For many of us, the act of driving is an aspect of our lives that we take for granted. Getting behind the wheel to go to work, school, the store, or on a road trip seems so routine that most of us rarely give it a second thought.
Despite this fact, driving is a highly complex activity made possible by the coordination of our entire mind-body system. Adding to this complexity is the myriad of external influences we are subjected to while on the road. Weather, highway and traffic conditions, fellow drivers, unexpected delays, multitasking distractions (cell phones, texts, onboard navigation, car radio, and eating behind the wheel) all contribute to a progressive overload of our already-taxed nervous system.
The combined effect of these influences leads to a driving experience that is often marked by tension, anxiety, and frustration. Rather than enjoying our daily commute, we frequently find ourselves racked with stress before we get to our destination. Increasing incidents of road rage and distraction-related driving accidents highlight that for many people, driving is anything but a pleasure.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to the problem of automotive-induced suffering … Yoga.
Yoga Off the Mat
As a science, philosophy, and path of integrated living, yoga fosters the union of body, mind, spirit, and environment. While we most often think of a yoga practice that takes place on a mat or in a studio, driving gives us a unique opportunity to deepen our understanding and practice of yoga while simultaneously making our time behind the wheel safer and more enjoyable. Hidden in the timeless teachings of yoga are tools to make driving an act of heightened awareness.
Follow these seven practical steps to weave the wisdom of yoga into your daily commute:
- Be Comfortable: As in Asana practice, always move in the direction of comfort. Driving in an awkward or uncomfortable position is no fun and your body will protest. Find a driving Asana that suits your body and allows for natural, easy movement while keeping your hands near or around the 10:00 and 2:00 positions on the steering wheel.
- Set a Clear Intention: Before you start your automobile, pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and form an intention for your drive. Intend to have a safe and enjoyable commute and peaceful interactions with your fellow motorists. Let this intention sink in as you take another deep breath. Then you can start your vehicle and begin your drive.
- Practice Mindful Driving: As you drive your vehicle, really Drive. Feel the wheel in your hands, your body in the seat, the seat belt over your hips and shoulder, the air conditioning against your face; notice the gauges and controls of your car, the mirrors, the roadway before you, the vibration of the tires on the road, the sound of the engine. Be aware of everything as you travel. This is mindful driving—recruiting as much awareness as you can to what you are doing in this very moment. Allow your witnessing awareness to envelop every aspect of your drive. Any action performed mindfully can help to cultivate the restful awareness response, so make the most of the opportunity driving gives you.
- Be Established in Ahimsa or Nonviolence: The stress and anxiety brought on by modern driving can create an uncomfortable and tense automotive environment that can escalate to anger and rage. Once we recognize the dangers of a fight/flight or reactive response toward our fellow drivers, we must strive to consciously practice the first of yoga’s ethical codes, Ahimsa or non-violence. Treating our fellow drivers as the enemy will only inflame a potential conflict, which can accelerate out of control when the stress response is triggered. By committing to non-violence, we can put our ego in the back seat and come from a place of higher awareness. Cultivate compassion for your fellow drivers and allow the hostility to dissolve as you recognize that their behavior is an attempt to alleviate their own suffering. Be the Yin to their aggressive Yang energy and allow it to flow past you.
- Practice Pranayama: Pranayama or yogic breathing can be easily adapted for a daily commute. Deep rhythmic abdominal breathing helps to keep your awareness grounded in the present moment; it also helps to mitigate the effects of the stress response if tension or anxiety show up. Use your breathing to stay grounded and centered as the eye of stillness in the rush-hour storm.
- Eliminate Distractions: Driving distractions are everywhere. Music, cell phones, texts, eating behind the wheel, billboards, pedestrians—all of these beg for our immediate attention and pull us away from the task at hand—operating a two- or more-ton vehicle. Multitasking while driving can be incredibly dangerous and causes countless accidents each year. In yoga, the distracted state of mind is known as Vikshipta and is considered an inefficient use of our mind and intellect. Commit to driving in the mental state known as Ekagra, or one-pointed awareness, to help ensure you and your fellow motorists arrive safely at your destinations.
- Drive With Compassion: When we rush from place to place at ever-increasing speeds and neglect to signal our intentions, we can make the roadways feel like the Daytona 500. If we choose to drive with compassion however, we allow the kindness that lives within to extend out to our fellow drivers. Who hasn’t felt gratitude when another motorist signals for you to go in front of them, or wave a “thank you” after you’ve allowed them to pass you? Embody that compassion and be a beacon of kindness on the road.
By taking these steps each time we drive, we can make our daily commute part of our spiritual practice; and allow the act of driving to become a sacred act.