Atha (pronounced ah-ta) implies ‘attention’.
The first word of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explains so much about the practice we are moving into each time we come onto the mat.
Like all of the words of the Yoga Sutras, it is not placed randomly. It implies many things – awareness, readiness, discernment and action. Now!
This is a beginning, an auspicious moment! Pay attention to it!
So it got me thinking about the concept of being attentive and how automatically we can move through life – sometimes paying very little attention. I’ll admit that most times I’m probably operating in a state of distraction.
But modern life likes to test us with how much we can cram into one moment or breath.
The effect can be like waving a red flag at a bull, wanting it to charge forward into self-destruction. Unlike the bull we have a few more options – if we can pause to recognise them.
My most famous moments of inattention occur when I bake. I can’t count the amount of times I have missed out on an essential ingredient – as I respond to my kids’ questions or the ‘multi task’ of putting away dishes and re-organising the fridge at the same time. In other words, my attention gets split very easily. One task melds into three…and focus can slip.
The cake can quickly shift from a great idea to a mess that needs to be cleaned up and thrown out.
Yoga should move us away from what is disturbing, negative to something positive, revealing.
Coming onto the yoga mat invites the complete opposite of this state of distraction.
Yoga is change – the first posture, the first conscious breath changes something. Shifts a pattern.
Attention starts to move to internal awareness – it might still fluctuate – but there is something to come back to – body, breath, our wellbeing. How are we today?
We start to let go of what has come before – and be…. now.
We may arrive on the mat with a sore back in the hope of stretching it to relieve pain.
We may be agitated from a busy day tending to the needs of work or others around us.
We arrive on the mat because there is a need to feel better in some way. We are ready to take the journey inward – back to what is steady and constant. That feeling of being complete again.
Yoga is a discipline, not an exercise.
Moving body. Following breath. Connection with breath is connection with life force (prana) and prana is an expression of our health and vigour.
A chain of events is set once we come into our body, begin to notice our breath and stay open to the experience we are being led into. Can we move smoothly, with steadiness? Is there agitation or distraction? The mat teaches us many lessons – we just need to be open to hearing them.
As our minds are never truly still this atha wavers at times, particularly if we are doing yoga in a class. There are other people to distract us, the voice of a teacher, perhaps music or other sounds – all of which can make attention to our self more challenging.
Practicing alone can take on a deeper, more internal focus. When we rely on our self to do the practice, in a private space we form a deeper relationship with atha. There is different quality when we do the practice on our own terms, continually, over time. Repetition can become the greatest teacher.
And it quickly shows us when we are not in a yoga state!
Where does this state of atha lead us in yoga?
In its purest, traditional form yoga was about knowing our self and as a consequence, forming a connection with a greater entity (in the Yoga Sutras this is know as isvara). Isvara is a spiritual concept – it harnesses the understanding that we are not an isolated being but working in unison with a higher force.
As the mind moves away from the non-essential thoughts that surround us for most of the day we start the link with a deeper element within us – an element that connects us with isvara.
You are all you need to begin the journey. No stylish yoga wear, no props – (I have a teacher friend who doesn’t even use a mat when she teaches). Just this body, this breath and mind – and atha.
Atha is something we can bring into most actions of life, not just yoga.
The more we step onto the mat the more attention we cultivate in other parts of life. It’s essentially brain training. Watch the focus move away, then bring it back. Over and over.
We may begin to learn to see in different ways – through intuition, a sharper mind, a different awareness. These are some of the benefits that come with practice over time.
Or perhaps we become less impatient with those close to us, less bothered by the person who has said the wrong thing to us, less annoyed at missing the bus.
If we are attentive enough there is that little gap that comes before action … the moment where you assess the next step, pause…consider possible directions – and then choose the one that is appropriate and without harm (ahmisa). Attention brings discernment.
Cultivating attention has a flow on effect in our life.
So next time I start to follow that recipe, I will try to remember to pause for a moment, let go of that long list of other things to do and just concentrate on one thing. Atha on the task at hand.
And hopefully bake an amazing cake!