“Life means to be living. Problems will always be there. When they arise navigate through them with yoga—don’t take a break.” - B.K.S. Iyengar
In Sanskrit, the word yoga means union. While it’s easy to get allured into perceiving yoga as a physical practice that burns calories and offers an outlet for cute clothes and gear, yoga, which can be traced back to over 5,000 years ago, is rich in history and tradition. Customarily, we practice postures, or asanas, so that we can quiet our minds and open our bodies in preparation to sit for meditation. Yoga, on all levels, is a practice in consciousness and deeper connection with ourselves. In yoga, we journey inward, using our breath, or pranayama, as our guide. There is no level to reach, no external reward for the shapes we perform with our bodies. Yoga is what happens on the inside, and over time, if we persist, the self-awareness we foster permeates on the outside in our behavior and actions.
Patanjali, who is attributed with compiling the Yoga Sutras, or threads of yogic philosophy, defined the concept of yoga as “yogas citta vrtti nirodhah,” which translates to “yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind.” According to Patanjali, the distractions which rob us of our peace are ignorance, ego, desire, aversion, and attachment (Yoga Sutras, II, 3). Patanjali didn’t aspire to live in a world free of distractions; rather, he utilized yoga as a method to accept the distractions. For Patangali, and millions of yogis after him, yoga offered a means to practice awareness and mindfulness in an attempt to cultivate internal peace and ultimately create waves of goodwill in the world around us.
Yoga as Action
In a society in which we tend to get out of whack on a daily basis by listening to the news, sitting in traffic, or rushing from one meeting to the next, yoga provides us with a means to center ourselves. We tend to spend our time obsessing about issues big and small. We are tired. We drink too much caffeine. We get too little sleep. We have too much to do, and too little time. We are always trying to get back to that aspect of ourselves that is carefree, focused, and living in the moment versus berating our fate or what we anticipate will be our future. Yoga in a sense freezes time by prompting us to go inward and turn off in an attempt to tune in. It enables us to lose the noise and tap into a place within ourselves that is free of judgement.
The Yoga Democracy
In my 20+ years of daily yoga practice, I’ve come to view yoga as the great unifier. On our yoga mats, we are more alike than we are not. No matter one’s title or financial status, one’s political views or ethnicity, when we roll out our mats—either collectively or in solitude—our struggles and joys share a common denominator: we seek clarity, wholeness, and self-acceptance. Each yoga journey is a reminder that we all possess the same basic emotions: love, hate, fear, joy, anger, sadness. The way we approach our daily practice is often the way we approach our lives: sometimes deflated, other times with force, and sometimes with grace. Over time, through breathing and focus, our yoga practice helps us to strip away the elements of ourselves that weigh us down or that we no longer need. In yoga, regardless of how disparate our journeys may be, each time we show up on our mats, our energy unites for the greater good. We acknowledge and pacify the chaos within us, as we venture to become more wholehearted beings.
Off the Mat and into the World
While our work on the mat is vital to our growth, the true benefits of yoga often occur off the mat, when we are confronted with aspects of life that make us angry, defensive, or unsettled. It’s in those moments that we need to employ the tools that yoga teaches us in order to seek peace and solutions versus creating more conflict and unrest in our lives and communities.
In a world in which contempt and complaints often surround us, we can choose to spend our days immersed in the negativity, or aim to enact positive change by becoming healthier and more constructive individuals. Perhaps the way to expel hate is by overcoming the hate within us, and the way to promote the values that we seek is by practicing them in our own lives. There are choices: we can cultivate empathy and compassion for the people we share a crowded elevator with, the people who wait on line beside us at the supermarket, the people in our lives who may not share our personal or political views, or we can battle our way through the days, months, and years ahead treating others as if they are the enemy.
Yoga is a powerful tool for finding amity and gratitude within. It enables us to move beyond the daily tumult and attain patience, love, and humanity. Although it may start on the yoga mat through breathing and postures, the ripples of yoga go far beyond; it provides us with an opportunity to examine and to surrender to our struggles in an attempt to accept and ultimately, overcome them. If we can recognize our imperfections and make peace with ourselves, perhaps we can inspire those around us to do the same. Om Tat Sat.