Anyone who has been on the yoga path for a while has probably heard that yoga is both a journey of Self-discovery and a cosmic state of awareness. The practices of yoga eventually guide the persistent aspirant to a state of cosmic bliss or samadhi, the ultimate goal of Self-realization. Then, somewhere along the way, in the midst of all this inspiration, we deepen our studies and come upon what seem to be all these rules and regulations that ask us to change our lifestyles in dramatic ways in the name of self-purification and freedom.
Sounds contradictory, right? In practical terms, the teachings are asking us to reflect on how we are living our lives and showing us where we could make some changes right now so we can experience our true joyful nature. Personal effort applied systematically will liberate us from delusion, resolve our past karma or actions, and will prevent future suffering. Patanjali reiterates the practice of swadhyaya or self-study as a component of kriya yoga and as a niyama. We are advised to look deeply at ourselves at all times in all circumstances so we can remove negative attitudes and patterns of behavior that are the root of our inner turmoil and doubts.
Oddly enough, at certain points on this journey it is easy for a well-intentioned yogi-in-training to feel overwhelmed and confused, or even to feel a sense of falling short when measuring oneself up to the ideals of the great living masters and saintly yogis of the past. Likely this is due to our present culture’s delusion of instant gratification. We want cosmic bliss yesterday.
We apply our impatience not only to ourselves, but others. Quite often what seems to happen when we dive head first with religious zeal into the ancient texts is that in the midst of the enthusiasm for applying this ancient wisdom to daily life is a strong tendency to take the teachings and somehow use them as a means for competing and comparing. We’ve all heard it or done it before…”I can’t believe so and so went out for drinks or had a cigarette after class”, “So and so is not a real yogi since they still experience personal problems and moments of doubt”, “So and so is not really a yogi because they are not vegan”, “Has everyone noticed all the karma yoga and service I have been doing?” The list goes on.
Funny how as we engage in these practices as a means to purify ourselves and resolve guilt from our pasts that we somehow subject others to exalted standards in a basically judgmental way. Are these the karmic seeds we want to plant? If we get caught up in the hype of pretentious, pious posturing, where are we really? If we need to correct or belittle another in our fervor to win a non-existent race to enlightenment, will we ever become enlightened? Do we want to be holier than thou or do we want to be free?
Essentially, all the teachings are meant to give us a fresh perspective so we can see ourselves more clearly. The ability to witness ourselves is crucial to success in yoga. Stepping back and watching our role in the cosmic drama is the only way we will ever see how the motivations underlying our actions affect how we see everything. With awareness, we can recognize patterns, resolve our pasts and open up to a whole new realm of possibilities. We can be free.
In our need for feeling some superiority in our practices and acquiring more of them as quickly as possible, we can wind up mixing too many too soon and end up on a bad trip. Fragmenting or distorting our view of reality so that we see both ourselves and others as though through a variety of fun house mirrors as we gradually commit each ethical rule, sutra and sloka to memory and add them to our repertoire for daily living is not sustainable perspective. As we aim to become well-versed in scripture, we must remember the point of the practice is to experience the interconnectedness of all of life through compassion for all beings, kindness, contentment and friendliness. These qualities are embedded and emphasized within the ethical guidelines for a reason.
When we are caught up in spiritual one-upmanship or subjecting everyone we encounter, on the path or not, to the current set of standards (dogma) we are working with, are we really aligning with the aim of yoga which is to transcend limiting definitions and feelings of separation? Along with being a major turn off, making our ethical practice into a high pressure situation has documented warnings including neurosis, depression and even schizophrenia!
If we combine the two seeming opposites: the worldly material and the internal spiritual pursuits, we can employ the idea of being a connoisseur to our journey of self-discovery. Instead of merely acquiring more philosophy quotes or physical practices in a mechanical, collection-oriented sense, we could begin to apply the practices to their real purpose, which is to become a connoisseur of oneself! When we get to know ourselves it is ultimately a process of elimination. We eventually remove all the identifications with what we are not, all the definitions, all the stereo-types and all the hype so we experience the ever expanding awareness that is who we really are.
Recommended Practices/ Teaching Tips:
Vashishtasana: Side-Plank Pose; named after the sage Vashishta, guru of Ram from the famed Ramayana. Vashsishta’s essential message was pro-disillusionment, offering that we have to see the cracks in the ceiling before we can see the light.
During shoulder stand and plow remind students that inversions help us see other people’s points of view, which is one reason we always hold them for 5-10 minutes and that plow helps us break up stagnant, judgmental attitudes and preferences so we can wisdom and creativity can grow.