September 29, 2015

The Finger and the Moon: What Are We Practicing When We Practice Yoga?



Recently I chatted with a couple of yogini girlfriends—both long-time practitioners and meditators—about the yoga terrain here in LA.

Ah yes, Los Angeles, the mecca of all things bright and shiny, known for its robust culture of physical beauty and creative expression. Did I mention the yoga scene? Hot yoga, power yoga; Ashtanga yoga, Iyengar yoga; Yin yoga, restorative yoga, chill yoga, Sivananda yoga, Naam yoga, Vinyasa yoga… and that’s just a selection. Yoga is religion here in Lalaland and church services are available pretty much everywhere.

But who are we praying to? The gods of slick sequences, sick playlists, raw food, beauty, green juice, gluten-free donuts and sexy yoga clothes? For sure. The ones of contentment, commitment to truth, compassion and non-covetousness? Who am I to say—each of us must answer that question for ourselves. But one thing seems evident—we are embedded in a culture that privileges the physical.

If you don’t believe me, try a little anecdotal data gathering yourself. Go to studios and events and compare the number of people doing physical practice with those meditating, attending philosophy talks, or satsangs. (A gathering where people get together to meditate, sometimes chant Sanskrit mantras and discuss yoga philosophy or read classical yoga texts.) The numbers speak for themselves.

Not that there’s anything wrong with physical practice—it’s wonderful. But we shouldn’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon herself. Which is to say, let’s not elevate physical practice to an end in itself. Physical practice is the doorway to a garden of delights. All kinds of boons accrue from a regular yoga practice, from increased strength and flexibility to greater fitness, weight loss, stress reduction, a feeling of groundedness, increased happiness and so forth. And it’s fun! But there is one benefit that I would like to focus on: how physical practice affects our lives off the yoga mat. That is the real jewel in the lotus.

Yoga is a powerful set of tools for transformation because it uses the body to work with the mind. The yogis of old understood that our habitual ways of thinking are the filter through which we view life. Only when we change our thought patterns can we change our experience of the world, so we use the practice to change our thoughts and consequently our lived experience. Practiced consistently over time, yoga offers a pathway to an empowered life, a life with more of what you want—freedom, joy and mastery—and less of what you don’t want—reactivity, avoidable pain and suffering. But nobody said it was easy.

The sage Patanjali prescribed the yogin’s task as working toward “heyam dukham anagatham”—the avoidance of the suffering that is yet to come. (Yoga Sutra, 2:16) What does this mean? Wisdom keepers throughout the ages have observed that suffering is borne of reactivity and that most suffering is borne of our inability to control the actions of others and the course of events that affect our lives. We butt up against this lack of control when our desires and plans are thwarted, giving rise to frustration, as well as feelings of powerlessness, anger and resentment. And then what?

Many of us go in circles of disappointment, discontentment and feelings of constraint in our journey to realize our dreams and aspirations. Stymied by our negative conditioning, we stop short of embracing our lives as wide open fields of possibility and fulfillment until we get the invaluable insight that when you change your mind, you change your life. This is the elixir—the hidden promise, but it also a fire walk. The spiritual warrior’s path, it turns out, is an intricate dance along the razor’s edge of self-mastery and discipline combined with compassion and forgiveness. It’s not for the faint hearted, but it’s not unattainable either, kind of like flying to the moon.

So where does the physical practice come in? We use asana (yoga postures) combined with pranayama (breathing techniques) to create new habits and cultivate responsiveness in place of reactivity. Think about when you first began practicing yoga, how difficult it was to hold a challenging pose while your mind hopped all over the place trying to avoid uncomfortable sensations and possibly emotions. But over time you learned to breathe through it, bring your wandering mind back to your breath and find a little ease. And that felt good, so it became easier to drop into that space, be with it and move beyond discomfort. Your sense of what’s possible in your practice (how you deal with challenges) expanded and so you practiced more and felt better and better. Most of the time.

But yoga is not all about the challenges. There are times when the practice flows exactly right, is life-affirming and we know we’re in the right place. We wouldn’t keep coming back to the mat unless there was some sweetness—we need that to stay committed.

Yoga is a practice of relationships—in this case our relationship with ourselves, but on a more subtle level, our relationship with all of life. Psychologists say that for a relationship to thrive, the ratio of positive to negative interactions needs to be 5:1. If you reflect on your closest relationships, you’ll note how this plays out. But also think about your yoga practice. When it’s all work and no fun, the experience feels different than when you’re in a good groove.

When you leave your mat feeling buoyant, energized and integrated, you take that positivity with you into the rest of your life. This is good for you and everyone you interact with. When you feel good, you’re happier, lighter and easier to be around. This is no small thing; it is a public service! When you improve your relationship with yourself, you improve your relationship with everything. Likewise, when you become more skillful at navigating challenges in your practice—feeling discomfort, expanding your edge, staying connected to your breath while trying not to think about something stressful, mastering a difficult, new pose—you take that skill into other areas of your life.

The first time I “got” bakasana (the arm balance usually translated as “crow pose”), I was working toward a Ph.D in philosophy and taking a seminar in the conceptual implications of quantum mechanics. It was mind-bendingly difficult. We spent two thirds of the course learning about the mathematical underpinnings of quantum mechanics. I’m not a math person. Let me repeat: I’m not a math person. At that time, I was practicing a lot of yoga and I remember the first time I held bakasana with both feet off the ground touching each other. I was ecstatic and walked out of the studio feeling six feet tall. I thought hey, I just did bakasana. If I can do that, I can do this course on quantum mechanics. My confidence soared and I completed the course with a good grade.

Finishing that class wasn’t easy and I had to put forth a lot of effort, but mastering arm balances isn’t easy either, at least for most people. Still, we show up and do the work because it’s gratifying and on some deep level, we need it. We do the work because it clarifies our commitments, allow us to articulate our values and then helps us act on those values. When we’re true to our values, we feel good about ourselves, so it’s easier to uphold our values. This circularity applies to yoga too. When we show up for yoga practice and see our progress on the mat, whether it’s mastering a new pose or tricky sequence, or not getting overly distracted by repetitive mental tapes, we feel good about ourselves. So we keep showing up. Good experiences beget more good experiences and the virtuous cycle continues.

We need moments of personal triumph to stay the course in our lives. Without small (or large) victories, life would feel empty and meaningless. And that applies as much to mastering yoga poses as it does to managing not to react in a habitual way when your colleague, spouse, parent or child does that thing that drives you crazy. When you can divert the usual reaction and replace it with a modulated response, it’s a huge victory. It has “cash value.” In other words, it can have a substantial positive impact in your life. Feeling more happiness and ease in your relationships is a wonderful thing and yoga can help you get there because it can help you become less reactive and find more ease in your own being and your ability to modulate your responses. This is huge.

Asana practice can get you to that place beyond the pose, that place of less suffering, more wellbeing; less reactivity, more responsiveness; less pain, more joy. Getting your foot behind your head alone won’t get you there, but becoming an equanimous, committed, tenacious yet able-to-let-it-go yogin will. It’s about showing up with a smile on your face and doing the work without being overly attached. And if fancy yoga pants inspire to show up, that’s great. Just don’t confuse the pants for the practice.


Author: Dearbhla Kelly

Editor: Evan Yerburgh

Image: Author’s own

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