Category Archives: MBSR

Yoga and Mindfulness of the Body

Yoga, from the Sanskrit word yuj (“yoke”), means union. When teaching a yoga class or when teaching yoga during a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, we might say that in practicing yoga we unite body and mind. Some people come to a yoga or MBSR class completely out of touch with their bodies (while often preoccupied with judgmental thoughts about the body).  To learn how to become more embodied– with a nonjudgmental acceptance of the body as it is rather than the projections of the mind that we often substitute for the body – can be a powerful and transformative experience, bringing more self acceptance, more kindness and ultimately more joy. One way in which to become more embodied is by cultivating mindfulness of the body.[1]

Mindfulness has been defined as “moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, as non-reactively and as open heartedly as possible.”[2] Or more poetically described mindfulness is “the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each minute of life.”[3]

Mindfulness is inherent to yoga. The practice of yoga encourages us to cultivate the witness/observer who is aware moment by moment of whatever arises. There are many parallels to be in found in the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.[4] In the Yoga Sutras, yoga is defined as yogaś citta vtti nirodha, which has been variously translated as “The restraint of the modifications of mind-stuff is Yoga;”[5] “Yoga happens when there is stilling (in the sense of continual and vigilant watchfulness) of the movement of thought – without expression or suppression – in the indivisible intelligence in which there is no movement;”[6] and, “Wholeness consists of a complete grasp and command over the process of being and becoming aware.”[7]

The miracle of mindfulness and the miracle of yoga is wholeness.  Practicing mindfulness meditation and practicing yoga both offer us ways to cultivate wholeness of body, mind and life, a wholeness that each of us craves whether consciously or not.  To be whole is to be complete, to be free. A gateway to start to sense this wholeness is through mindfulness of the body, both in movement and in stillness.

Within the context of the MBSR course, mindful yoga is a powerful way to develop a more sensitive awareness of the body. The instruction is to cultivate moment to moment awareness of sensations in the body (including the sensations of breathing) as we move into and out of poses, without any desire or expectation to “do” the poses in any ideal way. While the center of attention is on sensations in the body we also include anything else that arises in our field of awareness, such as thoughts and feelings. In the context of writing about the critical role of hatha yoga in the development of the MBSR course, Jon Kabat-Zinn noted that “mindful yoga is a lifetime engagement—not to get somewhere else, but to be where and as we actually are in this very moment, with this very breath, whether the experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.”[8]  The practice of mindful yoga is learning how to be with how things really are moment by moment.

In the context of a yoga class teaching mindfulness of the body is as important and valuable as teaching asanas. We do this by inviting students to bring a kind, curious, nonjudgmental attention inward to sensations in the body (sensations of contact, sensations of temperature, sensations of pain, tightness, ease, openness, sensations of the breath moving in the body, and eventually to more subtle sensations of energy moving in the body). The student is also encouraged to feel emotions within the body (to explore where and how joy, sadness, sorrow, boredom, excitement reside in the body). Throughout class whenever the student becomes aware that the attention has wandered off to thoughts about the past or future she is encouraged to gently bring the attention back to the body or the breath. It is this act of bringing the attention back to body again and again without judgment that strengthens the integration of body and mind so that we may experience wholeness.

Aleezé Sattar Moss, Ph.D is a Research Associate at the Jefferson Myrna-Brind Center of Integrative Medicine. She works on research projects examining the benefits of mindfulness meditation and teaches in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. She also teaches hatha yoga and meditation.

[1] In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha taught mindfulness of the body as the first of the four foundations of mindfulness.  The four foundations of mindfulness – mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of mind, and mindfulness of mind objects – are often seen as the foundation for meditation practice. “Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference” (MN 10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, October 11, 2010,

[2] Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York, Hyperion, 1994

[3] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Beacon Press, 1999.

[4] Sri Patanjali codified a pre-existing tradition of yoga in the Yoga Sutras, said to have been written sometime between 250 BC and 250 AD.  For a discussion of the parallels between the Buddha’s teachings and the Yoga Sturas see N. Tandon. A Re-appraisal of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras in the Light of the Buddha’s Teaching. Igatpuri, Maharashtra: Vipassana Research Institute, 1995 (reprinted 1998). For a critical review of this work see Georg Feuerstein, 2006, online at

[5] Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Integral Yoga Publications 1978 (reprinted 1999),

[6] Swami Venkatesananda, Enlightened Living. A New Interpretive Translation of the Yoga Sutras of Maharsi Patanjali. The Chiltern Yoga Trust, 1975.

[7] Kofia Busia, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, online at

[8] Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindful Yoga Movement & Meditation,” Yoga International, Feb/March 2003