August 17, 2015

Accepting our Inner Immigrant: From Asana to Ancient Indian Scriptures & Back.


 “The actual practice of yoga takes each person in a different direction” ~ T.K.V. Desikachar

Being a tourist is fun. You know your direction. You play with a different world for a while and then you go back to your own secure place. Being an immigrant, not so much.

It’s not a travelling game.

You never return back to the old place and you can’t quite settle in the new one.

It takes a massive effort to find your own balanced self and to develop a sense of belonging.

After many years of living abroad I always felt in-between—a stranger to others, a stranger to myself.

In Britain my accent made me stand out. Back in Poland, I felt I’d moved too far from my upbringing to go back. I was trying to fit in and succeed in my new home and I was torn by nostalgia to go back to my roots. Neither was possible. I felt I had no grounding.

Travelling back and forth, my mind was scattered. I was always asking: Where do I belong? What is my direction? True, these are quite common questions at the back of everyone’s head, but they blinded me from everything else. My mind was constantly chattering.

I was losing all confidence in my actions. Nothing felt satisfying. That’s when I first turned to yoga.

At the beginning, asana practice captivated me with the prospect of channeling a mesmerizing awareness of my own peaceful place in the world. After a lifetime of travel, I started one more journey—no matter how hard the poses first appeared. This was, after all, what I could do best: get on the road in search for my new home.

The Sanskrit root of yoga, “yuj,” was a nice start. It promised “to yoke,” or “to bind, join, attach.” Could all these backbends help me connect the old and the new into one whole? Could the balances help me feel settled?

After a couple of years, my consistent asana practice has relieved some of my immigrant tensions, but it didn’t quite do it all. My mind was wobbly as it’d ever been. So, I decided to go on yet another journey. This time, back in time.

I still practice asana in the morning, but at night I often find myself flipping through pages of yogic texts that date centuries back. Even if the words of ancient seers don’t erase all my issues, they certainly set me in the right direction. They offer me guidelines to find unity of my internal space, one I couldn’t get from western philosophies.

This is my journey of building my inner immigrant home on these ancient foundations:

Before I got anywhere with the scriptures, I stumbled and almost fell right at the start. The yogic classic, The Bhagavad Gita, often defined yoga as “devotion to god.” I was too caught up in my in-betweeness to even think about god!

It was a disappointing and discouraging start.

But, I wasn’t a tourist. I had nowhere to back. I was an immigrant, moving forward, no matter how many obstacles I saw on my way. So, I left The Gita behind and turned to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Soon, I realized that the divine was subject to interpretation and yoga’s approach to ethics and self-discipline was humanistic and not theological, accessible also to non-believers. What brought all western and non-western paths of yoga together was the underlying concept of harmony.

But how, with this torn mind, could I ever find security and confidence to feel balanced? How could my yoga practice unify my physicality and my mental faculties to still my mind and to allow for enhanced concentration?

Well… Many scriptures saw asana as the first step to finding mental balance. Reading Patanjali, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. The second of his Yoga Sutras defined the goal of yoga as the control of the mind: “Yogas citta vritti nirodhah,” meaning “Yoga is the restraint of the mind chatter.”

My aim was now to achieve a stable mind. But how? Patanjali was too brief. I needed more details.

Back to The Gita. In Chapter Two, Krishna reveals to Arjuna, his disciple and friend, that “yoga is perfect evenness of mind.” Well said, but again, how do I get there?

Meditation was one possible answer, as recommended by my yoga teacher, but there was always so much traffic in my brain that stilling the mind for a short moment was either entirely impossible or too brief to make any sense.

I felt I first needed to be in peace with my reality to be able to withdraw. With no such grounding, any attempt to meditate was a mental wrestle rather a peaceful practice. Could I ever drive myself to a peaceful home with yoga?

Upon a closer look, the verses of The Gita finally offered me some answers. Krishna often instructs yogis to renounce the desire to experience measurable earthly success, to work with devotion and to shed the selfish ego that always yearns for self-gratification.

Suddenly it clicked.

I realized that all my issues with not fitting in had to do with my ego. I’d wanted to be as successful as those who were settled in one place all their lives. But while they knew the ins and outs of climbing upward in their cultures, I had to learn them.

Now I accept that I have my own pace and my own talents. I don’t fight the cosmic battle of being who I’m not. I value my own knowledge, experience and perseverance.

In those ancient texts, I’ve found instructions for putting my fears in perspective and finding the peace inside me, instead of waiting for outside confirmations of my self value.

I am still devoted to my work, but I stopped seeking immediate self-gratification. I shed any attachment to the fruits of my efforts, because I’ve realized they don’t change who I am. Instead of fighting for it it, I am open to future again. I’m not afraid of rejection.

Now I also enjoy my physical yoga practice much more than I used to. I don’t strive to achieve impossible poses. My mind chatters much less these days. Off the mat, I even cherish my in-between identity. I’ve settled in it. I don’t beat myself for being a cultural hybrid. I accept my inner immigrant self.

Instead of looking elsewhere, I have found my home in me. It’s eclectic and still not as secure as I want it to be, but it’s mine and much more peaceful.

I am still a stranger to others, but not to myself.

Thanks Patanjali. Thanks Krishna. And thank you all my yoga teachers who supported me on this yet another of my immigrant journeys.


Author: Anna Misiak

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Victor Tondee/Flickr

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