Yoga was one of the first self-healing tools I sought for chronic back pain in my late teens. I remember my first class in the basement of St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta in 1997. The postures were unfamiliar and the instructions seemed complex. I suspected it was just a ruse to get my mind off of my problems. I didn’t know at the time, but I was partially correct.
The purpose of yoga may seem to be to have a perfectly toned and flexible body and to look heavenly while holding a complex posture on an exotic beach. I spent years using yoga to try to make my body perfect. I even went to an exotic beach and practiced complex postures for hours each day. My body continues to be imperfect. Does that make me a yoga-failure? Luckily, No. The purpose of yoga is not about having a perfect flexible body.
Yoga is actually a multiple-step system whose goal is to experience the present moment and all the goodies that exist there.
The purpose of what is called asana- the physical body postures that most people would describe as “yoga” is to prepare the body for meditation. The purpose of meditation is to train the body and mind to become finely focused on the present moment without intrusion of other thoughts (like your problems). The purpose of becoming finely focused on the present moment is to experience relaxation, peace, harmony, bliss, the infinite...God. This is the purpose of Yoga.
The great thing about learning to access the present moment is that there are so many goodies there. Within you, in the present moment, you have access to your innate state of relaxation, peace, harmony, joy,.... it's all right there. No beach required. Creativity, healing, repair, problem solving, and growth happen in these states of being. Your body and mind can’t actually do these things effectively when caught up in worry, doubt, problems and rushing around.
Of course, It is difficult to become focused on the present moment without intrusion of other thoughts if you have all sorts of problems, worries, and regrets in your life. Thus, the system of yoga proposes guidelines for living called yamas and niyamas whose purpose is to keep the mind clear for meditation.
A very simplified explanation of the guidelines is:
- avoid harming yourself and others by thought, word or action (this would include being critical of yourself and others)
- be truthful
- avoid stealing (this can include physical things but also more subtle like stealing someone’s time)
- pay attention to how you use your energy
- don’t hoard or be greedy
- keep your body and living space clean and free of impurities (negative thoughts can be considered impurities)
- be content with what is
- have some form of self discipline
- be mindful of your thoughts and actions so that you can keep learning and growing
- contemplate something greater than yourself
The point of these guidelines is so that you have less to worry about and your mind can settle down into meditation more easily.
Don’t panic If you do have all sorts of problems, worries and regrets in your life (who doesn’t?). Asana and meditation are practices to train the mind and body to focus on something deeper- relaxation, peace, ease, joy; or at least something else- concentrating on keeping your right arm wrapped around the left while balancing on one bended knee. So how does that help me with my problems you ask? As you repeatedly focus your mind away from its habitual task of ruminating on problems, the connection in your mind to the worries, fears, judgement, etc. will get weaker. Just as if you stop walking a particular forest path and it gets less discernible over time. This may feel difficult at first, especially if your mind and body is used to all the ruminating and worrying. Decide what you want and keep practicing. The more you practice, the easier it is. And soon, you will learn to experience relaxation, peace, ease, and joy in any situation. These finer states of being are actually where your brain and body can be most efficient at creating solutions, learning, and healing.
The paradox is that trying is generally counter-productive. The trick is to let go into the present moment and allow relaxation, peace, harmony, bliss, joy to come. It's definitely counter productive to try to push your body into being perfect. Criticizing your body and being frustrated that it can't do the poses that you want it to do is also not helpful. Being imperfect is an opportunity to practice being content with what is.
Asana class is a bit of a microcosm of life. Can I move my body around into all sorts of strange positions, some that require strength, some balance, some surrender, all while keeping focused and maintaining a sense of peace?
Have I said anywhere that yoga is about having a perfect body? No.
Do I have to be flexible, athletic, strong, or "healthy" to experience the present moment? No.
Can I experience the present moment with the body that I have? Yes.
Can I weaken the connection to worries in my mind by giving it something else to focus even if my body isn't able to look like the "perfect" pose? Yes.
Can I experience the goodies of the present moment even if I don't have a perfect body? Yes.
Here I am, 20 years after that first yoga class, with thousands of hours of yoga classes and two teacher training certificates under my belt and I can say that my very initial interpretation of yoga was pretty accurate. Yoga is a bit of a ruse to get your mind off your problems so that you can experience the goodies of life.
Yoga is a system to train your mind and body to focus on the present moment. With a mind and body that is able to be still and be in the present moment, so much opens up- creativity, healing, growth, problem solving... The serenity and ease of that lady on a beach can be yours wherever you are.
I really need this serenity when my two-year old son is driving a toy car across my face at 5 in the morning. When could you use it?
The photo on this post is by my beautiful and talented Yoga Development Course roomate, professional photographer and fellow-mama Laura Vanags.
I have been living with chronic illness and exploring the healing journey for over 20 years. I have been very blessed to learn from many great teachers and have the opportunity to explore many healing paths. I offer what I have learned from that journey to you in the form of aslowerkindoflife.com. I love pondering the mysteries of life and how it all weaves together into a beautiful journey.