Is your yoga practice doing this?
Yoga does many things. It is many things.
Indeed yoga can be many things. As Iyengar says; ‘yoga is both an art, a science, a philosophy’.
Yoga teaches us many things. Learning to physically balance helps us find equanimity, learning to be aware of where our right foot is in relation to our left, what we are doing with our hands and eyes...teaches us to pay attention; and this feeds into a general attentiveness to our everyday actions. Learning to breathe into an deep hamstring stretch, to stay with the discomfort, to be in the feeling - teaches us about sitting with other forms of discomfort in life. Having the confidence to take your legs over your head in a handstand knowing that you are safe and strong teaches you to believe in yourself - to take healthy risks and to push boundaries. Yoga brings us out of our comfort zones. Learning to deal with the frustration of falling our of a balance again and again, or the frustration of not being able to do or hold a certain pose teaches us about effort; about sustaining energy, trying again, progress, acceptance of our current limitations whilst acknowledging our ability to change those ourselves though our own effort and perseverance. Seeing that last month you couldn’t do something which now you can solidifies this.
But at it’s essence, lest we forget, yoga is a tool for transforming the mind. As Patanjali says - jewle like quality/chitta vritti nirodaha - stilling the fluctuations of the mind.
Yoga is not a state to be attained, but a set of tools to be used. Wielded. It is an education; yoga teaches us a system to transform ourselves; the body and the mind; the mind through the body.
By coming so deeply into our physical bodies; our awareness of our physical self, our senses, our nervous system - we are able to know ourselves a little better. Slowly we remove the dullness from the body and the mind follows. Slowly we wake up; we learn to inhabit ourselves in a way most people spend their lives avoiding.
As Patanjali states about the teachings of yoga:
The idea that when we can see into the true nature of ourselves, we are able to connect to that essential aspect in others; a realisation about union - that we are all united in this central aspect of our nature. Develop an ability to see beyond the outward manifestations of the patterning of anothers consciousness and see directly into the heart of things. Essentially, it is a feeling of connectedness. It is impossible to have a felt sense of direct connection to our own self - our own pure awarenss - without simulatanousely expeiencing this in relation to others; for awareness is not separate for you and for I, for the man in the post office or the girl behind the shop counter.
As yoga gives us these tools to know ourselves as we truly are, this naturally elicits an inner connection to others. As this happens, we become kinder more compassionate, more heartfelt people.
I cannot help but wonder - how far are we moving towards this in our yoga practice? Are we using yoga as a tool for inner transformation - to awaken the mind and heart and senses to see clearly? Or are we using it as a way to bolster our self-image? As a fuel for self-gratification and preoccupation with the self, veiled by the ‘unquestionable’ cloack of esotericism?
Let me speak plainly; yoga is not a one way street. There are many forks and many divides and there is no one ‘yoga’ to speak of. Yoga can just as much be used for self-knowledge and self-awareness as it can be for self-obsession. And I cannot help but wonder how much of yoga in YogaLand is driving a tendency towards obsession with our physical form, unhealthy body images and orthorexia. Daily we are bombarded with images of extreme poses, amazing arses, great tans, great leggings, great tops, ‘clean-eating’ etc, that portray a certain image of yoga; as if the fruits of a yoga practice are the aesthetic gratifications and the most important thing is to do the most elaborate pose you can wearing as little as possible and post it on Instagram. (And to never, EVER eat a single grain of sugar).
And at the risk of being a kill-joy, let me just say; I’m not down with this. It sits as comfortably with me as a splinter in the eye. Sure I like pretty pictures, nice leggings and healthy food, but if you are a teacher of yoga, I believe that you have a duty to uphold the central teachings of yoga and to serve others and ensure their practice is not only safe, but also helping them live with more clarity and kindness. You do this in the way that you practice, the way that you teach, the way that you speak and the images you portray.
The poses and the practice are never more important than the spirit and attitude of the person practicing.
As you move further down your yoga journey, I would encourage you to ask yourself:
“is yoga making me a kinder person”.
And if the answer is ‘no’, then perhaps you need a new teacher. Or a new practice.