Yoga is an elegant and well-verified system for refining body, mind and awareness. Yoga assists us in finding ways to expand the field of our consciousness and experience life more fully. It offers a prescription for easing the dominance of a fragmentary mind. It helps us not to get too caught up in the, “I, me, mine” cycle of thinking. Yoga provides tools and practices for discriminating what is really core to our being and what are the more superficial and transitory aspects of our lives. Through skillful practice we can increase our comfort in life and gain a larger perspective, putting our day-to-day trials and tribulations into the perspective of the vast radiance of Universal Awareness. It’s a big promise and yoga tells us that we can do this.
Yoga doesn’t require belief in anything at all in order to begin, and yet, it suggests that there is so much more to life than we commonly experience. It promises more than a theoretical understanding or philosophy. We are told that all we need to do is practice and see for ourselves. Yoga requires us to take responsibility for who and what we are on every level. For the dedicated practitioner it promises direct experience of the source of life –possibly answering so many questions – even as it doesn’t require belief in anything. The prospect is appealing.
The methods for practicing are clearly outlined, making the whole thing even more attractive. Yoga presents a comprehensible and basically uncomplicated methodology for subduing the clutter of our minds enough to witness the radiance of creative intelligence manifesting into form. Ancient texts offer detailed and specific maps for navigating the territory of our embodied existence.
All we need to do is practice. Practice will work, awareness will broaden spontaneously, and we will witness our place in the universal design. It all sounds pretty good. But there are some serious pitfalls along the way. It’s not enough to just get on board and ride. Discrimination and individual intelligence are necessary to keep us on track. It’s too easy to lose our way and be seduced into thinking that we are just soaring along when actually we have been tricked, once again, by ego-mind. Individual-ego-mind can be helpful…or not. Our egos can easily delude us into thinking we are proceeding intelligently when we may very well be under the sway of ego-mind, bolstering its own self-concepts in ways that are not helpful. It just depends on how diligent we remain in practice, what our goals are, and how we use the various aspects of mind to keep us on track.
How we use all aspects of our minds in our spiritual journey toward the recognition of Unity is really important. We need to harness clear and intelligent thinking along with wisdom and intuition. Ego is not a bad thing but we do need to be careful with it. Remember, ego – sense of individual self – likes to be in control of things. Ego is pretty convinced that it is the center of the universe and that getting what it wants is of the highest importance. Individual awareness is an important part of being useful and active in the world. But exclusivity of individually-focused-thinking is a good way to obstruct our personal experience of the larger picture. A skillful use of our individual mind is to set it on the track of refining itself. In this way we harness our mind to be helpful. This is where discrimination becomes so important.
In our culture, asana is usually the gateway yoga practice. Asana is one of the eight limbs of Classical Yoga and is important in Tantra, as well. Asana is pretty wonderful stuff. When used intelligently, it is an amazing tool for integrating all aspects of practice into one moving meditation. The fact that we are moving and breathing consciously makes asana an ideal arena for cultivating meditative awareness within the field of action – the world in which we live. In asana we are moving. In that way it can be an effective method for learning to maintain deeper awareness while being engaged in life. And there’s more. Asana is physically cleansing and enlivening. It feels wonderful, increases vitality and over all health by freeing the flow of life force within. Asana is a major boon to all of us.
But, are we using asana well and to its full potential? It’s interesting that nowhere in the ancient texts is there anything like the focus on asana that we are now witnessing in the West today. That doesn’t mean that focusing on asana is definitely not a good idea. Let’s say that it is. Maybe due to the specific stresses and elements of life in the twenty-first century a larger focus on asana is helpful. We can make an argument that the situation in which we now live requires more asana to balance out the effects of the life we have created for ourselves. I’m willing to go that far. But importantly, are we actively using our discriminative minds to figure out what asana practice – and how much – is appropriate and good for each of us? Are we putting too much emphasis on the outer form and missing the more subtle gifts it has to offer? Are we using asana as a method for harnessing our busy minds and turning inward, or have we fallen into the trap of allowing our cultural proclivities and tendencies to dictate how we practice? In other words, is the yogic process of inner inquiry directing our use of asana, or have we allowed ourselves to be seduced into using it as just another way to affirm and define our individuality – ego.
We need to be careful here. It can be useful to ask these questions seriously even if your immediate response is that none of this applies to you. We need to harness discrimination and clarity in our thinking. We need to maintain vigilance with our ego-minds. It’s not always easy. Our culture nurtures and values acquisition and achievement in every area of life. We know this kind of thinking has no place in yoga and can only hinder our process. However, we are all to some degree affected by the world in which we live. A mind-set built around accomplishment is definitely problematic for deep practice. And it is hard to give up – especially if you don’t recognize it. Remember, ego-mind is tricky. Ego will do everything to try to convince you that it knows what it’s doing and if your ego is at all attached to what you do in asana, you may be in a difficult situation regarding the depth of your personal practice.
I know this from personal experience. Years ago I practiced a very vigorous style of asana that I thought was in some way an ultimate practice for me. I gladly gave myself over to it and practiced with dedication and joy. But one day, seated on my bedroom floor having just finished practice I had the clear realization that what I was doing wasn’t working for me anymore in the way that it had. I thought about the ramifications of letting the practice go. It sounded pretty bad. I would probably get fat (which at that point felt like the worst possible thing that could happen to me). I might lose some of my (false) sense of superiority. I would definitely lose the admiration of the yoga community. People would think I was “letting myself go”. And…what if there was nothing more? What if the practice I was doing was required for enlightenment and I gave it up? That wouldn’t be good. In fact, none of the above would be good at all. So, I didn’t listen to my instincts.
Nothing terrible happened. I really have never had any serious yoga injuries (knock on wood) so that wasn’t stopping me. But the inner feeling that I was off track didn’t go away. About seven years went by before I became brave enough to take the leap. I knew that my attachment to my advanced looking yoga practice was limiting my deeper understanding. I really didn’t know where I was going at all. I just had to make the move. I decided to give up limiting my asana practice in the way I had been and vowed to go deeper.
It was hard for me! I did gain weight and I did feel fat. I was sure people thought I had just become lazy or something. I didn’t allow myself to boast that I was giving up strong asana because my ego was too attached to it and I knew it wasn’t right for me anymore. I couldn’t tell them my reasons for changing my practice because that would, once again, be serving my ego. I felt my desire to imply some spiritual superiority. Bragging about my bravery would be counter-productive given my reasons for changing in the first place.
As it turned out, it wasn’t just my attachment to “being good” at asana or the adulation I received from others that was restricting my growth. As it turned out, letting go of asana as I knew it, opened a Pandora’s box of difficult issues that required even more clarity of attention than I had bargained for. The journey wasn’t always easy but what was the alternative? Continuing on a path that I knew was not helping me anymore? For me, the alternative was worse than the growing pains that arose from choosing a more skillful practice.
DISCRIMINATION AND PROFOUND SELF-ACCEPTANCE
Yoga works. And yoga is working beautifully for so many people in our society. At the Yoga Center Amherst in Massachusetts where I teach we see hundreds of people each week who are just so grateful to have found yoga and use it as a simple tool to feel better in their lives in every way. It is beautiful to observe this and to be a part of the personal and universal transformation that it taking place in our communities.
But beware! Discrimination is one of the most important pillars of an effective yoga practice.
We need to remain diligent…especially as yoga teachers. Asana is everywhere now and some of the practices are grounded in good knowledge and some of them are not. In fact, asana in the West includes so many different practices that an interested person could spend altogether way too much time and energy attempting to perfect or “become good” at it. How much asana is enough? What kind of asana is right for you…for your students? Is your practice really serving you? These are simple questions that are worth asking. We need to continue to ask questions and inquire deeply into what is right for the honing of awareness – not the ego satisfaction of feeling good at something, or on the other hand, not feeling good at something.