If you’ve ever imposed a lifestyle change on yourself, whether it be around food, drink, smoking, or exercise, you’ll know that it doesn’t always last.
But yoga takes a different tack. Rather than impose, yoga can change us from the inside.
Just last week one of our students was saying that he’d gone off the idea of having a red wine that evening, following a backbend class. Not that there’s anything wrong with red wine, but the student just had a feeling that the wine might undo the benefits of the asana work and it had lost its appeal.
Helen explored a similar theme a few years ago in a workshop, after a student asked if yoga would help with weight loss. The result was a weekend of yoga and discussions on body image and relationships with food.
Some of the material from that workshop is summarised below. But it’s not really about weight loss or red wine. It’s about the ways that yoga can change us from the inside.
Tools and Skills that Yoga Can Offer
Read most diet books and they will talk about food. Read a general health book and it will talk about exercise as well. Many will give an over-simplified regime to follow, and leave it at that. What yoga offers is an opportunity to look at root causes; to look not at the block of chocolate, but at my own baggage that I have wrapped around the practice of eating that chocolate.
Yoga gives us “skills”. And it does it in a very practical, experiential way. The thoughts in these notes are based on concepts from the yoga sutras, but part of the beauty of yoga is that this is all there, in a daily practice, encapsulated in the difficulty of getting on the mat, getting started, maintaining momentum, committing the time, gaining and retaining focus, working deeply, facing the fear of the pose we don’t want to do, accepting the softness and comfort of the pose we need, but perhaps don’t feel that we deserve.
Yoga never promises a quick fix. Right from the beginning, yoga asks us to slow down, and take life at the pace that it actually occurs. Yoga asks us to live in the present, not from some high ideal, but because there is so much going on in the present. Without the skill of being present to the current moment, we miss out on big chunks of our lives because mentally and emotionally, we weren’t really there. The pace of yoga is such a contrast to most of the promises that are offered to us on the internet and in magazines.
Yoga takes a long term view, which can be a huge relief. Yoga acknowledges that there are ups and downs in life, and consequently in our commitment to care for ourselves. Sometimes we do it really well, other times we struggle. A yoga practice is an opportunity to simply observe that, and see it for what it is – impermanent. Yoga can be an antidote to modern living.
Stilling the Mind
Chapter 1, Sutra 2 is the most often quoted of Patanjali’s yoga sutras: Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness. -Translated by BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or Yoga is the stilling of movement in the mind. -Translated by Vyn Bailey, Patanjali’s Meditation Yoga
Note that it does not say yoga is body beautiful. It does not even say yoga is getting my right hip to move into a particular position. Further on in the sutras, there is even a discussion of how we can get side-tracked by the benefits of yoga that are not about stilling the movements of the mind. In the yoga texts, there is no question that yoga is about clarity of thinking. The mind is integrally linked to the body, so we use the body to get there, but the physical flexibility, dexterity, strength, agility, beauty that can be the result of a yoga practice are not the aim.
By genuinely clear thinking, we can achieve whatever external goals we may have, though we may find our goals change as our thinking becomes clearer.
Dealing with the Afflictions (Klesas)
The afflictions essentially get in the way of clear thinking. For this newsletter, we will simply list the five afflictions. We will look at them in detail in another newsletter. The five afflictions are: Avidya - Incorrect Knowledge/Ignorance/Lack of Insight/Lack of Wisdom Asmita - Self-Image/Egoism/Arrogance Raga - Desire Dvesa - Aversion Abhinivesah - Survival Instinct/ Self-preservation/Attachment to life