The first time I saw someone practicing yoga I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I was highly attracted, there being something profoundly "right" about what I was seeing; on the other hand there was a mysterious, exotic, and ancient air about it that made me nervous. I had never seen anything like it before. It seemed powerful, almost bizarre. The man I was watching obviously knew what he was doing, and he seemed to have access to a hidden reservoir of energy.
Questions like "Why in the world?" and "What for?" raced through my mind. Reactions like "So what," "crazy," and "fanatic" filtered through, and yet I was deeply impressed. I wanted to know how twisting and bending your body could have anything remotely to do with God, life, meaning, or happiness. What was yoga all about? What relationship could it possibly have with anything? With my life, my perceived problems, global issues, despair, hopelessness, the alleviation of suffering, making a difference, enlightenment ... ? And like many things in life, we can never know in advance the full impact something is going to have on us. Reasons for our initial involvement may pale and lose importance as we move deeper. We change and learn, often in unexpected ways.
The simple perspective I have come up with, through all the years and thousands of hours of practicing yoga and meditation since that first exposure, is that yoga makes you feel good. It's relaxing. It's energizing. It's strengthening. You feel better at the end of a session than before you began, and life runs more smoothly when you maintain a consistent discipline than when you don't. Yoga enhances your experience of life. It changes your perspective. You thereby find yourself spontaneously embracing a larger, more accurate conception of who you are, how life works, and what God is. You start seeing things differently, with less distortion - which results in more peace of mind, better health, more enthusiasm for life, and an ever-growing authentic sense of inner well-being.
As you practice yoga and meditation regularly, this subtle sense of feeling good gradually becomes so pervasive, so natural and genuine, so much a part of you that it carries over into the whole of your life. And in doing so it helps clarify your deepest longings, motivations, and aspirations, thereby restoring optimism, hope, meaning, and purpose to life.
This transition will be smooth and easy much of the time (even unnoticed) because it's so natural, but some of the time it may not be smooth or easy. It may be damn hard and painful. But this is only because growth hurts when you resist change, and most of us have an inclination to resist change in an attempt to remain comfortable by staying the same. But life is change. Change happens, especially when you're involved in a powerful transformative process such as yoga. You grow. You can't not change. That's just the way it is. It's how things work. Therefore, in order to stay comfortable as you grow, you must flow with the changes and not attempt to remain the same - just as you buy a new pair of shoes for your son or daughter when their feet have outgrown the pair they've been wearing. It's not reasonable for them to continue wearing their favorite shoes when they no longer fit. You get rid of the old ones and buy a new pair. But the reason you need new ones is that their feet have grown. Growth has occurred. Their foot grew, the shoe became too small, their foot hurt. Pain is not an inherent part of being a foot. Nor is it an inherent part of growth.
Your feet cannot be comfortable in a pair of shoes that has become too small. Nor can an emerging flower be comfortable by staying inside its protective husk that has gradually become too tight. Nor a growing chick inside its shell. Nor can you be comfortable in old belief structures and limited self-concepts. You must slough off the husk and allow yourself to open and bloom. You must willingly let go of any belief structure that limits your awareness and causes your experience of growth to be painful. You must let go of that which until now has been a protective coating or shield - and bloom. With the blooming will come a new sense of self and new appreciation for life.
The confidence necessary to do this will accrue naturally from the practice. You learn to open up by relaxing, being fearless, and becoming increasingly defenseless. Defensiveness, or shielding, is what creates the discomfort associated with growth. Changes start happening, changes that may not always be initially welcome, and rather than flow with the change and grow, many of us choose to stop the process and stave off the change in an attempt to remain the same a little longer. We contract in order to protect ourselves. We stop the practice the moment it starts working, usually when we start changing in ways we had not anticipated. This is because that which is good for us is not always recognized as such right off the bat. It's not uncommon to become fearful, defensive, and self-protective, to mistrust the process and revert to old ways of being. The problem with doing this, however, you discover, is that it hurts more not to change. Increasingly, then, you embrace change. You realize it's the movement of fulfillment. And when you are no longer resisting growth it will be experienced by you as less traumatic and more joyful. It feels good to go with the flow and grow.
We all like feeling good. We all want peace of mind. We all enjoy being joyful, peaceful, energized, and relaxed. Surely, there's no confusion about this. Yet most of us would readily admit that we are not feeling as good as we might. We may, in fact, believe that anything more than a transient, spurious happiness is not actually attainable. But we would also like to feel better and actually be happy. We want the truth, come what may, but we'd also like the joy and fulfillment of a meaningful life if at all possible.
We all have different visions of happiness and fulfillment, and different strategies with which to pursue them as we attempt to ascertain what's true. Yet, regardless of our differences, all of us are doing those things that we think will make us happy - or at least less miserable, less susceptible to future suffering. The way we do this is based on our current personal understanding of how life works. We pursue different courses of action because our understanding, inclinations, and circumstances vary. The essential motivation is the same, however. We want the truth - and we want to be happy.
You may want something other than just "feeling good," however, something more than a vague, nonspecific happiness. You may want a new car, a washing machine, a master's degree, or a better relationship. You may want spiritual enlightenment. But would you still want the new car, the washer, the degree, the relationship, or the enlightenment if in having it it did not also make you feel good? Would you want these things if they made you feel bad?
It's difficult to want something, even if it's good for you, if you think you'll feel worse as a result of having it. Therefore, we must be very alert for self-deception. How much of your pursuit of truth is tainted or twisted by what you want that truth to be? If Truth causes you to suffer more than you already do, would you still want it? This is an important question one that leads many people not to want to know the truth, and one that you are answering one way or the other as evidenced in the way you live your life.
The various things we desire and pursue, therefore, and the many ways we attempt to grow and change are what we perceive to be the means to happiness. We think, "If only I were ten pounds lighter," "If only I weren't so shy and fearful," "If only I could do that pose better," "If only I had some money," "If only someone loved me, if only things were somehow different, if only I were different from how I am ... then I'd be happy." We think that having this or that, or being this or that way, will do the trick.
The problem, though, is that we don't actually know what will make us happy. We've received many of our desires, things we thought would make us happy, changed ourselves in every conceivable way, and still feel largely unsatisfied. The fulfillment of desire is generally not very satisfying in the larger sense. We realize that what we thought we wanted wasn't it after all. It didn't give us lasting happiness. A new desire always arises. Besides, there are many things in this world that can temporarily make us feel good, but that are not very good for us and that eventually make us feel bad.
The thrust of yoga, in contrast to the pursuit of your desire as a means to happiness, is aimed at the monumental, life-changing discovery of who and what you truly are. This is how yoga works, how it makes you feel good. It helps you experience the truth, your truth - which, you discover, is goodness. Your basic nature is happiness.
You don't know this at first, however. You don't know this is what you'll find. But when you do experience your truth, free of every idea you now believe about yourself and free of every hope you have about what that truth is, you will spontaneously feel exquisite inside and be happy. And this is no small thing. This is big, huge. And when you are in touch with that basic goodness, with the pure Consciousness that you are, all that you desire will be in alignment with your deepest truth and will therefore come to you easily as a manifestation - or proof - of your congruence with Truth. The fulfillment of desire will then be fulfilling because you are in accord with Truth, in harmony with the Oneness.
The ramifications of knowing your truth will be enormous. You will begin to live with a security, a confidence, and an inner psychological peace born of an unshakable conviction in your own personal worth. You will experience self-love and appreciation and will thereby begin to feel full enough to reach out and love others. You will also feel increasingly grateful to the creative God Force for the privilege of citizenship and the joy of participation in the endless creativity of the event called life.
Now, let's start with a brief overview of the what and why of yoga. What are the benefits of practicing yoga? And why would this be of interest to someone who has never been involved with yoga before?
Let me say first that yoga, like brushing your teeth, is an acquired preference. When I was young I didn't like to brush my teeth. It required my parents' daily reminding to get me to do it. Now I brush my teeth not only as a prevention against tooth decay, but because I prefer the way my mouth feels when it's clean.
The same has been true with my yoga practice. At first it took conscious discipline and deliberate effort to establish a daily practice. Now I practice not only because it's good for me, but because I prefer the way I feel when I do. I feel clean and new, much like the way brushing my teeth makes my mouth feel. The entire motivation has changed. Yoga helps keep my energy-tone at a level I like. This can easily become your most compelling reason for doing yoga. Then, just as you gladly brush your teeth every day, so will you gladly practice yoga. Brushing once a week is not the same as spending a few minutes daily.
Please understand that what I am attempting to describe and put into words is an activity that is essentially nonverbal. Words, by their very nature, will never quite convey the meaning. The description can never fully communicate the described. The explanation is pallid and anemic in comparison to the richness of the actual experience, and it's the actual experience of yoga that concerns us.
Words, however, can prepare you for the experience. They can foster motivation, which inevitably leads to success and understanding. The word water, for example, will not quench your thirst. But it may encourage you to continue looking for water until you find a well or drinking fountain. The words and analogies I have chosen, therefore, though not entirely precise, are accurate enough to give you a foretaste of my meaning. Be playful with the analogies, as I have been in using them, and listen for the meaning that lies beyond the word.
One of the most obvious things about having a body is that it tends to stiffen and tighten the older you get, much like a plant that is tender and supple when young and becomes hard, dry, and woody with age. When you were young, you were probably very flexible; most children are. As you have grown older, your range and ease of movement have probably diminished. Perhaps you're not as spry as you once were, you move more slowly, and you may be experiencing more aches and subtle pains. You may also have noticed that you're less energetic, less resilient to change, more prone to injury, and that injuries take longer to heal. You may not feel quite as alive as you used to feel.
Given the way most of us live and think, this is neither surprising nor mysterious. Nor is it something that happens suddenly. It creeps up slowly, and you notice it gradually. Your awareness of this gradual decay and loss of vitality, however, can spark a very real commitment to the discipline of yoga.
As your body tightens, not only is it less comfortable to be in, like a shirt that has shrunk and is now too small, it actually becomes less efficient and more prone to disease and degeneration. As your body tightens, it literally begins to choke itself. This internal constriction inhibits the circulatory system, not only of your blood and other fluids, but of the essential life force And when the circulatory system (which irrigates, oxygenates, and feeds the cells) is inhibited, the cells' food supply is diminished. This gradual undernourishment contributes to the overall aging, drying, and hardening of the body. Nerves, glands, and muscles, as well as the different energy networks in the spine, all become subject to a slow death precipitated by the lack of nourishment inherent in this internal strangulation.
With yoga you can dramatically retard, even reverse, the tendency to stiffen as you age. You can actually bring the suppleness of youth back into your life and be more flexible, durable, and stronger than you were as a child. You can learn to focus your physical and mental energy more effectively and thereby be more vital, creative, and efficient in all your activities. There are many physical benefits that accrue from regular hatha (physical) yoga practice. The three most obvious are the immediate increase in your balance, strength, and flexibility.
Improved balance refers not only to the heightened physical coordination you will acquire, but to the balance of power between the left and right, front and back, and high and low aspects of your body.
Most of us are not balanced and therefore do much of what we do asymmetrically. We may be stronger on our right side, for example, and weaker on our left. We can turn our head or twist our spine farther in one direction than we can the other. We can cross our legs with the left leg on top, but not the right. We can bend forward with ease but not backward.
None of this would matter much except for the fact that being asymmetrical and unbalanced creates a certain inevitable level of stress and strain throughout your body. Parts of you work overtime, other parts are neglected. This can lead to injury, pain, or just plain discomfort. Working toward a balance within yourself will bring a welcome harmony to the overall feeling-tone of who you are.
Yoga creates symmetry throughout your whole body, making you strong and flexible in a balanced way. It also teaches you to balance the mental impulse to push, control, and be assertive with the ' impulse to yield, surrender, and be passive. This balanced attitudinal equilibrium, rather than hampering the energy of either impulse, heightens the effectiveness of both.
When you feel tired and weak, you also feel heavy. You literally feel heavy, a burden to yourself, as though you had to drag yourself around. When you feel energetic and strong, however, you feel light, and life doesn't seem so difficult. The weaker you are, the heavier you will feel. The stronger you are, the lighter you will feel. A consistent yoga practice will make you strong and light.
This may not sound like much. But if, for example, you were twice as strong as you are right now, you would feel twice as light. It would seem as though you were half your current body weight. Imagine weighing half your present weight. You would feel very light and buoyant, and your everyday experience of who you are would be dramatically different.
The whole tone of your body will change as your strength increases. You will have an easier time handling your own body weight. You will feel sturdier and more sure of yourself. You will have a lighter step, your experience in the world will become a pleasure, and life will seem and be easier. If this interests you, then work to increase your strength. Do this by exercising it, using it. Be happy when a pose challenges you in this way.
As you free your body and become more flexible, you not only restore lost movement, you actually erase all the tensions and internal conflicts that would otherwise accumulate and eventually erupt as pain. The more flexible you are, the harder it is for pain to lodge in your body. Pain and tension are forms of blocked, stuck, misplaced, and misused energy. Being more flexible opens these energy blockages and frees your energy circulation. Your entire body will feel clean and new as the stuck parts are freed and released.
Pain often comes from neglect (a form of misuse) and is always a signal to take care. Toothaches, backaches, and headaches are all symptoms of such neglect or abuse. They are forms of asking for help and should be listened to, not ignored. Healthy teeth do not hurt, and healthy backs do not ache. Toothaches hold you in "tooth-consciousness," backaches in "back-consciousness." If you have ever had either, you know what I mean.
The healthier your teeth are, however, the less "tooth-consciousness" you will experience. The healthier your back, the less "back-consciousness." And the healthier your whole body is, the less "body-consciousness" you will experience. This will produce a state wherein you feel transparent, clear, clean, almost invisible. And because your body is operating perfectly, it will not demand your attention in uncomfortable ways. Your awareness and life experience will again feel pure and untainted. This is probably the way you felt when you were young.
Easing the grip of body-consciousness will spark the growing awareness that "you" are much more than mortal. The healthier you are, the less concerned you will be with your body. This frees your mind to discover itself. It is interesting how it comes full circle. At first, yoga makes you more sensitive and more conscious of your body; otherwise, due to neglect, misuse, or abuse, pain will be calling you. But now, because of the care you have taken with yourself, your awareness and self-definition are free to expand beyond your body to new levels of experience and learning.
The gratifying result of being supremely healthy is that your body becomes barely noticeable, much like having your car in perfect running order. When your car is perfectly tuned, your driving experience is of the ride, the scenery, and the people you are with. You are not worried about whether the car is about to break down or not. The way to alleviate worry and transcend "car-consciousness'' is by taking care of your car, not by ignoring it and leaving its well-being to the whims of chance. The way to transcend worrisome body-consciousness is by taking care of your body. The idea is not to become obsessed with your physical form. Simply give it enough care and attention so that it functions as the perfect instrument and comfortable embodiment it was meant to be.
Sensitivity and Self-Trust
These three things - balance, strength, and flexibility - will enhance your overall sensitivity. This is essentially what the discipline of yoga is all about. It is an awareness process wherein you attend to very subtle shifts in sensation and feeling as you do the poses, or asanas. You immerse yourself in the various sensations of stretch and listen for the intelligence of your body to advise you about what to do - like whether you should be stretching more or less, for example. You practice using your intuition in this very specific arena of yoga asanas. In so doing you simultaneously exercise your body as you refine your sensitivity to inner guidance.
The beauty of being more sensitive lies in the discovery that beneficial things naturally start feeling good, better than before, and therefore become attractive to you. Things that are bad for you no longer hold the attraction they once may have had. Your diet, for example, may undergo an effortless change. Certain foods you previously enjoyed may no longer be so appealing, and previously uninteresting foods may now entice you. Lifestyle habits may also change without conscious determination.
An ever-increasing sensitivity, therefore, will initiate an easy self-corrective process that reinforces self-trust. Self-trust means we have the confidence necessary to follow through and pursue things that feel right. This is very important. It means that we can now openly trust ourselves to pursue what is attractive to us and avoid what isn't. Until now, this is exactly what has gotten us into so much trouble. We've pursued things and situations we found attractive and have ended up paying for it, in one way or another. And we have thereby learned not to trust ourselves. It makes sense not to trust if it keeps getting us into trouble, and pretty soon this mistrust feels normal.
With the cultivation of sensitivity, however, your likes and dislikes will change. You'll discover that what now attracts you is in your best interest. You can therefore safely allow yourself to pursue what attracts you, what you like. You can trust yourself to trust yourself. It's no longer dangerous, but safe - smart. And it's fulfilling. It will make you happy.
Of course, what you are really learning is that self-trust is the most intimate way of expressing your trust in God and the universe. You are not a separate creation, remember, and you did not create yourself. Trusting yourself, therefore, is actually trusting in the intelligence of the Creator who made you. It is your personal demonstration of your trust in the universe and Infinite Mind, and your confidence will be well reinforced because of your ever-increasing sensitivity. This basic self-trust is the foundation of all yoga and the prevailing quality of those who have learned to be their own best teachers.
All this becomes especially interesting as you notice how thoroughly your life is shaped by your thoughts and the way you interpret what's going on. Every thought, feeling, and emotion manifests in one form or another in your body and in your life. As you become more sensitive to the inner feeling of who you are, you will notice this with surprising clarity. You will also learn a very simple truth: Loving thoughts feel good, and unloving thoughts feel bad. Unloving thoughts are like self-inflicted poison darts, whereas loving thoughts are the natural response to reality when it is clearly perceived.
This simple understanding will initiate a natural change of mind that will culminate in the primary and most important theme of yoga: learning to love and be loved. You will gladly allow the energy of love to circulate freely through you once you start feeling it. You'll no longer be so afraid of love, at war with love, because it will feel so much better to be loving than not. In this way you will gradually become the conduit for love to shine through unobstructed, undiluted - pure and perfect.
But what is love? What do we really know about it? How much of our beliefs about love are true, and how much is merely our imagination
Love is the most practical thing in the world. It's what's needed most. And this is what it is: Love is the willingness to see that which is Real in each and every thing. It's the willingness to let go of what you think something is in order to see it clearly - as it really is. Love, therefore, is the supreme healing power because it looks beyond what appears to be true to what is true.
As you begin to see all things in this new way, you'll find that you and the world are different than you thought they were - and magnificently better. You'll sense that there is, indeed, authentic cause for hope and joy and an optimistic outlook. The more realistic you are, you discover, the more optimistic you become. We are not victims doomed to death and suffering and short-lived transient joys, but beings alive in a creative universe, uniquely specific expressions of a creative, eternal, universal Consciousness, Mind, or Infinite Presence, God.
You welcome love - that is, you become able to see that which is Real in each and every thing - by clearing your mind of prejudice and beliefs and then being with things as they are. Only when your mind is clean of preconceptions, even if you're right, can you see and relate to what is actually true. With regard to other people, for example, love is the willingness to let go of your ego reactions to the way people are presenting themselves in order to see them as they really are. To love another is more a matter of letting go of everything you think you know about that person, so you can be with him or her in the now with a clear and uncluttered mind, than it is to have ideas in advance about what it means to be loving and then attempting to behave "lovingly." When you do this, people will feel as though you are extending love to them, that you are being loving, when in actual fact you will have merely withdrawn your preconceptions in order to be clean with them in the now.
You learn to love by learning to forgive. Forgiveness is the deliberate withdrawal of judgment. It's the deliberate letting-go of criticism, condemnation, and conditions-needing-to-be-met-before-I-see-you-anew with regard to yourself, others, and everything else, in favor of seeing the deepest truth. It's about removing the filter in order to see clearly. Not judging yourself or others puts you in the position of perceiving accurately. Each one of us is the specific expression of Infinite Consciousness, whether we know it or not and whether we are acting like it or not. Everyone is some aspect of the same infinite thing that you are. Your willingness to see yourself and others in this way is transformative. It encourages everyone to relax, be fearless, and therefore be less defensively aggressive.
This is something you will want to learn simply because the perspective and love that come from forgiveness feel infinitely better than anything coming from blame or judgment. Love feels better than non-love. Is this a surprise? The conscious realization of this fact, however, will propel you into a perception of yourself and the world that will work to enhance and preserve this secure sense of overwhelming love.