To most of us, yoga is about being awake, mindful and aware. However, a certain measure of mindlessness seems to be vital as a form of counter pose in modern yoga, one we often resist going into.
Yoga is an embodied practice and everything in the body has opposition. When one body part grounds, another part lifts. There can be no inhalation without exhalation. But when it comes to the mind, we seem to privilege focused attention, conscious presence and mindful activity over being unaware, sleepy or gone. What is the function of the unawakened in yoga?
Teaching retreats for a few years gave me a hint. Most people that come on retreat with me book a full week of yoga because they feel they need a break. We arrive on retreat straight off the plane from super-busy-land, and many are so stressed they can't sleep at night. When teaching retreats I am usually asked for support in how to restore natural sleep cycles. Staying longer in savasana, for example, can help readjust sleep patterns.
As bodies begin to get comfortable with relaxing, I may find students curled up in the in bed or on the sofa, in the shade, in the sun or in meditation. They oversleep and show up with hurricane hair and puffy eyes. Sweet! When they get really stable and comfortable in yoga posture practice they can even drop off into unawareness in the middle of a class. Surrendering to the flow of deeply felt sensation, resting in beautiful mindlessness, forgetting the self and the world even as the body stays softly active. To me, the presence of sleeping students in my class is (mostly) an expression of embodied wisdom speaking clearly and students is listening deeply. I love it and endorse rest publically from day one.
However, I have had to recognize that most of us carry a deep conviction that sleeping on the yoga mat or the meditation cushion is a problem. I see this when we blush and make jokes about snoring in savasana, express guilt about dozing off during guided meditation and apologize for oversleeping. Even when deep rest is neccessary, we are somewhat uncomfortable with it.
This is, to me, a sign that our practice coming up against some deeply rooted patterns. Which means its working! Underneath the flustered jokes about sleep and unawareness in yoga, I hear a much deeper set of questions being asked: Am I a still welcomed by the community if I don't comply with the norm? Is it ok for me to relax and enjoy this moment? On a deeper level we seem to also be asking: Do I still exist when others don't recognize my presence? Do I still exist when I myself am not consciously aware of my own presence? When I am "gone", what or who is experiencing this?
Now those are good questions! Questions I think we cannot begin to answer unless we get really comfortable with mindlessness. We need the exhale of our practice, that part of us which is not aware and awake.
However, the unawakened mind may have been be a bit slacked off in modern spiritual practice. Modern life, including our version of yoga and meditation, seems to be demanding that we become ever more focused, efficient, clear and awake. The call for conscious presence seems to be everywhere: In yoga, meditation, mindfulness, coaching, leadership, sexuality, cooking, eating, shopping and parenting. Everywhere we are trying to avoid unconscious modes of being. The reasons are obvious. Our species is facing the biggest challenge ever and we need to be awake and respond mindfully to what´s going on in the world.
But inhaling continuously may not be the best solution to being out of breath - unless you really want to pass out. When the mindless part of us wants to come up to the surface to release the exhale there are only a few air holes left. States of deep sleep, orgasm or daydreaming are some of the rare breathing spaces in our culture where it´s still socially acceptable to be "gone". But air holes are closing and we are more often left with more stressful expressions for unawakened states of mind. Recreational drugs, endless TV-series, alcohol, Facebook scrolling, road rage, involuntarily napping in all the wrong places and chronic fatigue may be expressions of mindlessness disowned. It is perhaps no coincidence that our global consciousness-revolution coincides with a time in history where more human beings suffer from insomnia than ever.
Perhaps there is more to awakening than focused attention and mindful activity? I suspect we also deeply need the part of us that is unawakened to meet the challenges ahead.
So even if it seems counter intuitive, I would like to give a shout-out for mindlessness as a vital aspect of human existence and therefore also of yoga practice. Rather than apologizing for our natural need to let go, we could let the unawakened mind do what it does best: Allowing us to become one with what is happening rather than observe it from an imagined control room. Enabling us to switch off, drop our control trip and surrender to what is. Becoming truly intimate with any experience can be a practice of mindlessness.
I have a feeling that when we begin to explore and appreciate our unconscious modes of presence in all their many forms; the unawkened mind could revolutionize both our inner and outer world.
You can begin your own revolution by allowing yourself to doze off the next time you find yourself being taken there in your practice.
It´s ok. Really.
Cover image: Karin Priergaard Worsøe
Profile image: Ditte Capion