The mindful body and the bodily mind

Hatha Yoga and Mindfulness are often seen as individual practices that take place inside the body-mind. At first instance it is hard to imagine how both practices resonate with the enactive approach, and specifically with Hanne De Jaegher and Ezequiel Di Paolo’s concept of participatory sense-making. 

In this blog I want to clarify that relationship. 

Although my initial research question originally was framed within the context of play and dance improvisation, I extended (rather intuitively) my artistic practice to Hatha Yoga and Mindfulness. It first started as a daily ritual, getting up early and starting the day with a series of attentive exercises. Soon I got so excited that I decided to do a Hatha Yoga Teacher Training and half a year I inscribed myself for the MBSR Trainers Course.

As part of the teacher’s training I received an impressive list of books and papers on yoga and mindfulness. But honestly, I have to say, the reading material confused me. I was surprised to read that, according to some authors, mindfulness and yoga are considered attentive practices that draw the senses inwards in order to bring attention to a private, mental state.

This seemed in contrast with the way I experience yoga and mindfulness practice. To me, it is a practice in which openings and passages are created through which energy can flow from the inside to the outside (and vice versa).  Both yoga and mindfulness operate in the in-between space, i.e. an experiental space that connects inner and outer worlds. 

For me, yoga and mindfulness are deeply relational practices. There is nothing solitary about it. Through asana practice the body opens up and energy flows through the surface as well as to the deeper layers of the body. The breath serves as an anchor to remain in the present moment.  With every breath, elements of otherness pass through my body. Energy, intensities and vital forces float through the body.

The energy (that comes along with each breath) resonates with our body.  It travels in waves through our body – through all our senses – as it transfers energy and creates pathways and passages for the self. Different narratives may emerge as a result of this harmonic resonance. In this respect we might say that attentive practices provide a source of vital renewal since with each breath energy is transmitted from one particle to another particle.

Through attentive practice the self becomes more fluid, and in this process elements of self and of otherness float over in each other. Attentive practice allows us to (re)-experience the vital interconnectedness of the lived body. It’s here where the enactive account comes in. In enactivism every action is inter-action: organisms are embedded in an environment through dynamic coupling.

The term “enactivism” was first coined by Francisco Varela and colleagues in the 1990s. It stands for an emerging set of ideas that take the dynamic interaction of an acting organism with its environment as the central starting point (Paolo et al. 2010).The enactive account challenges the traditional idea of a representational mind. In the enactive account, the interaction itself is the source of intersubjectivity. Cognition arises through the dynamic interaction of an organism and its environment. 

The enactive account takes interconnectedness as the entrance point for human experience. In this approach sentient beings encounter a world. Experience is the result of the mutual interaction between sensorimotor capacities and the environment. In other words, we enact the world. ‘Sentient beings, on this view, are understood not as heteronomous, mechanical input-output systems, but rather as dynamic, autonomous systems—necessarily coupled to the environment, but also self-controlling’ (Mac Kenzie, 2010, p.86).

Evan Thompson, one of the founders of the enactive approach, provides a perspective on mindfulness that is more in line with my experience. In his blog he states that ‘mindfulness practices should be understood as skillful ways of enacting certain kinds of embodied states and behaviors in the world, not as inner observation of an observer-independent mental stream’.  Thompson warns us for the false assumption (specifically in the field of neuroscience research) that mindfulness is in the head.

It’s a conceptual mistake to superimpose mindfulness onto particular brain areas or networks- Evan Thompson.

Thompson provides two arguments. First of all, he criticizes scientific illustrations of focused attention and the different stages of mindfulness (sustained attention > distraction and mind wandering > becoming aware of the distraction > reorienting your awareness >returning to sustained attention). The illustration shows the activation of particular brain areas in each phase.  Thompson argues against this kind of reasoning: according to him one cannot dissect the brain like this. No specific brain area can be located since multiple cognitive processes are involved.


Thompson (referring to Mole) when he states that attention is ‘cognitive unison’. Just as unison can’t be located somewhere in an orchestra, but it is how different cognitive processes operate in a coordinated way.

Attention is the agent-level phenomenon of task-relevant cognitive processes operating in unison’ – Evan Thompson.

Second of all, mindfulness is not a private mental act but a social phenomenon.  In other words, mindfulness is a social practice. It is embedded in a cultural context.  According to Thompson (referring to Tomasello) mental attention is an ‘internalized form of social cognition, dependent on being able to share intentions with others, imitate others, and share attention with others’.

I would like to add to this that attentive practices not only take place in a social and human realm, but also in a non-human realm. We do not only relate to human beings, but we relate to living things, objects and natural phenomena of the physical world (such as the air around us, the weather, gravity, the ground that we are walking etc.) Through attentive practices such as mindfulness and yoga, we sense our interconnectedness with the world – including everything (from things, objects, organisms, human beings to natural phenomena) that is part of our material and cultural world.  

Blog Evan Thompson:

Image: Declan Lopez


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