Saturday, June 16, 2012

Body, mind, heart….the many definitions of yoga.

The usual article about yoga tends to start by defining what yoga is. The usual definition of yoga is a dry intellectual explanation that goes something like this: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” or “Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word to yoke, which means…” and usually a description of what gets yoked follows. Sometimes it sounds like this: “is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline originating in ancient India and found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and ...”

There is this misperception that yoga is a one-size-fits-all practice of physical movements peppered with a mixed seasoning of new age ideas and ancient wisdom that is supposed to be your highway to health and a fountain of youth that’s cheaper and more fun than constant visits to the doctor.

For a lot of people that is exactly what yoga is. Generally whatever your expectations are from the practice, that’s what you are going to find in it and get from it. If you are coming to the practice for great abs and butt, you will be the person seeking ever more challenging workouts and you will be the person pushing the limits of your body in a yoga class until you are sweating profusely, exhausted and “feel the burn.” If you are the kind of person looking for connection, you will find yourself in classes where other students, just like you like to chat and hang out with each other, and the teacher makes you feel like you matter. If you are the kind of person who’s looking for transformation, you will have a giant library of yoga books, attend discussions, find yourself in kirtans and notice how every yoga asana class you take makes you feel – physically, mentally and emotionally.

That’s why everyone of us will have a different definition of what yoga is. If you sit and think for a moment what yoga is for you, you will find your own, personal definition, and if you stick with the practice long enough, you may find that your definition is changing. Hopefully, if you are in the yoga abs and butt category, you will indeed change your definition over time, or else, you will be missing out on most of the practice.
My first experience with yoga, even before I knew what yoga was, or that it even existed, was when I was 10 and sitting under a blackberry bush being quiet so I can see the universe out there reflected in me. I was having a mystical experience and not even knowing it. Which goes to show you that mystical experiences are available to anyone regardless of training, age, gender or location. Children like me, who were pretty much left to figure things out on their own and before their heads are full with experiences, impressions and definitions (samskaras), and who don’t have to struggle to physically survive, are probably more open and likely to stumble upon something profound than adults who are already molded into a worldview, stuck in life responsibilities and generally more skeptical. So, I don’t think, I was special. It took me years to realize I was having a mystical experience and I was only able to appreciate it when I grew up enough to learn a few things, get a few definitions and realize that I have built a few walls of my own.

Later in my teens, I acquired my fist misunderstanding of yoga to be a strange undertaking of a few people who live in India and like to do things like sleep on a bed of nails, walk around naked, try to hold their breath for too long and show off contortionist skills to amazed bystanders. I have no idea where that came from! Perhaps a TV footage on the Bulgarian news? Or, my grandmother, who years later when she found out that I was doing yoga, puzzled and openly disappointed asked my mother “Why would Valentina want to do that? What is the future of sleeping on a bed of nails?” Or, even my own mother, who when she found out I had become a yoga teacher said to me: “You spent all this time and sacrificed so much to get a real education (referring to my economics degree), why would you want to throw it all away?”

Over the years, my definition of yoga has changed dramatically. I have come to realize that my 10 years of age mystical experience has more to do with who I have become than what my family tried to imprint on me, or what I planned on becoming.  It left me with an insatiable yarning to find meaning beyond what meets the eye. It stuck inside and made me, mostly unconsciously and sometimes consciously evaluate my undertakings as “sukha” or “dukha” (wholesome/happy vs unfitting/suffering) and ultimately landed me an obscure place in the American universe and unnoticeable status on the ladder of success in a world defined by what you have and how you look.  That’s the good news.

The great news is that, sometimes willing, sometimes kicking and screaming, I managed to follow the instinct created by that mystical experience into a journey of self discovery which has paid off with experiential understanding of human nature and the nature of reality which, in turn has brought about tenderness, appreciation and compassion in someone like me, who’s not that tender, appreciative and compassionate to begin with.

So, my definition of yoga is: “A personal practice of transformation that tames the mind and reveals its limitless creative potential, purifies and shapes the body into the most amazing instrument of action to manifest that creativity, and opens the heart into universal connectedness that humbles, challenges and further transforms anyone willing to withstand it.”

Yes, I love me a great physical practice and always look forward to one. But my definition of yoga expands beyond that and infuses that with meaning beyond shape and form. I find my asana practice to be one of the best opportunities to practice mindfulness of my psychological tenancies. I notice the impulses of the ego to push the limits, the tenderness of the heart reminding me to listen deeply into the body, the passing of life and vitality which brings sadness and utmost gratitude for that which is still present now, the emotional reactions to the thoughts that arise, the reactivity and at the same time the vastness of speciousness and deep silence within which everything is born, takes shape and returns to. An asana practice for me is one of the best places to experience the multidimensionality of humanness because it is a safe container for vulnerability….That is if, that’s what you want out of your physical practice.

Ultimately, our intentions determine our actions and the outcomes of those actions mysteriously end up serving those intentions, even though the outcome may be something you didn’t exactly expect or plan for. My intention has been to grow, explore and fulfill the potential within me. I’ve been many places I didn’t expect to find myself and I realized that each and every place, person, situation and event had something to show me about me, that I had to deal with, if I was to fulfill that potential.  That’s “karma” in yogic terms. One is liberated by solving the riddles karma delivers your way and transcending the “samskaras” that lay at the bottom of every karmic occurrence… Yes, it’s an ongoing process, because we make more as we are going along – sometimes out of ignorance, as we just don’t know any better, or because we can’t see the connections. Sometimes out of ego which is unable to let go of its usual way of seeing and doing things just yet.  Sometimes our attachments and aversions run so deep we don’t know they are that. Sometimes, it’s just dumb luck and deeply engrained conditioning that comes from your formative years, or God knows where… Basically, it’s safe to assume that for as long as we are on this planet and have a body, we all are going to have plenty to do in the karma department.

Beliefs usually are at the basis of our intentions. We intend for something we believe we want, deserve or need, something that we consider good, useful to us or to all beings… something we believe is worth our time and effort. We don’t set intentions to suffer unreasonably, to be dishonest whenever possible, to cause others to suffer and to feel miserable pretty much all the time.  But sometimes we actually believe that we don’t deserve something like love, connection, prosperity. We actually believe we are incompetent and unable to get from where we are to where we intend to be. If intention and beliefs misalign we find trouble because we find no fulfillment and prove to ourselves that “this stuff just doesn’t work. “  By examining our beliefs we learn massive amounts about ourselves. We find all our samskaras.  As we unearth them, than we have an opportunity to transform them, thus transforming our beliefs and setting intentions that match our deepest convictions, our highest visions and our most sincere aspirations.  

So, what is your intention for your yoga? Does your yoga serve your intentions and how? Are these questions you even think about? There are no wrong answers, only sincere answers and pretend answers. If your answers are sincere, than you are seeing clearly, and this is a good start, or a good stepping stone on the endless road of transformation. If your answers are wishful thinking, or parroting things you’ve heard or read somewhere, than your practice will give you something just for practicing – like numerous health benefits that are attributed to yoga, but those will be temporary and limited and not that different from other forms of exercise, because that’s all you are doing – exercising.  Yes, exercising is better than not exercising, but there are a lot of unhappy people who are exercising every day. There are a lot of people with broken relationships, one after another, who are exercising every day.

If you want to know if your yoga is “working” take a look at your relationships. What is your relationship with yourself, with your partner, or children, or co-workers….all of your relationships? Go back to the mat, to the books, to the next discussion session you can find, to meditation if you find things that you could improve upon.

The Greek Olympics used to have a slogan, or perhaps they still do… “Healthy mind, healthy body, healthy spirit.” That’s not too far from what Yoga is all about, is it?

Heal your mind, transform your body, open your heart.  A mind that sees clearly, and is free of obstructions, envisions the future. A body that’s healthy, energized and agile creates the future. A heart that’s open and wise, shares the future with all others.

Ultimately, yoga is really not about you, is it? But without you it won’t happen.