Aligning heart, mind and soul: Yoga as a contemplative practice

Aligning heart, mind and soul: Yoga as a contemplative practice

I am of the belief that mediation does not solely have to be confined to sitting in a chair, closing your eyes and attending to your thoughts with awareness. Meditation has looked vastly different for me over the years as I dip in and out of various practices which help me be fully aware and alive in the present moment. Research in recent decades have begun to look at activities which allow us to cultivate self-awareness through reflection. Known as contemplative practices, a vast array of activities are designed to improve the wellbeing of individuals by cultivating oneself. Much of the scholarship has looked at meditation, mindfulness, journaling and yoga (Pignatelli, 2015; Telles et al., 2019; McCaw, 2021), with more scholars beginning to investigate the application of spiritual exercises, following’s Hadot (1995) work on philosophy as a way of life (Sharpe & Ure, 2021; Miller, 2022). Contemplative practices strive to achieve ‘a state of calm and alertness, balancing work and personal identities, and performing work tasks with a high degree of self-awareness and self-respect’ (Beer et al., 2015, p. 164). What stands out for me here is the notion of self-awareness and self-respect, which can be much easier to talk about in theory as opposed to practising it in our everyday lives.

The Tree of Contemplative Practices illustrates some of the many contemplative practices used in education and secular organisations.

One such contemplative practice that I have consistently done over the past eight years is yoga. From Vinyasa to Hatha, Bikram to Yin, yoga has been deeply interesting to experiment with and experience multiple ways to create calm and flow. There are key lessons which have become the pillar in helping me align my heart, mind and soul to cultivate self-awareness and reap in its benefits. These are attending to breath, learning to flow and the need to listen to our bodies.

1.     Breathing

When I first started yoga, I felt practically nothing after each class. If anything, I realised how inflexible my body was. Struggling to learn the names of each posture and sequence, it took at least a year to wrap my head around it all. After many classes where my inner peace still failed to appear, I finally attempted to match my breath with my practice. This is where it all came together. Being adept enough to know the movements meant that I had the mental capacity to focus on breathing consciously. The yogic tradition believes that breath carries one’s life force (prana) or energy. By practising breathing exercises as part of each yoga routine, this can assist in clearing emotional or physical obstacles to energise us. This energy shift is subtle, but a key part of this contemplative practice is developing the skill of noticing and accessing those different levels of consciousness. I found that focusing on the breath grounds me in the present, allowing me to let go of the past or future.

2.     Flow is a form of mediation

With a personal interest in Daoist philosophy, the story of Cook Ding immediately jumps to mind when talking about ‘flow’, where perception and understanding is essential to fostering a better quality of life. Practising yoga with spirit, rather than seeing it as an accumulation of separate movements is key. Each posture moves seamlessly into the next, and when paired with the breath, I can feel myself in a state of flow. This is what a Daoist could call, wúwéi 無為, which translates to effortless action or inexertion. Wúwéi 無為 allows my mind to only be focusing on the activity at hand, training my attention and awareness to mind, body and spirit. For someone who struggles to sit still and mediate for more than ten minutes, this alternative form of nurturing self-awareness still engages me mentally and emotionally. Others might find their flow in running, doing Tai Chi, playing music or journaling. Whatever activity it may be, focusing on bringing your whole attention to that and inserting yourself into the present moment can help you enter a flow state to cultivate inner tranquillity and equanimity.

Cook Ding Cuts Up an Ox from The Book of Master Zhuang (莊子)

3.     Your best looks different every day

I feel that this lesson can be found in almost every physical pursuit. Depending on the day I have had or current season of life I am going through, my best will look different every time on the mat. A couple of years ago, I kept pushing my body to try and hold a posture for a moment longer or stretch that one bit further. Sure, it would work out in the short term, but my mental state was not always happy with me afterwards. Progress is not linear, and my self-worth is definitely not defined by how easily I can touch my toes. When yoga instructors tell us to listen to our bodies, they mean it and mean well. Part of the learning curve was to tell myself that it had been a rough and stressful week, so I needed use the time on the mat to decompress, enjoy moving my body in a way that is comfortable for me and that might be all I can do that day. Cultivating that self-awareness and humility to be kind to ourselves is a critical lesson that helped me get the most out of my practice.

Taking the time to experiment with different practices and studios, and then finding something that aligns with my passions, energy and lifestyle is incredibly comforting. Yoga has become an integral part of my adult life by bringing in consistency and serenity. Maybe you have found a contemplative practice that achieves the same outputs for yourself, but if not, it might be the time to explore some new activities.

If you would like to show your support, feel free to buy me a coffee! ☕


Beer, L. E., Rodriguez, K., Taylor, C., Martinez-Jones, N., Griffin, J., Smith, T. R., ... & Anaya, R. (2015). Awareness, integration and interconnectedness: Contemplative practices of higher education professionals. Journal of transformative education, 13(2), 161-185.

Hadot, P. (1995). Philosophy as a way of life: Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Blackwell Publishing.

McCaw, C. T. (2021). Beyond deliberation—radical reflexivity, contemplative practices and teacher change. Journal of Educational Change, 1-23.

Miller, J. P. (2022). Taoism, Teaching, and Learning: A Nature-Based Approach to Education. University of Toronto Press.

Pignatelli, F. (2015). Ethical leadership development as care of the self: A Foucauldian perspective. Schools, 12(2), 198-213.

Sharpe, M., & Ure, M. (2021). Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Telles, S., Sharma, S. K., Gupta, R. K., Pal, D. K., Gandharva, K., & Balkrishna, A. (2019). The impact of yoga on teachers’ self-rated emotions. BMC Research Notes, 12(1), 1-5.