The real reason you need to practice yoga

Yoga is not a work-out, it is a work-in – Anonymous

A mind free from all disturbances is yoga – Patanjali

A yogi is greater than the ascetic, greater than the empiricist (JNANI) and greater than the fruitive worker (KARMI). Therefore, O Arjuna, in all circumstances, be a yogi – Shloka 46, Chapter 6, Bhagavad Gita

Yes, everyone does it including our Prime Minister. In fact, yoga is the new black. Everybody talks about it, buys the latest accessories for it, and loudly proclaim that it does wonders for them. And the benefits? They rave over their new-found flexibility, the decrease in back pain, the increased energy, the insights into the workings of their bodies….the list is endless.

Immersed in all these loud claims and endorsements, I think we are forgetting the real reason  why we should practice yoga. To become a yogi.

Merriam-Webster defines YOGI as someone – who practices yoga; is an adherent of Yoga philosophy; is a markedly reflective and mystical person. For purposes of this blog, I offer a fourth definition – an observer on life – detached, dispassionate and at peace.

Wow! Can yoga do that? Unequivocally yes. But first, what is happiness for us human beings? Is it freedom from poverty? A life full of sensual pleasures? Opportunities at every moment to satisfy your desires? No wasted moment on negative emotions like anger, greed, envy? Or is it unlimited material wealth and possessions?

No matter what your definition of happiness is, the philosophy for achieving everlasting happiness, as explained in the Bhagavad Gita, is very simple. Identify yourself with your body, mind and senses, you will be full of frustrations, sadness, desires and anger.  Identify yourself with your Divine Self (Jivatma), which is a mere Witness and Observer, and you will sail through material life calmly, happily and peacefully. (Chapter 5, Karma Sannyasa Yoga, Notes by Swami Chinmayananda)

Deep, right? For argument’s sake, let us assume that the above injunction is right. Then how can we use the system of yoga to become a yogi? It is a three-step process.

STEP 1 – Yoga reduces our pride:

Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense – C. Lewis

Pride is concerned with WHO is right; Humility is concerned with WHAT is right – Ezra T Benson

Let’s face it. Our pride is present with us every moment of our life. And most times than not, it is the sense of pride that prevents us from letting go of things that we really don’t need. Or accept things that we really need. When you are practicing yoga, you are so in touch with your body that it is a golden opportunity to extend that sense of touch to your pride. Every time you get an asana right, your pride swells. Then the guru asks you to hold it for 30 seconds. Right into the 11th second you stumble. Or the stretch in the thigh becomes unbearable. Or the pace of your breathing increases. And you get out of your pose. At that moment is when your pride also gets pricked. And then the next asana starts. You hold this pose for 45 seconds – your longest ever. Your pride swells. Then you see that beginner student who just started yoga three months ago slip into this pose effortlessly and hold it for 1 minute. Whoosh! Your pride is on the floor with you.

During a typical practice, your pride stumbles and swells. You may ask then, we could get the same benefit from an hour of zumba or weight training at the gym or training for the marathon. Not really. When you are doing these “active” exercises, the body is so much in motion, that you are barely in touch with your breath, let alone your pride! Nowhere else are you more in touch with the inner you than when getting into an asana and holding it still, while breathing deeply. Or when you are doing your pranayama exercises. You have the time and the opportunity to observe not just what is going on with your body, but also with your mind and your emotions.

As you keep practicing, your pride soon starts taking a backseat. That is when your humility comes to the forefront.

Some of the physical and mental changes during this stage include: Increased interest in practising yoga, becoming more disciplined about your practice, trying to focus more on the poses and communicating  your new interest with your network! You will also start becoming more aware of your moods and emotions.

STEP 2: Yoga increases our mind’s flexibility:

Flexibility requires an open mind and a welcoming of new alternatives – Deborah Day

Once you are in touch with your humility, you start getting more flexible – not just physically (which is a by product of most asanas) but mentally. Angry when the train arrives late? Frustrated when the weighing scale shows the same weight? Thwarted when the promotion you wanted did not come through? Furious when your spouse ignores you and your demands? All these emotions arise due to a rigid conditioning of our mind that tells it that I am the centre of the universe and I have the right to everything. Rigidity gives you a feeling of entitlement – I am right, I am better, and my life is under control.

When you get into the humility mode, your mind is a bit more relaxed. What is the humility mode? This mode has understood that you are also just another speck of humanity, that things happen sometimes over which we have no control over, and that we need to do our best with what we have. Sure, we will strive to change things, but if it does not happen, I am not going to take it personally! I will shrug my shoulders, adjust to the new situations, and move on.

The more humble you are, the more your mind starts looking at alternatives and starts becoming flexible.

Some of the physical and mental changes during this stage include: The biggest change will be that you are least interested in how others in your class are doing the asanas. You will focus more inward, try and relax in the poses and exercises, become more contemplative. You also will be more aware as to why you got angry/sad/happy……you will start analyzing your emotions and behavior.

STEP 3: Yoga turns us into observers:

The root of suffering is attachment – The Buddha

Detachment is not that you should own something. But that nothing should own you – Ali ibn abi Talib

Now for the third step. Your pride has come down, and your mind is humble and flexible enough to understand your place in the grand scheme of things. When you become level-headed, you are less tormented by emotions like desire, lust, anger, envy, selfishness………the external world’s climate or circumstances affect you the least. In fact, you start carrying your own weather with you! You become calm, collected, and centered.

This is when true self-realization happens. You start viewing things that happen to you with a more objective focus. You start responding, instead of reacting. You do not let others’ anger, hurt, jealousies intrude into your emotions. You now truly understand when Shakespeare said – “all the world’s a stage, and men and women merely players.”

You become detached from the play happening around you. You act – for other’s benefit. But all the time you are intimately connected to that divinity within you. You are now a yogi – in every sense of the word.

Some of the physical and mental changes during this stage include: A typical yoga practice now becomes an entire exercise in meditation. Your eyes are mostly closed during practice, you are less concerned about the perfection of your poses, and more into slipping inward. You are also more aware and are able to anticipate shifts in moods and emotions, and take preventive actions. You are especially aware of your posture, your breathing and the way your body functions, throughout the day.

How long does each step or stage take? It depends. Depending on where you are in your life’s journey, your inclinations, your discipline, your guru, your practice – the dependencies are innumerable – you may move from one step to another. You will also slip between stages/steps during a typical practice session. And even after you enter the final stage, it is not necessary that you find yourself in yogic trance at all times. In fact, there may be a particular asana that helps you slip inward much better than any other ones. It has taken me nearly 10 years of yoga practice (and not very disciplined either) to understand this process. But understanding the process is just the beginning.

What lies behind us and what lies before us are truly tiny matters compared to what lies within us – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I know these are not the reasons that make us head out to the yoga class. And whether you believe yoga can do this or not is immaterial. By its very nature and practice, yoga will reduce your ego, improve your mind’s flexibility and help you become an observer. But if you were to practice every moment of your yoga with the awareness that this is why you are doing this, the learning and the insights will be monumental.

But enough reading. Enough theory. Knowing is not doing. So next time you relax in an asana, do this – close your eyes, observe your breath, relax the unnecessary muscles and stretch/tighten the supporting ones that the asana requires, and slowly let go of the body. Withdraw yourself into yourself. In that single moment of stillness lies the infinite truth. In that moment, you are a yogi.

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