Yoga does many things. It is many things.
Yoga teaches us varied and rich lessons. 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 a 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 out 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 these though our own effort and perseverance.
There are many reasons we might choose to take up yoga, none more worthy than the other. We might be drawn to a yoga class because of a desire for greater flexibility, strength and co-ordination, to help alleviate stiffness and joint/muscular problems, as rehabilitation after an injury, to keep us supple as we age, to help us reduce stress and find greater balance in life…The list goes on. Bring them all.
But at it’s essence, yoga is a tool for transforming the mind.
“Yoga is a practical philosophy involving every aspect of a person’s being. It teaches the evolution of the individual by the development of self-discipline and self-awareness” (S, M & S Mehta, 1990).
Yoga is not a state to be attained, but a set of tools to be used. It is an education. It teaches us a system to transform ourselves; the body and the mind. By coming 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. To be embodied. By the use of pranayama and meditation techniques we learn how to still the fluctuations (vritti) of the mind (chitta) and to be fully Here. To taste even momentary glimpses of residing in pure awareness; the energy behind any conscious notion of self, the immaterial ‘I’. Slowly we remove the dullness from the body and the mind. 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:
- Yoga is to still the patterning of consciouness
- So that pure awareness can abide in its very nature.
- Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness.
When we can see into the true nature of ourselves, we break down the barriers between self and other/subject and object, and we are able to connect to that same essential aspect of pure awareness in others. We come to experience a sense of union; that we are all united in this core facet of our nature. We develop an ability to see beyond the outward manifestations of another’s consciousness – to see directly into the heart of things. Essentially, we experience a greater feeling of connectedness.
As yoga gives us 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. It is impossible to have a felt sense of direct connection to our own self – our own pure awareness – without simultaneously experiencing this in relation to others; awareness is not separate for you and for I, for the man in the post office or the girl behind the shop counter.
I ask us, 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 more 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 cloak 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, self-division. 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 sand in my knickers. Sure I like pretty pictures, nice leggings and healthy food, but if you are a teacher of yoga, of an influencer in the yoga world, 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 – of yourself, of yoga. The poses and the practice are never more important than the spirit and attitude of the person practicing.
No matter what out initial attraction to yoga may have been, as we move further down the road of a regular and dedicated yoga practice, a natural by product of this journey (regardless of other aesthetic or physical/mental benefits we may experience), should be that we are experiencing greater connection to the self and to others; that we are becoming more open and kind-hearted people.
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.