – first and foremost, you can more easily become very, very present.
#3 Set an Intention
You may also wish to set an intention before beginning your yoga practice. You can intend do be as present with your bodily sensations as you can. You might set an intention to focus totally on the breath as you move. Perhaps 80% of your awareness is focused on your breathing and 20% on your asana – just another example.
#4 Create a Ritual
Another way to become more present during your yoga practice is to regard it as a sacred act, and then create a few rituals around your practice. Perhaps you light candles and surround your sticky mat with them (Just give yourself plenty of room to move!). You might call in a goddess to support your intention to become as present as possible. (Learn more about creating a spiritual ritual, or puja, here.) You could play music that helps you become deeply aware, or perhaps burn some incense. You can get creative here – essential oils are also fun to use, as certain oils help support a meditative state of mind (Frankincense is one of them.).
#5 Try a Body Scan Meditation
Aside from your yoga practice, all forms of meditation help us become more present. One very popular Buddhist meditation for getting present by focusing on bodily sensations is the body scan meditation. All you do in this meditation is scan your body with focused attention (and without any judgment). You begin by placing your awareness at the crown of your head and working your way down until you reach your toes. As you move from one body part to another, simply practice relaxing and releasing tension with each breath. You can do this particular meditation before going to bed at night to help you sleep. (Learn more about the body scan and other meditation techniques here.)
#6 Practice Mindfulness in Every Action
So that we don’t miss out on the beauty of our lives, we can practice mindfulness of awareness in practically everything we do. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, is famous for his walking meditations, in which he instructs his students to walk very slowly while focusing their awareness on each step as it kisses the earth. A walking meditation is great for cultivating presence when you’re out in the world, rather than on your sticky mat or meditation cushion.
Mindfulness of eating is another great practice for cultivating present moment awareness. We eat three times a day (or more), and what a better time to slow down and get present with all your senses as you slowly chew your food – every last bite before moving on to the next one? The more you get mindful when you eat, the more you realize you don’t need as much food as you habitually take in.
As you can see, there are a number of ways we can train ourselves to become more present. All it takes is the motivation to really want it. And it’s so worth it – as you will begin to know through experience, patience and self-compassion.