To heel or not to heel?

Indy, Tonka & Ginger

The mind behaves a lot like a dog being walked on a leash. It either wants to be out ahead of us by worrying about things in the future or lagging behind fretting over things in the past, instead of living in the present, right by our side. But, just as a dog can be trained to heel, so can our mind be trained to stay in the present. The technique we use is actually very similar.

I used to have 3 dogs at once; and boy, were they good dogs. Two of them have since passed on. Don’t tell my current dog, but those two were the best two dogs I have ever known. I trained both of them myself. Nothing too fancy: they could sit, stay and heel. My 1st dog was a puppy that had been abandoned in a landfill. She was a piece of cake to train – positive reinforcement and a few other tricks I had learned and she was just a delight to take for a walk. It does seem that it’s not in a dog’s general nature to want to heel. But if motivated to please their owners they can be taught.

I have found from volunteering for a couple different animal rescue groups, that a dog would rather be ahead of its owner or dallying behind its owner. So how is it that they can be taught to heel. They eventually learn that the owner is worth paying attention to; and that if they listen, they are rewarded with a more peaceful relationship (and maybe a few pieces of cheese). You have all seen the person struggling with their dog, right? Walking down the side-walk yanking the dog along and yelling at it. Or worse, the ones that is be being walked by their dog. Well, if this goes on long enough, it’s going to be a very tiring relationship for both, filled with tension. So a little obedience can go a long way.

So what about our minds? Why is it that staying in the present moment, focused and relaxed seems so hard? We are in a fast paced world where there is a lot of pressure put on the future. What are we going to do with it? This constant pressure creates an environment where we may not be taking the necessary time to make decisions. We move faster than we are ready and set our self up for patterns of mistakes. These mistakes then eat at us, as hindsight – keeping us a bit too fixated on our past or rushing forward into our futures. Can our mind be trained? Can we really become beings living fully in the present? Yes we can. A little obedience can go a long way.

So, if you want to teach a dog to heel by your side there is a really great trick that I have always found works like magic. Keep in mind all training is only effective if practice and reinforced with consistency. Ok, you hook your dog on its leash and you ask it to “sit’, always a good idea. Release your dog from its sit, then step out and walk. Your dog will probably pull and hurry forward. Let him stretch that out until he is at the end of his 4 foot lead and then do an immediate about-face – sharp and direct, and start walking the other way. Now carry on this direction again until your dog pulls out in front of you to the end of his/her leash and again do an immediate about-face. Keep repeating this a couple of times until you notice that your dog is starting to look at you and is starting to back off his/her pulling ahead. Now continue to practice the about faces every time he is no longer walking by your side. But now start to interject the word “heel” and positive reinforcement for when he is walking exactly as you’d like him. Now for those of you that might actually take this article as dog training advice please do allow your dog time for potty breaks. 🙂

Well, your mind is just as trainable. You should practice with consistency, reinforcing your thoughts to stay present, and not to worry on the future or the past. Here’s how you do it: in your yoga practice…Ujayi breathing. The reason we breathe with sound in yoga is to give the mind something to watch, something to do, something to hear. If the mind is not occupied or given a task, it behaves all willy nilly. This can be very distracting in a yoga practice, as well as dangerous. If the mind behaves separately from the body, then yoga is not working. It’s about uniting the body and mind together in their actions, removing conflict and agitation.  A distracted mind wouldn’t be tuned into the subtleties of the body when stretching, which would mean you wouldn’t know when to back off a stretch or to go further. So every time your mind is distracted during a practice you try to let the sound of Ujayi constantly draw it back in. If that’s not reinforcing enough then, in the Ashtanga yoga style, we are responsible for counting out 5 breaths for every posture. At every 5 breath count, you switch your pose and begin again with a new 5 breath count. This is very similar to the about-face tactic of heeling your dog. So, what you are doing is heeling your mind, time and time again pulling your mind back in to the task of clear focused awareness. The more you practice listening to your breathing, the more informed you will become of so many things. Awareness, once open, is hard to close. Awareness, once harnessed can be a powerful tool for experiencing life at its fullest. When you are aware, you won’t miss a thing.

Hiking with well-behaved dogs.

Now, back to the puppies. There are many dog trainers that feel it’s the owners that need the training not the dog. Consistency is the greatest thing the owner needs to bring to each lesson with their pup. Inconsistency,  more than anything, can ruin a dog’s ability to become a good dog with a happy owner. Most dog trainers would agree that when training your dog you should never use a retractable leash. The temptation is too great for your dog to get way out ahead. And you can’t effectively convey your message to your dog that you would like him to heel by your side. 4 Foot lead works best.

Imagine restraining your mind in a similar way. So that your mind could not get out in front of you by more than 4 feet. It won’t seem possible at 1st. You are going to be distracted by many things while doing yoga. And every distracting thing is like another foot of leash for your mind. But with the reinforcing sound of breath, and counting, and lot’s of consistent practice, you will start to see the refinement of your mind. You will start to feel the zen notion of yoga: the idea that your yoga practice can become a moving meditation.

The word meditation is so intimidating to some. But if you could just change the word meditation to observation, you’d see. It’s just practicing the skill of watching our breath. Your breathing really is a gateway to your mind and emotions. It is a stabilizing force. Marksmen know this, they have been trained for this. They know that breath is influential to our ability to take precise action at the necessary moment. You can train your mind.  Keep drawing your attention back to the sound of your breathing. Keep heeling your mind right to the side of THIS moment and you will start living in the present.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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