Philosophical articles on yoga to deepen your practice.
The practice of asanas, or what most of us in the West simply refer to as Yoga, is the yoking of mind and body, helping you to function as a unitary whole. Your movements become increasingly intentional, your breathing never changes even under heavy exertion, and you experience yourself completely in the moment. Mind and body overlap and become one.
It’s important to understand that the practice of asanas is not an end in itself but instead a means to the end of unfolding your true Self. A good parallel to help you understand this is that you don’t go to counseling to go to counseling. You go to counseling to improve every facet of your life and to discover who you are as well as the conditions you need to live a happy life. You have the best chance to learn this in the counseling hour, and it’s often true that people experience themselves most fully as they really are during the counseling hour, but the entire process would be pointless if it didn’t seep into who you are outside of that hour.
In the Yoga spiritual tradition the deity Isvara is an important figure, and devotion to Isvara is one of the ways to practice Yoga. But Anne Wood Besant helps elucidate what we are talking about above when she says “The Devotion to Isvara is not for him (the yoga practitioner) an end in itself, but means to an end, the concentration of the mind. You see there at once the difference of spirit. Devotion to Isvara is the path of the mystic. He attains communion by that. Devotion to Isvara as a means of concentrating the mind is the scientific way in which the yogi regards devotion…the one looks upon devotion to Isvara as a way of reaching the Beloved; the other looks upon it as a means of reaching concentration” (Anne Wood Besant, An Introduction to Yoga, Pos 264 Kindle Version).
Psychologically, the relationship most of us in the Western world have with asanas is identical to the relationship the mystic had with Isvara. Our overriding goal is to perfect each pose and achieve mastery. Any beneficial side effects like increased peace and happiness, a more clearly defined sense of self, or more authentic human connections are happily received but not actively pursued. It’s funny actually that in the Yoga community masters of asanas are revered almost as if they were minor deities. But any talented athlete or contortionist could probably achieve a high level with practice and dedication. For the true Yoga practitioner asanas are not ends in themselves but rather means to achieve the end of true Self.
Like I said at the start of this piece, I believe that the unfolding of your human powers and growing into your Self can happen in a variety of formats and the psychological principles embedded in all of them are similar. The purpose of the articles that follow is to explain psychological principles that you will be able to personally relate to in the context of your Yoga practice. You will be able to actively apply your knowledge from these pieces in the moment while going through your series of asanas, and be able to start making connections about what these revelations mean to you in your life. By making asanas secondary and as only a means to the more important end of discovering who you really are, you will find that you have a more powerful and lasting reason to keep practicing even in the face of setbacks. Your practice will explode and your skill set will increase more rapidly. By giving up the primary need to get better at poses you will get much better at them.
There is an idea that feels quite foreign to the Western mind, yet if you give it time to sink in you will not be able to deny its validity or its potential to profoundly alter the way you relate to the world. Our mentality centers around individuality, and it goes without saying that having progressed to a state where the individual has freedom of thought and action as well as the ability to self-actualize is a monumental gain in the history of humanity.
The downside of our emphasis on the individual is that we lose sight of the connectivity of all things and our intrinsic dependence on our environment to stay alive. The Indian spiritual tradition of Yoga recognizes the connectivity of the universe with its concept of the outer body.
Basically, it posits that you do not end at the frontiers of your physical body. You also extend to your immediate environment, the world, and even the universe. There is a constant interaction and exchange between your inner body and outer body, and our Western way of separating the two is arbitrary. Our error comes from believing that because our consciousness seems to be centered around a mass of molecules that we consider to be our body, this is the only place that we reside.
But try taking a deep breath right now and then hold it for as long as you can. See how long you can survive without exchanging molecules that are part of your inner body with the environment that is part of your outer body. As Deepak Chopra says, “You exchange ten billion trillion atoms with your surroundings with every breath you take. The atoms you inhale every day have traversed the bodies of living beings across the universe and across time. Within you right now, you have carbon atoms that once inhabited the body of a cheetah in Africa, a dolphin in the South Pacific, a palm tree in Tahiti, or an Australian Aborigine. Ultimately, every particle in your body was stardust, created at the dawn of the universe” (Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga, Pos 845 of 1383, Kindle Version).
The mass of molecules that make up your inner body are in a constant state of change and are dependent upon the foods you ingest from your outer body to remain functioning. You have bacterias and other microbes living inside of your inner body that come from your outer body. They help to maintain human health and without them you would die. When your physical body expires, all of your molecules will be taken back by the universe and made use of, changing form but not disappearing.
This mentality is at once awe-inspiring and motivating. Think how the world would change if the majority of people truly believed that they had ownership over, and in fact were, their surrounding environment. Protectiveness of it would go through the roof and maltreatment of it would be viewed as a personal injury. And this is exactly what it is.
Most of us have the perception that pain is bad while pleasure is good because pain is unpleasant and pleasure is pleasant. This has led to the modern epidemic where you can take a pill or drug to alleviate just about any symptom. If you have a headache you can take ibuprofen, if you’re tired you can drink something caffeinated, if you can’t go to sleep you can take melatonin.
But your body is sending you important messages about your lifestyle in the clearest possible language. One way to change your perception and invite pain into your life is by realizing that encountering pleasure or pain is equally profitable because both tell you a great deal about the path you are on and whether you need to make adjustments.
Imagine that you have been practicing yoga and you hurt your back. Not terribly, but enough that taking pain medication would help. By doing so, you ignore what happened during class that caused you discomfort. Even if you remember you will not take it as seriously because you won’t be dealing with the consequences in the form of pain. You also probably won’t remember to sit in a position that feels the most comfortable possible, allowing your body time to heal properly on its own. You might go to another class because you are feeling fine even though your back is still actually injured, and end up doing further damage to it.
Consider instead the route of meditating on your injury, playing in your mind’s eye how it occurred, becoming fully aware of how and where it hurts in the moment. Did you try to push your body further and faster than it is ready to go on a particular pose? You will be gaining valuable data points for your future practice. By embracing your pain you are listening to your body and giving it the chance to heal itself fully before returning to your practice. Dealing honestly with your pain now means much more authentic pleasure down the road where you are honoring your body and yourself.
Whatever the discomfort in your body is, if you listen instead of ignoring it you will gain insight that will let you change the practice of your life in important ways. Our bodies are not meant to experience pain all the time, and I think we all intrinsically know this. It’s why we try to quickly cover up pain whenever it does come around. But other than extreme cases where the pain really does feel unbearable, discomfort in the body gives you the best possible sign posts about where you need to go.
Many people do not inhabit their bodies fully and in fact could not tell you how their body is feeling if you asked them. The answers are vague, like “I’m fine” or “Tense”. Our rational, schizoid culture that places the highest value on thought processes and intellect is a huge reason why. This is insane when you consider that your body houses you and in fact is you. The happier and healthier your body is the more joyful and vibrant you will be.
Next time you feel any sort of discomfort in your body, instead of immediately trying to cover it up, meditate upon it for a while. Give it your full attention and the time it deserves. See if you can discover its probable source. Try changing that part of your life slightly and see if you start to feel any better. This is one of the most important and visceral keys to growth and self-actualization.
Learning to regulate your breathing using the exercise we will discuss below will have a profound impact on your physical, emotional, and psychological health. Did you know that you take around seventeen thousand breaths every day? Most of the time you do it unconsciously. Your body takes care of your breathing for you.
Your physiology is regulated by both your voluntary nervous system and your autonomic nervous system. The first is largely under your conscious control and the second is not. Examples of voluntary nervous system activities include running, sticking your tongue out, or most other muscle movements you can think of. Examples of autonomic nervous system activities include regulation of blood pressure, movement of food through your digestive tract, and your pulse.
Your breathing is a wild card and straddles the gap between autonomic and voluntary. When you want to you can take complete control over it, but the second you forget your body takes over. Stop and think for a second about how many of your seventeen thousand breaths you are consciously aware of each day. Probably not that many if you are like most people. Obviously this can be a good thing because having to remember to breath all the time would be a huge chore.
But the benefits of taking breathing under your conscious control more often are myriad. One of the most important is that the process acts as a parallel for bringing unconscious thoughts, emotions, and motivations into your conscious awareness. This is one of the primary goals of psychoanalysis and a cornerstone of mental health. By training yourself to become aware of your breathing you are also training yourself to become aware of your thoughts.
The stress and anxiety produced from living in the modern world is another reason to learn to regulate your breathing. The fight or flight response cued of from threatening situations had great utility for our ancestors and helped them stay alive in the wild. Obviously it still has utility today but unfortunately many situations arise where staying calm would be more appropriate. Instead our physiological apparatus takes over for us. Consider having to give a big presentation in front of a room full of imposing strangers, or facing your romantic partner when he or she is furious, or struggling to remember information for an important test. These cases and many more like them are probably best confronted by being calm, cool, collected, and in the moment. Unfortunately your body perceives a threat, adrenaline spikes, and your breathing automatically changes in order to get the most oxygen possible to the vital parts of your body to confront the danger.
The more you grow accustomed to working with your breathing in the moment through the exercise we will discuss below, the more you will become consciously aware when it has suddenly changed. You will be able to use the skills you have learned to bring your breathing back under your control, which will also lower your blood pressure and heart rate, keeping you calm and aware in the face of the perceived threat.
Ujjayi breathing is used by yoga practitioners to keep their minds settled while performing difficult poses that would usually cause them to breath quite heavily or gasp for air. It is an excellent method for bringing calm to your mind and your body when you are feeling stressed, irritated, angry, or upset. It allows you to focus in the moment while getting vital oxygen to all parts of the body that need it. Deepak Chopra notes that Olympic athletes have begun using this breathing technique to enhance respiratory efficiency while training (Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga, Pos 887, Kindle Version).
In order to perform Ujjayi breathing, constrict your throat while you take deep, rhythmic breaths through your nose. A great description I have heard is that it is like trying to fog up a window with your breath, except that you are keeping your mouth closed and breathing solely through your nasal cavities. The sound that you make will sound like snoring or like Darth Vadar (Chopra). Do not be afraid to breath loudly. Make sure you take long, deep inhalations and exhalations. If you start to feel dizzy or experience any tingling sensations go back to breathing normally until you feel better and then try again.
If you practice Ujjayi breathing for even ten minutes a day you will feel your stress and irritability melt away and in their place will be calm, focus, and contentment.
We have written a lot about the great mental health benefits of walking meditation. Lately I have been practicing walking yoga too, and it’s awesome. At the center of yoga is breathing. The ability to regulate breath under exertion helps us to bring autonomic functions like heart rate and blood pressure under conscious control.
I realized that I was missing out on a lot of opportunities during the day while off the mat to practice Ujjayi breathing while physically exerting myself. There are many ways to practice yoga. Walking up hills at a brisk pace is one that I have found rewarding, and it can be quite challenging when you are fully focused on keeping your in-breaths and out-breaths deep and rhythmic. You can accomplish the feat of yoking together mind and body, which is what yoga is, as easily by walking as by practicing asanas. Both focus on body movement and breathing.
Keeping our Ujjayi breathing deep and rhythmic in the face of physical challenges helps create the portal through which we walk to discover Self. Ujjayi means victorious breath, and I think this is an especially apt name when we consider the triumph of keeping our minds calm when they feel chaotic and keeping our breathing rhythmic when we want to gasp for air. If you can do this while walking up a hill you will be in a meditative state, completely in the here and now and not thinking about anything except your breath.
You will be shocked by how challenging walking yoga can be when you are determined to keep your breathing deep and rhythmic. I have actually found some hills I walk around Seattle to be just as challenging as practicing yoga in a hot room, especially because I have taken to making my in-breaths and out-breaths much longer than what is customary while practicing asanas, to the point where I really have to concentrate to not gasp for air. I feel the same sense of euphoria and accomplishment when I reach the top as I do when I have performed a sequence well. It is really good practice for the mat, and I am noticing serious benefits during normal classes. Regulating my breathing has become easier while holding difficult poses.
Walking yoga has great applications for people dealing with injuries that are keeping them off the mat. They can feel a sense of continuity in their practice and get good exercise in the format they like best. It also has great applications for people who want to deepen their practice, because it creates many extra opportunities during the week to yoke mind and body, helping them inhabit that meditative state that is so appealing and invigorating. If you are walking somewhere anyway, why not take advantage and shift from the mundane to the extraordinary.
Lots of people live with aches and pains and simply believe that’s how their lives have to be. They manage the pain by doing the best they can to ignore it or take medicine to cover it up. Some push their bodies beyond their endurance, feeling pain in the moment yet stubbornly continuing on and paying the consequences later. Many unconsciously believe that they don’t deserve to feel good all the time and live a spartan lifestyle. Obviously some have chronic pain that is unavoidable, and for these people yoga has been proven to help alleviate a wide array of conditions so there is hope for them too.
Everything changes when you start to practice yoga. Let’s talk about why. For one thing your body feels great afterwards, better than it ever has, and as the weeks go by the feeling only increases. It’s probably a combination of sweating out toxins, exercising literally every part of your body evenly, and the meditative aspect of the practice itself that makes you feel so refreshed and invigorated when you have completed a session. Your body will be loose and you will walk with a bounce in your step that you didn’t even know you were missing before.
Once you know what you and your body are capable of feeling like you do not go back, and the awareness of comfort enters your conscious thought in many areas outside of your practice. You quickly recognize when some part of your body is not feeling comfortable and switch positions to accommodate it. In this way pain never compounds itself because you instantly give that part of your body a break. You do more stretches during the day to loosen up. You naturally start to eat healthier food because your body demands it, and this in turn makes your body feel even better.
Increasing your skill level in various poses is an art and you have to walk the razor’s edge to do it safely yet effectively. If you push yourself too hard during a session not only will your body tell you so in the moment, but you will also experience the consequences for days or weeks afterwards, reminding you that you surpassed the zone it could tolerate. You learn to respect the messages your body sends you and you make adjustments in the moment, backing off to where it is safe. The nature of many stretches makes going beyond a certain point not only difficult but impossible, unlike most types of exercise where you can keep pushing through the pain even though stopping would be better for you.
But yoga is hard. It takes dedication and perseverance. Even if you are practicing your poses safely you will be exhausted during and after class. You begin to feel proud of the respect you are showing to your body and yourself, and with this pride comes the attitude that you deserve to feel comfortable in your life. You are doing the hard work and you deserve to reap the benefits.
Practicing yoga naturally leads to a philosophical evaluation of the nature of human freedom if you open your mind to it. This is one of the first steps on the road towards Samadhi, which is the parallel to Buddhist enlightenment where you experience your true Self as being one with the universe. I am not claiming to have reached Samadhi but would like to make some observations about freedom as experienced on the yoga mat.
If you ask most Westerners if they believe themselves to be free, their answer will invariably be yes. But one of the intrinsic paradoxes of being human is that we are bounded by our physical bodies, mental capabilities, and perceptions. We are actually only free to act and think within these bounds. Freedom is largely a fabrication and is based on our subjective view of the world. If a soaring eagle could talk, think how it would mock your limited concept of physical freedom. From the perspective of the universe, is there much of a difference, or any difference at all, between a small wave gently lapping against the shore and a tidal wave crashing upon a coastline? Most of our concepts about the world are relative.
You experience this in a visceral way while practicing asanas because you are bounded by the length and width of your mat yet you become increasingly free to move your body into shapes and positions that most people could not imagine. As you gain mastery you see that a seemingly tiny increase in flexibility from the outside is quite monumental for you. And as you increase the meditative quality of your practice you become free to clear your mind of outside thoughts and distractions, inhabiting the moment fully. These are freedoms that most people do not enjoy, yet they occur in bounded space.
If you let them, the realizations gleaned during your practice will start to influence the way you see other areas of your life. You will become more consciously aware of your abilities and limitations. You will not get caught up in whether your achievements are big or small, but see them for what they are, as achievements. And you will feel increasingly capable to confront all of life’s challenges as you continuously confront the challenge of yoga. Without the ability to confront challenges you cannot consider yourself free in any sense of the word. All of these ideas are philosophical but the concrete practice of yoga makes them real and leads you up the road towards Samadhi.
Many are content with yoga as just a great workout when it has the potential to be so much more. The lessons you will learn about yourself and your body can be applied to many other areas of your life. You have to do the work of consciously making the connection though. One way to move your practice to the next level is to dedicate yourself to taking your breathing seriously. Try to maintain steady ujjayi breath throughout a session without deviating.
Most people start the hour in ujjayi but quickly give it up as physical exertion increases and the body starts to demand more oxygen. The brain sends panic signals and the pressing need to gulp in as much air as possible takes over. This is an understandable reaction but becoming consciously aware when it happens to you while attempting to maintain your calm breathing in the face of it will have profound benefits. You will find yourself more often in a meditative state while moving through asanas, and feel more refreshed and invigorated after practicing.
It’s the most rigorous training I know of to become a person who is serene and stable regardless of the chaos that surrounds you. When life becomes hectic you will quickly recognize it and come into your ujjayi breathing without having to think, exuding calm and putting yourself in position to act like and be viewed as a leader. Most of the distractions and annoyances that set us off during the day really cannot compare to the intensity of remaining calm and focused as your body and brain scream out for more air and reprieve from the difficulty of poses.
Be the eye of the storm. I like this expression because it reminds us that the storm has not gone away. We don’t ignore it or pretend it does not exist, we just remain perfectly still in the center of it. Through this process you will come to the powerful realization that your thoughts and emotions do not control you. You control them. They are worthwhile because they often show you the truth of a situation, but you have the capacity to observe them and respond in the moment as you see fit.
You are going to fail more often than you succeed, especially at first, when you actively try to maintain ujjayi breath during an entire session. This is a good thing. You are creating a visceral, concrete challenge for yourself that you experience fully in the moment, and you will learn to accept success and failure in other areas too. Stick with it and watch your yoga practice and your life skyrocket to new heights of success.
Especially when they are starting out people tend to place importance on getting through an entire session of yoga without having to lay down on their mats. There is an unconscious element of competition that shows up in just about every activity in our Western society and yoga is not immune to it. Having to take a break can make you feel like a failure and you also might be inclined to compare your skill level to those practicing around you.
This attitude creates unnecessary stress and insures that you will improve at a much slower pace. Probably the biggest reason why is that in order to make it through a whole session you will not do individual asanas at the level they are meant to be performed. Your arms and legs will not be at the proper angles during warrior two for example, because doing so is much harder and will make you run out of steam faster. Obviously you can see the problem, which is that you are learning bad habits and not strengthening the correct muscles to make the poses more doable next time.
There is a simple way to beat this problem, and it is to leave judgments at the door and decide that you are going to do the very best you can on each asana until you can no longer hold it properly and then switch into dead man’s pose without feelings of guilt or failure. Yoga is not just about poses and in fact their primary purpose is to get you into a meditative state in order to discover Self. You can easily do this from the floor by continuing to concentrate on your ujjayi breathing and remaining completely in the moment. In other words, you will still be practicing yoga in every sense of the word even though you have given up on a particular pose.
Actually from a philosophical point of view this attitude is the practice of yoga, and the customary way of going halfway in order to squeak by and appear to others and yourself as if you are capable of getting through your whole practice without taking a break is not yoga. Have the discipline do the very best you can with the skill set and endurance you have right now, take a break without judgment when you can no longer maintain your best, continue to focus on your breath at these times, and you will improve more rapidly while feeling great about your practice.
During most Bikram and Hatha classes there is a sequence of poses about two thirds of the way through that alternates between lying in complete stillness in dead man’s pose and activating by taking a deep breath, letting it out in two strong, short exhales and springing your upper body forward at your waste in order to clasp your hands around the soles of your feet. This is followed by various other poses, and finally by going back to lying in stillness, after which you spring forward again. The pattern repeats itself for a while.
This is a valuable experience for all of us in the West because it teaches us to see and experience the concrete interconnectedness of letting go completely and purposefully springing into action. Actually one cannot exist without the other. Our culture is geared towards never giving our brains or bodies a rest. We almost feel guilty when we’re not doing something. There are so many diversions to avoid taking a real break. After work, most people go right to watching television, socializing, surfing the web, or any other activity that helps them avoid being unmoving and alone. This state often causes anxiety.
We can all benefit greatly from mindfully choosing to stop all activity and sit in unmoving silence because this is the rhythm of life. You breathe in, filling your body with oxygen, and then you breathe out, resting before your next inhalation.
When you consciously decide to take a break in your life your actions will take on new significance because you will see and understand them much more clearly. Sometimes we are not even really aware of our actions or their ramifications because we spend our entire day buzzing around like bees trying to pollinate as many flowers as possible, busy with projects and people, and it all becomes a wash. Only by experiencing the night can you recognize the day.
When you give yourself a chance to rest your actions will become more purposeful and take on greater significance for you. While going through this sequence in yoga, work on making the decision to let go completely while you are lying in dead man. Try not to move, think, or worry about anything. Just concentrate on your breathing. Let yourself surrender to doing nothing. Inaction is still a decision. It is the decision of no-action. When it’s time to spring forward, do this mindfully and purposefully as well.
The underlying philosophy of yoga is one of peace and harmony which makes having poses called warriors seem like a contradiction. But the beauty of Eastern philosophy lies in its challenges to customary logic and its uncanny knack for helping you to arrive at the truth of a situation by experiencing it rather than intellectualizing about it. We are going to talk about a deep psychological truth embedded in the warrior asanas.
What I realized while going through a difficult series of poses recently was that warrior one and warrior two are actually some of the most physically taxing asanas in all of yoga if you do them correctly. They involve pretty much every muscle in your body. To an outside observer the poses look rather passive and pretty easy but anyone who practices yoga knows how active both of them are and how challenging it is to maintain them over a long period of time.
This is the beauty in calling them warriors. Just like the poses, peace seems like a passive state but is also very active. Peace takes time, understanding, empathy, and hard work. Arriving at peace in yourself, your personal relationships, and society doesn’t happen by chance and demands every ounce of your being. War and conflict are easy and lazy solutions to problems.
Next time you go through the sequence of warrior one and warrior two think about being a peaceful warrior in your life. Try to do the very best you can on both poses and let yourself experience the difficulty and the joy in maintaining them. Use this time to meditate upon arriving at peace in all of your relationships, realizing that it is an active and difficult process but also one that is attainable.
We have been talking about how to apply what you experience during yoga to other facets of your life. It’s also important to not let yourself fall victim to the trap of compartmentalization that is so common for us Americans. We tend to mentally separate our work lives from our home lives, our home lives from our religious lives, and our religious lives from our vacation lives, for example.
The danger in this mentality is that much of life tends to pass you by as you wait expectantly for those areas that you value more, like going on vacation or spending time with your family. You go through the drudgery, almost experiencing it as if it were not real. When you stop compartmentalizing and start valuing every moment your quality of life automatically increases.
While you can apply everything that happens on your yoga mat to other areas of your life, recognize that your practice has value in and of itself. From a philosophical perspective it can be argued that you are most yourself and most alive while practicing yoga in the moment. The entire goal is to find your true Self in the process. Your sensations, thoughts, and emotions do not have to relate to anything else to be meaningful.
I was at yoga lying on my mat preparing for class to start when the teacher said “Here is some inspiration for all of you. Sally(real name changed) here is on her fourth class of the day. That is really amazing! Way to go Sally!” Then she received a round of applause from a packed class of around eighty people. After the noise died down Sally said she was planning on going to four classes the next day too.
What transpired shows why a solid understanding of behavioral psychology is important for all of us. You can become more aware when your behaviors and lifestyle choices are products of conditioning. You are going against what is best for you but you don’t consider the ramifications because it feels good to receive the reinforcement, or on the other hand because you want to avoid the aversive. An example is receiving a large bonus at a job that you suspect on some level is killing you spiritually and physically. But the money and recognition are of sufficient intensity to help you bury these feelings and continue to perform the behavior of going to your job every day.
In our yoga example we have a respected authority figure giving a student one of the most powerful positive reinforcements available in the human sphere: public recognition and approval. This was followed by another very powerful positive reinforcement in the form of loud encouragement from peers. All of it happened right at the moment of the behavior being conditioned; the class started a few seconds later. This is a textbook example of behavioral psychology in action in the real world, and Sally is likely to continue attending way too many classes every day because of it without considering the ramifications.
There is not really anything healthy about going to hot yoga four times in one day, especially from a psychological point of view. Over exercising shows up all the time in complex trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, abusive relationships, anorexia, and especially unexamined anxiety. Sally is being positively reinforced to ignore real issues in her life that probably need serious attention, instead covering them up by obsessively practicing yoga. This behavior can begin to control your life and ruin your relationships, just like drugs and alcohol do.
These are just the psychological issues, but there are practical and philosophical problems too. She is wasting her entire day in a yoga studio either practicing or waiting for the next class to start instead of living her life, and this attitude goes against the core philosophy of yoga. Yoga is about discovering Self, not avoiding Self through obsessive exercise. She is also working to the point of exhaustion in a very hot setting and is almost surely dehydrated. Her muscles are probably at a point where atrophy is occurring instead of growth because she is not giving them the proper time to rest. And she has set a dangerous standard for herself where practicing once a day, which is great and healthy, will make her feel like a failure instead of a success.
These are probably two of the most obvious metaphors you can apply from the practice of asanas to your life, but it doesn’t make them any less powerful. How could you spend time each day mindfully concentrating on both elements without starting to apply the concepts to everything else you do.
Just like all of the embedded teachings of yoga, you have to bring them into conscious awareness and work with them to get the most benefit. If you practice without making the connection of whether your life is in balance and whether you are able to flexibly adapt to new situations, for example, some of your practice will still seep into how you live your life. But if you really spend the time to apply the concepts you get even more out of them.
Try making a list of those elements in your environment that make you feel balanced and those that throw you off your balance. Write down life choices you have made that have brought you peace and some that have brought you distress.
Think about what having balance in life means to you personally, and how your idea of it is similar to your quest for increasing balance in the practice of asanas. What strategies have you used to improve your balance in yoga? What natural skills did you bring to the table? Could you use these in other areas of your life to find balance there too?
Next start thinking about flexibility. What is the difference between flexibility and giving in? Can people try to be too flexible? What happens to you in your yoga practice when you try to stretch your body beyond where it is capable. What have been the benefits of improving your body’s flexibility? Would you experience similar benefits by increasing your flexibility in other areas of your life?
As your practice continues you might notice that your thoughts overlap, that flexibility in asanas is influenced by your meditations on flexibility in the world, and the way you see and interact with the world is influenced by the connection you make to your asanas.
At the end of most Vinyasa classes you find yourself lying still in Dead Man’s pose for a few minutes before being asked to turn onto your right side. You lay there in the fetal position, usually in a pool of your own sweat if it was hot yoga, and then come up to a seated position in order to bow, recognizing yourself and the others in the room. Then you go on about your day. Like everything in yoga this experience is increasingly useful to you as you bring the psychological components into conscious awareness and struggle with them.
Thinking about the life cycle of a yoga session can help you enjoy your life more. You will find yourself mindfully focused in the present during your practice and also outside of it. Yoga practitioners know that whether the spheres of experience under observation are comparatively large or comparatively small they are all governed by the same principles. What can be applied to the small can be applied to the big, and vice versa. In this way the spiritual revelations in the microcosm of your yoga practice can be used to understand the spiritual revelations of the universe.
Next time you are in the fetal pose at the end of your yoga sequence think about the glory that in this moment you are being reborn and can shape your attitude towards yourself and your life any way you choose. Regardless of where you are in your life cycle, you will one day have to confront real death, symbolized by the end of the session where you are laying flat on your back in Dead Man’s. Think about how expectant you were at the start of class, not yet having begun your asanas and still with the full hour in front of you. How quickly it flew by!
Time is relative. Viewed through the lens of the aeons, what is the difference between a one hour yoga session and a hundred year life? They are both tiny specks and seemingly inconsequential units. But time is made up of an infinite series of present moments, and without the present there could be no past and no future. It stands to reason that your present moment is just as significant as every other present moment since it supports and holds up the past while making way for the future. Your present can be infinitely more significant when you choose to inhabit it fully.
Considering the yoga sequence as a cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth will help you recognize the moment you do have right now as precious. Everything that has gone before you up to this point, including the last hour of asanas, is now in the past and can never be altered. It is set in stone. The present is yours though to do with as you please and the future is still pregnant with possibility. It’s a special gift we have been given to be symbolically reborn countless times during our lives rather than being physically born just once, going through nature’s mandated sequence of birth, growth, life, death, and rebirth. Of course we are bound to natural laws and must face biological death too.
This conversation is saying spiritually pretty much the equivalent of what Gestalt psychologists mean when they refer to the needs satisfaction cycle. In order to feel whole we must complete the areas of our lives that are left hanging. This gives us the ability to open up fully to the next stimulus from our environment that draws us forward. Without the ability to complete the cycle and withdraw we could never fully commit to whatever came next. Our energy and thoughts would be in two places, or multiple places as is so common for us in the modern world. The yoga session lets you become aware of completing a miniature life cycle. You will view your full life cycle in a different light after a few times of mindfully completing the process. You might be surprised by some of your dawning realizations that have been staring you in the face but were ignored or only half thought out. We are constantly making decisions for how we want to live our lives, whether actively or passively.
Time is not unceasing for any of us, even though it often feels that way. Just like every yoga practice invariably comes to a close, every life must one day come to an end. But next time you rise from the fetal position, let yourself feel gratitude that your larger journey is not completed yet and that you still have time to become the fullest possible version of who you know you are.
Practicing yoga means being in the moment. But even when asanas are so difficult that being anywhere else seems impossible our minds sometimes wander. One of the reasons for many of us is that we make a few mistakes during a series or fall out of a pose and then ruminate upon these mistakes as the session progresses.
You can use the power of behavioral association to help you come back to your Self in the present, making the down dog pose act as a reset button. In Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh and his friends use bells. Every time they hear the sound of a bell they instantly drop whatever they are doing, mindfully focusing on their breathing and coming back to the moment. You can start using down dog in the same way. Every time the instructor asks you to come back to the pose make a conscious effort to let everything go and exist fully in the moment.
As Hanh has said living mindfully is at once the most simple and the most difficult thing to do in the world. All you have to do is invest 100% of your being on whatever it is you are doing. All of us need help in this quest, and tapping into behavioral psychology is a good way to get there. If you really make an effort to equate the stimulus of ‘down dog’ with reorienting towards the present, doing so will become second nature to you after a few sessions. It’s great scaffolding for helping you to achieve mindfulness during an entire session and then into the broader context of your life.