How often do we hop into our cars and absentmindedly drive, numb to our bodies and lost in thought? Once we strap on our seat belts, many of us automatically set ourselves on autopilot and figuratively “fall asleep at the wheel.” What if, instead, we take advantage of this time to practice mindfulness—to turn off the radio and concentrate on the present moment, while keeping ourselves and others safe?
If you’re stuck in traffic, notice the sensations and feelings that surface. Become curious about how these experiences affect your body and mind.
Jill Satterfield, founder of Vajra Yoga in New York City, suggests taking a moment before starting your car to scan your body and mind. “Otherwise,” she says, “whatever you’re feeling will be there for the remainder of the trip.” So prior to pressing the gas pedal, adjust your posture, relax your muscles, and take several deep abdominal breaths to calm your mind. “Lowering the breath into the belly relaxes the nervous system and helps us be more grounded.”
Once on the road, the key to “waking up,” according to Insight Meditation instructor Michele McDonald, is to maintain an open, spacious awareness of your surroundings while employing all your senses. Touch, sight, and sound in particular can help steer you back to the present moment, says McDonald, who recently released an instructional CD called Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving.
McDonald suggests concentrating on your hands to anchor your mind, noting sensations such as the steering wheel’s temperature, vibrations, and texture. To reestablish mindful awareness when it wanes, choose a recurring landmark on the road, such as traffic lights, stop signs, or every second telephone pole. Each time you approach a landmark, check in with your awareness. If your attention has veered off into daydreaming, to-do lists, or a rehashing of an argument you had with a co-worker, simply bring your mind back to the sensation in your hands.
You can further explore the body’s experience, as well as refine your driving posture, by asking yourself: Am I clenching my hip flexors? Am I gripping the steering wheel too tightly, or sticking my chin forward in anticipation of my arrival? Once you become conscious of where your body feels stressed on the road, Satterfield says, you can give tense areas added attention on your yoga mat, then apply this new awareness to your driving.
When you’ve become more skilled at general mindfulness at the wheel, you can practice full awareness, embracing all of your senses, thoughts, and emotions. If someone cuts you off, or if you’re stuck in traffic, notice the sensations and feelings that surface. Become curious about how these experiences affect your body and mind, advises McDonald. Then, dissolve any agitation by repeating an affirmation of compassion such as, “May I feel at ease,” or “May we all have safe travels.”
Gradually, as you learn to use the time in your car as mindfully as you do in your yoga practice, you will set in motion a more relaxed, awake driving state, which will not only promote safety but allow you to arrive at your destination with a greater sense of peace and ease.