Mastering the art of stillness through yoga and mindfulness
We explore the benefits of finding stillness in a world that won’t stop moving.
We live in a culture that is very much obsessed with the idea of movement: with growth, with progress, with advancing in a forward direction. In our work lives, we’re often expected to be doing more than one thing at a time, and our ability to multitask has become something to brag about. In a culture like ours, the opposite of movement can seem unhealthy or even threatening.
Yet stillness isn’t just the opposite of movement: its true meaning is much deeper. In yogic theory, there are three gunas, or qualities at play in the universe: tamas, rajas and sattva. Tamas is associated with ignorance, staleness, heaviness and stagnation; rajas with hyperactivity; and sattva with a state of equanimous calm and awareness. Many of us spend our days oscillating between tamas and rajas: we drink coffee and race around during the daytime and then retreat to the couch to eat heavy foods, drink wine and watch Netflix at night, for example. True stillness means coming into a state of sattva.
It’s when we’re in this balanced state that we’re able to access our inner wisdom and deepest insights. In his book The Sun My Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh uses the metaphor of a glass of cloudy apple juice which, once poured, needs time for the sediment to settle before the juice is clear. Lao Tzu wrote something similar in the Tao Te Ching more than 2000 years ago: “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” By stepping off the treadmill of modern life for a moment, we receive the gift of clarity.
For many of us, however, this state is not so easy to achieve, and it takes a while for us to settle. Finding the time and inclination to be still is a challenge, and when we do sit still, we often find that the mind is incredibly restless. Thoughts are whizzing around like balloons that have just had their helium released. Frustrated and exasperated by this experience, we choose instead to direct our attention to the chaos of the external world, which is, at least, a little familiar.
Stillness is a practice that we must cultivate. Our nervous systems, often boosted by adrenaline and cortisol, take time to unwind — which is precisely why choosing stillness is so important. If we regularly practise stillness, we reap the benefits of shifting from our sympathetic (fight-flight-or-freeze) to our parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system.
What we don’t realise is that after living in the hecticness of the modern world for so long, stillness is a practice that we must cultivate. Our nervous systems, often boosted by adrenaline and cortisol, take time to unwind — which is precisely why choosing stillness is so important. If we regularly practise stillness, we reap the benefits of shifting from our sympathetic (fight-flight-or-freeze) to our parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system. Our bodies can return to homestasis, our heartrate can slow, our digestion can improve and we get a much-needed break from an onslaught of stress hormones.
Stillness may come in the form of meditation, although not necessarily. Meditation often involves stillness, but stillness doesn’t always involve meditation. Here are some practices to help cultivate stillness.
Practise yin or restorative yoga
Yin yoga helps us learn how to be still while also releasing tension from our connective tissues. It gives the mind a focal point in the form of physical sensation.
Restorative yoga involves using props to put the body into the ideal positions to tone our vagus nerve and welcome our “rest-and-digest” mode. For those of us who struggle to sit still on our own, practising restorative yoga — either in a group class or at home — can coax the body into deep relaxation and offer a path to stillness.
Schedule time each day to do nothing
This might mean pausing for five minutes after eating your lunch at work before racing off to the next thing; sitting at your kitchen bench for 10 minutes each morning to simply ponder; or standing still for a few moments in the shower to just breathe and notice the sensation of the water on your skin.
Find a sit spot
“If we sit with an increasing stillness of the body, and attune our mind to the sky or to the ocean or to the myriad stars at night, or any other indicators of vastness, the mind gradually stills and the heart is filled with quiet joy,” writes Ravi Ravindara in his translation of the Sutras.
By sitting still in nature, we become aware of the way things move and change around us, as well as the things that remain the same, such as our own internal stillness.
Often practised as part of forest bathing and other nature-focused rituals, finding a sit spot means deciding, literally, on a spot to sit and simply observe. Ideally, your sit spot is local to you — it might be a rock at your favourite beach, a tree in nearby bushland or a bench in your own backyard — so that you can revisit the spot regularly. By sitting still in nature, we become aware of the way things move and change around us, as well as the things that remain the same, such as our own internal stillness. You might close down your eyes and pay attention to the sounds around you, or keep them open and observe the activity of water, trees or wildlife.
Hand-write in a journal
Writing in a diary or journal obviously involves a level of activeness, but it’s an activity that allows us a moment to step away from the movement of life and reflect instead. There are many benefits to writing by hand — including that it increases neural activity in the same areas of the brain as meditation, and that it gives us a break from blue screens and the distractions of social media.
Read a hard-copy book or magazine
The stillness we’re in when watching television is of the tamasic variety; reading a book or magazine is more likely to engage the mind without overstimulating or understimulating it. Reading books and magazines is also great for helping us cultivate the ability to focus on one thing at a time.