Mindfulness in Ayurveda & Yoga

by Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.

Mindfulness seems to be the buzzword everywhere these days – magazines, the web, coffee mugs, doctor’s offices, boardrooms, training programs, and even art galleries and football. Mindfulness promises us everything from better health and better relationships to success in business and sports. So let’s take a look at some of the original sources and their commentaries that describe mindfulness.

One of the primary textbooks of Ayurveda, the Charak Samhita, tells us both the causes of suffering and the means to prevent suffering. Suffering is caused by “mistakes of the intellect, overuse of the senses, and a lack of mindfulness.” The prevention of suffering comes by “avoiding intellectual errors, by calming the senses, and by being mindful.” In particular, we are advised to be mindful of proper time and place along with the karmic law of cause and effect.

For example, let’s say we always eat a large dinner at 9 pm but have trouble sleeping through the night. If we are practicing mindfulness of how our dinner (cause) affects our sleep (effect), we will make the connection that our timing for dinner was too close to bedtime. If we are not practicing mindfulness, we continue eating a late dinner out of habit and simply complain that we are not sleeping well.

Another example would be the action (karma) of eating dinner while driving (improper place and time) that causes the effect of indigestion (suffering). A little mindfulness will help us see the mistake of our intellect. Ayurveda offers all kinds of advice as to proper time, place and action, and we are well to take that advice. But it is through our own judgment, moderation and mindfulness that we put that advice to the test and find our own way.

The concept of mindfulness is related to the concept of memory or remembering. In the Sanskrit language of Ayurveda and Yoga, the word smrti is used for both. The expanded meaning of smrti is memory, mindfulness, awareness, intentness, one-pointedness, recollection, remembrance, reflection, and presence of mind, leading to contemplation and meditation.

In the primary textbook of Yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, mindfulness is described as one of five interrelated powers or methods. In Sutra I.20, we are told the goal of yoga is attained through faith, strength, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. We must have faith (shraddha) in the tradition as we begin our practice. We are inspired by the stories of great yogis but have no direct experience. We accept the path by their testimony. This gives us the enthusiasm to take up the practices such as postures and breathing. This enthusiasm is termed virya or the strength of our own effort. As strength gathers in us through our practice we find ourselves becoming more mindful, focused and clear. In turn, our increasing mindfulness and clarity is the support for concentration and meditation practices. Finally, it is through the practice of meditation that intuitive wisdom (prajna) dawns. Now we are supported by our own direct experience, which reinforces our faith in the tradition. This process can be likened to the scientific method, where a hypothesis is put to the test and replicated in our own experience as valid proof.

According to Vyasa’s commentary on this sutra, as we gather our own direct experience, faith becomes “full clarity and pleasantness of the mindfield” as lingering doubts are eliminated. Our enthusiasm becomes our capacity to initiate and inspire others. Our mindfulness becomes recollection of our true nature. Our concentration and meditation becomes spiritual absorption or samadhi, and with awakened wisdom (prajna-viveka) “one then knows the exact reality.”

The Buddha also described the five powers in his original teachings. They are called the five strengths (pancha bala) or the five spiritual faculties (Indriyas). The Buddha recommends that we tune or balance our five faculties like a musical instrument so that the “strings” are neither too tight nor too loose.

According to the commentator Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), if the faculty of faith is too strong, it weakens our effort, our mindfulness, our concentration and our wisdom. In particular faith needs to be balanced by the faculty of wisdom or direct knowing. Then faith can perform its functions of strengthening our resolve and controlling doubt without being uncritical and naive.

In a similar way, if our efforts become too strong, it weakens our faith, our mindfulness, our concentration and our wisdom. Our efforts need to be balanced by the letting go process of relaxed concentration and the tranquility of meditation or we simply become tense, agitated and restless. On the other hand, meditation without any effort leads to idleness and laziness. The proper function of effort is to exert oneself in order to control laziness.

When properly balanced, the five faculties work in harmony. Concentration provides focus and counters distractions while wisdom provides insight and controls ignorance. But of the five, Buddhaghosa comments “strong mindfulness is needed in all instances; for mindfulness protects the mind from lapsing into agitation through faith, energy and wisdom, which favor agitation, and from lapsing into idleness through concentration, which favors idleness.” Mindfulness is therefore “as desirable in all instances as seasoning of salt in all sauces” or “as a prime minister in all the king’s business.” Practicing in this way, the mind “follows the road of serenity…like a charioteer when the horses are progressing evenly.”

Buddhaghosa sums up his commentary by telling us we must remain ever mindful to prevent the mind from steering off course:

“A man wise in temperament
Notices how his mind inclines:
Energy and serenity
Always he couples each to each.
Now, his mind, seeing that it holds back,
He prods, now the restraining rein
Tightening, seeing it pull too hard:
Guiding with even pace the race…
Gain thus, not otherwise, the prize.”

Editor's note:

Gary Gran, CYT, DAy., is a Himalayan Tradition initiate. He is also a yoga and meditation instructor as well as an Ayurvedic educator and writer. Gary is certified by The Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, and is a regular contributor to the Yoga Chicago Magazine. is a certified yoga teacher and ayurvedic practitioner trained in the Himalayan tradition. He lives and practices in Evanston, Illinois, USA.

He will teaching a workshop on “Mindful Eating” at the Himalayan Center in Palatine, Illinois, USA, on 17 June 2017.  Please see http://hymcillinois.com/programs/workshops/3491-mindful-eating



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