“The best cure for the body is a quiet mind.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Quiet is hard to come by at my house. It’s late August and the cicadas in my yard have taken their “song” to new levels. (Lordy, that noise grates on my nerves!) While one of my kids has made his way back to college, two are still here at home filling the house with the incessant sounds of music and Netflix. My husband, as I type, is using his booming “lawyer voice” on a conference call with three colleagues. One dog is tip-tapping on the wood floors as he paces from window to window looking for birds while the other gives himself a slurpy bath.
I suspect the cacophony that surrounds me is not atypical. And it’s not just the world around us that is loud. We are increasingly choosing to add noise to our lives in moments that could yield some quiet. It is rare anymore to see someone walking in town without headphones in their ears. The commuters I know swear by podcasts to make their journeys more rewarding. My kids’ grandmothers often have the television on “just for the noise.” And I haven’t turned on one of my cars in weeks without being blasted by a radio left on and turned up to “eleven” by someone in my family.
Many yoga studios (mine included) play music in their classes. For some (not mine) their playlists are actually one of their selling points. I suppose this makes a degree of sense in today’s world. After all, if people aren’t comfortable with a few minutes of quiet on the way to the grocery store, the idea of 60-90 minutes of quiet while practicing yoga could seem daunting. For some, background noise actually improves their ability to focus. This is especially true in my family, where three of the five of us have ADHD. Even I (with no attention deficits at all) find music helpful when I’m trying to focus on days when my mind is particularly scattered.
So it doesn’t surprise me at all that yoga’s invitation to embrace quiet within and without can be one of its most challenging aspects. If accepted, however, this invitation to some quiet leads to yoga’s most healing and powerful gifts.
Ashtanga yoga has eight limbs. The first four of these are limbs of action. The first two contain yoga’s ten moral guidelines. The third is the postures we do on our mats. The fourth teaches mindful breathing. The last four limbs describe successively deeper states of meditation. Quiet is the gateway to these practices. Until we are comfortable with quiet surroundings, we cannot hope to learn how to quiet ourselves – our endless chattering thoughts, our surging emotions and our wild swings of energy.
The first of these four meditative branches of yoga is called pratyahara, which means sense-withdrawal. This branch teaches us to re-direct our awareness away from the sights and sounds surrounding us, choosing instead to engage with our breath, our movements, or the actual moment as it is unfolding. Just as the most challenging yoga postures can require weeks and months of practice to perform, this type of mindful focus requires steady, persistent and patient practice. Years of it.
Over and over again as we practice, we learn to notice when our mind has wandered off. Studies show that we regularly think upwards of 60,000 thoughts a day! (No wonder inner peace and quiet can seem hard to find!) Thinking is what our minds are designed to do and we need to set aside any need or desire to stop these thoughts from happening. Instead, we learn to allow our flow of thoughts to serve a similar function as background music does for my loved ones with ADHD as they write papers or memorize vocabulary. In other words, we can actually allow our stream of thoughts to prompt us to focus on the moment at hand – our breath, the alignment of our body, or that still pool of simply “being” deep within.
A key step in this practice is setting the tone for our noticing. When we notice that our awareness has drifted off with one of our thoughts, we must be gentle and compassionate. We must cease to judge ourselves – setting aside the need to label our attempts as “good” or “bad.” A friend says to herself, in a quiet tone as close to a loving kindergarten teacher as she can muster, “Oh dear. This is so hard for you. Let’s try again.” And she’s spot on. It is incredibly hard to maintain a steady focus when life is whirling along around us. This may indeed be the hardest thing you ever do.
But trying to choose quiet is so very worth it. Giving yourself even the briefest respite from the constant chatter “upstairs” is profoundly beneficial. A little inner quiet has been shown to reduce stress. It is an effective way to control anxiety. It supports emotional stability and is a great way to develop better self-awareness. It can help stave off the memory loss that comes with aging. And it can make us kinder, more compassionate people. Today’s physicians seem to agree with Napoleon Bonaparte – a quiet mind might just be the cure you need the most.
So, while clearly neither you nor I can control the cicadas, try to find some times in your day when you can choose some silence. Perhaps you could make one of your commutes a quiet one with no phone and no podcasts. Or maybe you could choose to turn off the news while you’re getting ready in the morning. Or you might possibly consider leaving the music off during your yoga practice tomorrow morning.
Remember, when you turn off the noise around you, the “noise” inside might seem even louder. Don’t panic. It’s only practice. And with time, you may actually get as comfortable with quiet as you already are balancing on one foot.