Noting and naming sensation in an asana / working with the elements

In the Mahasi system of insight meditation, noting and naming experience are central to the practice.

To go deeper into the sensation in different asana postures, we could try to note and label the sensation.

Once we are in the posture and fix our attention to a particular sensation, how can we describe the sensation? What is below the stiffness? hardness/heat/movement/tingling?
Putting the appropriate label to the experience helps to make the awareness more precise.

In the teachings of the Buddha, the play of the elements of earth,fire,wind,water can be found underneath sensation. Earth would be experienced as hardness/softness, fire as heat/cold, wind as movement/stillness and water as wetness/dryness.

The practice can go deeper if we get interested in the simultaneous play of the elements.

Let’s say we feel a sensation in the lower back and on looking closely we decide to name the sensation as ‘hot’. When we become aware of the movement of the breath from this place of heat, what is the sensation associated with the breath? is it movement/coolness?
Can we then be simultaneously aware of the different sensations and as time passes what is our observation?


Structuring attention in an asana (dharana)

Once we are settled in an asana, where is our attention? A lot of contemporary yoga practice ignores where the focus of the practitioner is once she is in the asana.

In the words of Patrick Kearney, there are two ways in which attention can be structured in the process of insight meditation. We can choose to pay attention to a particular part of the body (zooming in) or be aware of the whole posture(zooming out).

How could this be applied to the asana practice and what sort of observations might arise?

Before we start an asana, it helps to pay attention to the parts of the body which are in contact with the ground. This ability to stay connected with the ground is crucial in practicing whole body awareness.

Let’s say we are practicing a standing asana. Before we start moving, there are two ways in which we can structure our attention in the standing posture. We can choose to pay attention to the movement of the breath in a specific part of the body (nose, chest, stomach) or we can simple be aware of the whole body and the clear contact of the feet with the ground.

If we were to move on to perform a simple asana, for example, hastapadasana (bending forward, head towards the knee) where could our attention be in the final posture?
We could zoom in to explore the sensation where it might be the clearest. Say the stretch in the lower back. We can go right into this sensation and spend some time observing it. We can then zoom out and be aware of the whole posture and all the different sensations and movements. We could then choose to zoom in to explore the sensation in another part of the body, say the neck or the hamstrings. And then zoom out again.
Experimenting with these two ways of paying attention could be an insightful process.

To take the investigation a step further, we could observe the breath moving from the place of sensation when we zoom in and the movement of the breath in different parts of the body when we zoom out. The former involves a specific point of focus while the latter allows for a traveling focus while being aware of the entire posture.
How is the texture of the breath different in each case?

Experimenting with these methods as per one’s interest could be a worthwhile exploration. It can be quite interesting in asanas which operate on many different parts of the body.

From my experience and understanding, practicing like this would fall under dharana (internal focus) and would also be an entry into advanced kriya yoga practices.

The practice of Kaya Anupassana in relation to Yoga Asana

The phrase the Buddha uses to speak about mindfulness of body is Kaya Anupassana. Kaya can be translated as body and Anupassana as ‘seeing along’ or ‘tracking’.
So the practice of Kaya Anupassana can be read as tracking the body.

In the context of a yoga asana, we can track the body as it changes slowly from the beginning of the posture into the final posture and back to the starting position. This interest in a changing body as it moves slowly can be an insightful process and can significantly change the asana practice.

The emphasis then is on observing sensation as the body moves. How does the ‘stretch’ travel through different parts of the body as we get into the asana posture. If we choose to stay in the posture and investigate the sensation of the stretch, what is the experience like? is it possible to keep our attention fixed on the location of the sensation over time? does the texture of the sensation change with the passage of time?

In the practice of Kaya Anupassana, the relationship to time is central. As we track the body, we get interested in change over time.
Rather than trying to get to a perfect posture, we can stretch till where we can go without a struggle and spend time observing the sensation in this posture.
We can keep our attention fixed on the ‘hardness’/’tightness’/’heat’ of the sensation and then become aware of the movement of the breath from the place of sensation. As we keep observing this over time, what is the experience like?

When we come out of the posture we come out slowly and continue observing the change till we come to the starting posture.

When we meditate for insight, we are particularly interested in the points of change. As we perform the asana, we can choose to pay close attention to the points of change of the sensation, while going into the posture and while coming out.

Spending some time in stillness after an asana can be a worthwhile exploration. We can focus on the parts of the body which were ‘stretched’ and notice how they feel now. Is there an experienced difference in the sensation in these parts after the asana as compared to before? Is there any change in the movement of the breath?

The asana practice if done as a mindfulness practice can be an entry into impermanence (anicca) of the body.