Mindfulness (Smriti): Tapping into the body's memory in asana practice

In the last 10 years, words like mindfulness have become quite trendy, thanks in part, to popular apps like headspace. Though many talk about mindfulness and teach mindfulness, not many understand the origins of the word and reasons why it was called so in the language it originated, Sanskrit.

The word mindfulness is used to represent the Pali word 'Sati', which is derived from the Sanskrit word 'Smriti' which literally means memory. In a way, one can look at Pali as a lazy person's Sanskrit because it removes the tongue twisters from Sanskrit (of course losing some of the power and import of the words in the process). For example, 'Dharma' in Sanskrit became 'Dhamma' in Pali and 'Maitreya' (friendliness) became 'Metha' in Pali, which further became 'Metta' in English. Pali is the language in which the Buddha's teachings were written down several hundred years after his death though the Buddhas was thought to have taught in a language, also derived from Sanskrit, used in the ancient land of the Magada.

So how did 'memory' come to have the context of 'mindfulness', which in the parlance of the meditation community, refers to paying attention in a non-judgemental fashion. For this, one has to look at the Buddha's Satipattana Sutra which is the text on the establishment of the foundations for mindfulness. The Buddha calls mindfulness of the body as the first foundation for the establishement of mindfulness, which he says is the direct path to the cessation of suffering and the awakening of prajña (discerning wisdom).

The reason why Buddha chose mindfulness of the Body (Kayena Anupachchinna) first over Vedana(feelings), mind-states and Dharma is that body is a rich storehouse of memory and unlike the mind reveals things as they are without coloring and adding its own stories.

Garba Pindasana

Asana Practice is, in a way, paying observation to the body's sensations. In fact, when I attended my first Vipasana silent meditation retreat, I quickly realized that asana practice is in fact a mindfulness of the body meditation practice amplified by a factor of one thousand. During asana practice, when you press certain sensitive parts of the body using your hands, knees, feet etc. one is able to access the body's memory. Some of the sensitive parts of the body that store a lot of memory are for example, the cheeks, the forehead (especially the area between the eyebrows, the seat of the Ajna Chakra), the stomach etc.

When one is able to touch one of these sensitive areas, such as the cheeks as shown above in the asana called Garba Pindasana (the embryo pose), we are able to ground ourselves and access deep memories. The cheeks, for instance, hold a lot of memory from childhood when parents kiss and fondle. That is perhaps why nature has designed it so that children have features like cute chubby cheeks, drawing attention to that area.

This grounding, and the accessing of the memory, sometimes provide the "aha" moments, because we are able to tap deeper into our consciousness.