If there is one idea in yoga philosophy that is difficult for most Western yogis to grasp and to get used to, it is the idea of Maya. Over the years as a yoga teacher I have come to realise that even harder than karma or reincarnation to digest is the theory of Maya for Western yogi and I hope that this article will shed some more light on the subject for them.
Samkhya, also Sankhya, is one of the six (astika) schools of Hindu philosophy and classical Indian philosophy. Sage Kapila is traditionally credited as a founder of the Samkhya School. It is regarded as one of the oldest philosophical systems in India. Samkhya is an enumerationist philosophy that is strongly dualist. Samkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two realities; Puruṣa (consciousness or God) and prakriti (phenomenal realm of matter or nature). Jiva is that state in which puruṣa is bonded to prakriti through the glue of desire, and the end of this bondage is moksha.
From this dualistic view flows the idea of Maya. Maya is part of prakriti, it is the realm in which we as reincarnated souls function within the limits of our karma and Maya serves as the catalyst through which we can experience prakriti. However, Maya is also part of this bondage or Moksha and we need to remember that all these constructs, Prakriti, Maya and Moksha are not real, they are part of illusion, the unreal, hence the famous words from the Shanti Mantra: “Om asato maa satgamaya, Tamaso maa jyotir gamaya, Mrityor maa amritam gamaya” (Lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to immortality.) The only aspect that which is then real is Puruṣa as it is God or that part of us which is Light, Real and the only Truth.
The world of names, forms and constructions is then Maya. It is our human nature (prakriti) to names things, to put them in categories and to organise them down to the smallest atom and even name those atoms into smaller parts. And this is Maya, while in a body it has purpose and it helps us to make sense of a very complex world, but once we are dead this system has no use to us. We don’t know what awaits us on the other side and even if we will need these Maya constructs to function. It is generally accepted that we forget them as we exist then in Puruṣa, pure consciousness and these is no need for these constructs that we have created and learned while in prakriti.
The Western Dilemma
The main dilemma for most Western yogis are that we grow up with such a strong sense of our world and our bodies, that to tell us suddenly that your body is only an illusion is a bigger shock to the system than the law of karma. As one of my yogis once challenged me in class to come and feel, smell and even taste her body and tell me it isn’t real! For the Western mind the world around us is very real and no illusion, it is a place of joy and sorrow, ups and downs, love and hate and much more. So, to tell a grieving mother and yogi that the death of her 11 year old daughter is only an illusion is no comfort to such a person, but adds to the confusion and sorrow.
True vs. Truth
For me illusion or Maya is true as long as I have a physical body and ego! Yes, my body is true: – I can feel it, smell it, taste it and even sometimes hears its function. I can perceive my body with all my senses. My emotions, my nature, my personality, all these aspects of me and the world around me are true as well. There is no illusion in that. There is even no delusion in that as well. It is also true that we construct words and ideas to describe and categorise our world around us and these constructs are also true and necessary to function in Maya. It is important to realise that all of Maya is true; there is no need to deny our prakriti of even Maya, in doing so we delude ourselves even more and association with our ego becomes stronger.
But is it the Truth? No, it is not the ultimate Truth, this body, this world with all its constructs is not our ultimate Truth. It is not really who we are and that is the path of yoga, to guide us to understand that while Maya is true, Maya is not the Truth! The ultimate Truth, that which is Real, the Light, call it what you want, that is what Maya serves us to discover, Maya is the great reminder that while certain things are true, it is not the Truth and that we are on a path of discovery. The discovery we need to make within Maya is to realise the Truth – and at that a very hard thing to do as well. So Maya helps to differentiate between that which is true and the Truth.
In classical yoga the yamas-niyamas are very demanding obligations. They represent the yogi’s commitment to a life where ethics, discipline, constraint and self-control plays and integral part in the spiritual as well as mundane life of such a yogi. For the serious yogi they are his/her way of life and there is no negotiation. In Patanjali’s framework they are absolute in their compliance and meaning and very little room for interpretation.
In classical times, yoga used to belong to the sphere of the Ashram where monks and sannyasa (final stage of the ashramic life, total renunciation) and other spiritual aspirants practiced yoga. The yamas-niyamas were their guidelines for right conduct and they were prescribed and followed to the letter. However, by 1947 when India gained independence from Britain, yoga was practiced as an exception and not a rule. Many of the gurus and swamis of the time were extremely worried about the lack of interest in yoga in India during this time. This prompted great yogis to send disciples to the West to promote yoga and Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh to send his disciple Swami Vishnu-Devananda in 1957 with these words ‘many souls in the East are reincarnating in the West. Go and reawaken their consciousness and bring them back to the path of yoga.’ And the stellar growth of yoga in the West is from there astounding till this day.
But with it came a huge problem, many of the Western yogis were normal householders, they were married and many were initially part of the Hippie Movement in the 1960’s where especially the Brahmacharya yama was extremely problematic in an age of free sex. I have read many interpretations and as a teacher it remains the most difficult yama to explain to students who are married and have a duty and obligation towards their partner regarding sex. All the explanations of being constantly aware of the universe, immersed in divinity, divine conduct, continence, celibate when single, faithfulness when married etc. has never really satisfied me or my students and I hope my interpretation might add another view on this very important yama.
Unfortunately in the West we had mistaken the yamas-niyamas as a canon of behaviour, describing what is preferred and what is not. We have classified and codified them as superficial guidelines to regulate and explain certain behaviours, choices and even personality traits. The problem is they are not any of this, no matter how much we want them to be the above, the yamas-niyamas represent distinct classes of human manifestation and need not be narrowly interpreted as doing this or that.
Brahmacharya or “abstinence from sex” is a classic example of loss in translation. I do not think for one moment Patanjali was so naïve to overlook a need for the perpetuation of the human species and sex is the vehicle for that. I also am certain the Patanjali realised the pleasure factor that goes with sex. And in a way I think if he wrote the Yoga Sutras, which contains the yamas-niyamas, for the ordinary man, he would have most probably worded Brahmacharya completely different.
I think that Patanjali had no problem with sex between two people in a loving relationship per se. I think he most probably would understand the need for sex and also the pleasure we as humans derive from it. What I do think would have been problematic for Patanjali in this context would be total over indulgence and our mind’s attachment. And I think for that matter Patanjali would have a problem with over indulgence whether it was sex, eating, gambling, gossip, judging other, internet surfing, addiction or anything else.
One of the great pitfalls for many yogis is attachment. Our attachment to indulgence in anything is then a problem. For me in a modern Western context, Brahmacharya is then not a warning not to have a sexual life, but it is a warning against something much deeper – our attachment to such acts as sex and the pleasure we derive from it.
I know may yogis who are guilt ridden because they find Brahmacharya just so difficult to adhere to. This guilt burns them up and instead of becoming more joyful and contends with life, they fall into depression, anxiety and a life of guilt. They way out is to realise that Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras for a completely different audience than who is doing yoga today. I don’t even think that Patanjali contemplated the possibility of yoga in the West and how it morphed into different branches and styles. The way out is to understand the necessity for sex, but without the over indulgence and attachment to it.
On the social media networks, i.e. blogs, Twitter and Facebook, I recently followed a hot discussion about how to find the right yoga teacher and issues such as qualifications, ability to do intricate and all asanas, ability to explain yoga philosophy and to understand yoga in the larger “Hindu” context, all came up as relevant “qualifications” for a competent yoga teacher. The discussion even went so far as to discuss reasons for having an affair with your yoga teacher and then morphed into a discussion when and why you should dump your yoga teacher. The issue of one teacher versus a variety of teachers, styles and classes also came up for discussion.
However, the entire discussion failed to mention the role of the “student” in this whole process. Basic issues like the duties, responsibilities and commitments of the student were never even mentioned. No one touched on the inherent nature of the teacher/student relationship and the way we learn any discipline like yoga. Yes, yoga is a discipline and in the word discipline you can even read the word disciple and while most yoga students are looking for a teacher, most teachers are looking for disciplined disciples. The “teacher” question is handled more like I am going to shop something these days rather than this is my teacher, this is my student, what do we mutually bring to the mat – discipline and commitment.
- Interaction: You have shopped around, phoned a round and looked around and have been to a few classes and suddenly most students think they are now able to make a judgment based on a single interaction of not even two hours. Allow yourself plenty of interaction with your new or chosen yoga teacher before you decide he/she is not for me. Take at least a month and then make the decision.
- Senior in training and experience: Many students walk into a class and simply forget this simple fact; most teachers are still very much senior in training and experience. Period. And even though they might not be able to do all asanas, they do have an intimate knowledge about yoga and how it can help you.
- Odd and weird behaviour: So you have your eye on a teacher, but he/she has a few odd behaviours or he/she talks about topics such as karma and reincarnation and you don’t agree with it? This is the most dangerous trap you can fall into! To simply judge a teacher based on odd behaviour, they way they look or talking about stuff I don’t like or agree with, that is subjective and extremely short sighted and will rob you of the opportunity to actually learn something. To say that there is not a single thing to learn from any senior person is highly pretentious and makes such a person a ‘bad’ student.
- Your commitment: Regularity, urge to learn, passion for practice, humility, desire to transform, perseverance and much more is needed by a student to learn even from the ‘best’ teacher. Do you have these qualities? There are many yoga aspirants, but few yoga students and teachers are looking for those students who have the commitment to stay even in the face of the humiliation when the teacher starts to expose your ego.
- It is a spiritual path: Yoga is a spiritual path. You may wish to ignore it, you may think that you teach just asana, but eventually yoga leads to the spiritual even though you may just teach asana. One can see it as anything else only if there is an overriding personal agenda or a conditioned, anaemic view of spirituality. Unlike other religions, yoga upholds a 3-tier model of spirituality of which the physical is an integral part and gross asanas go hand in hand with subtle meditation. That’s why yoga can be viewed as absolutely material or absolutely esoteric or anything in between. Being essentially spiritual, a yoga teacher has to have a different kind of relationship with the students. A yoga teacher has to show a much deeper understanding of the psyche and the spirituality than physical wellness.
- Sharing insight: A yoga teacher has to go far beyond the qualifying few hundred hours of training and be open to the opportunity to learn and gain insight from your own practice every day and your students. If you think you are above learning then you are wrong and shouldn’t be teaching.
- You are the mirror: If you see your student only as a source of income, you have to think twice about why you are teaching. Yes, the exchange of energy, physical for monetary, is important, but you are the mirror for your students and as such a ‘source of redemption’. Can you reflect back to them and ensure that what they see is what they need to learn? And vice versa, can you look at them and see those aspects of yourself which they reflect back?
- End it now: A yoga teacher should know instinctively how far he/she can guide a student and at what point to hand over to the next teacher. If a student has any amount of discomfort it is the teacher who would know that first and care for it. A student is his/her ‘total’ responsibility. Such a teacher is called ‘guru’ and by that yardstick many certified teachers may be just ‘demonstrators’ of athletic skills. Like a true leadership is not residing in a leader but embedded in the followers’ mindsets, a yoga student’s allegiance to a teacher has to be born in the student’s self-view and not on a signed form. Know when to end the teacher/student relationship with a student, no matter how painful it may be.
All our learning is incremental. We learn a new thing only as an addition to the already known, and also use the known as a filter in the learning process. It is difficult to learn to learn; especially with the pedagogic constraints of school education. Mind plays a catalytic role as well as an indulgent one. So, in learning how we learn we have to use the mind to discover its mischief and finally keep the mind away. In the process we have to change our natural outbound orientation to inbound. An external teacher can help us tremendously in the external practice, but progressively less & less once the student is firmly rooted in the inner domain. In yoga too we get launched like a satellite; need a booster rocket of an external teacher for the initial lift off but the same rocket becomes a drag after reaching a desire altitude. Then, the teacher can only guide, protect and sync leaving the bulk to Ishvara, the inner guru. After all, yoga is considered largely a ‘process of unlearning’ and how will we ever begin to unlearn by not knowing how we learned in the first place.
Looking at it this way makes it easier to understand why the Vedic literature often assures us that ‘your guru will find you ’. It pays to take whosoever happens to be your teacher. Even an ‘apparently not-so-good teacher’ may fall in certain scheme of things, odd for common sense logic, but will enhance your yoga. Trying situations are meant to be teaching situations.
Wishing all aspirants well in their search for a teacher and all teachers well in their search for those committed yoga students.
With gratitude to Suhas Tambe, author of The Making of a Yoga Master: A Seeker’s Transformation.
If you go onto many yoga websites and especially yoga forums and start to read through the issues and comments and pay attention to who publish them, one soon realises that there are two huge misconceptions prevalent under most users. The first misconception under Westerners is that yoga is just a set of exercises and they don’t want to acknowledge or have anything to do with the spiritual side of yoga. The second misconception is prevalent under the Asian users, especially Indian, who think that yoga in the West has been perverted to a set of exercises only by those who want to line their pockets. Both misconceptions of course carry some truth in it, but both also generalise tremendously.
My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to say that it doesn’t matter for what reason you practice yoga, whether it is purely as exercise or for more, the spiritual impact and implication of yoga on your soul is inevitable. I am doing yoga now for 14 years of which I am teaching 6 years. In all these years I have seen it over and over how people come to me for yoga and they are only interested in the physical exercise aspect, but end up so absorb and enchanted by their spiritual growth en newly found spirituality. At this point I usually remind my students that yoga is a process of transformation and every aspect of you are touched by that transformation, you cannot avoid it, as sure as the sun will rise and set, so sure this will happen.
Why does this happen? All beings strive to attain and maintain a level of happiness and in yoga this happiness is referred to as Ananda or Bliss. The truth about Ananda is that it cannot be acquired through education, wealth, toys and gadgets or the fulfilment of other earthly desires through entertainment. But Ananda is achieved through a spiritual practice and discipline such as yoga and the spiritual practices associated with yoga such as meditation, satsang, karma yoga, bhakti yoga and more.
When students become aware of this spiritual growth and evolution in themselves, they usually ask me what they can do to ensure greater progress and maintaining this level of Ananda. As with most things in life, we needs rules and discipline to ensure that we hold onto that what we have achieved and spiritual progress ask for a spiritual practice which is aligned to a few basic principles. These are my basic principles and I trust that you will find their value in your own life as well as they have proof themselves over the years to be highly effective:
1. The summit of the mountain is the same for all
When we start out at the foot of the mountain we are usually not even aware that just a few metres away somebody else is also starting to climb the same mountain. The paths start far apart, but as we progress up the mountain and the paths draw closer to each other and the summit, we suddenly realise we are not alone on the mountain. There are others as well and we all are heading to the same place – the Divine.
It is important to recognise that there are as many spiritual paths as there are people. As a yogi and spiritual traveller we need to understand this and respect each path as truth, no matter how much we might feel that ours is the one and only and correct path. The notion of correctness must be abandoned and replaced the awareness that all is appropriate.
In a spiritual context each of us is a unique blend of the the following parameters.
- According to the composition of the 3 subtle basic components (Trigunas) i.e. whether one is sattvic, rajasic or tamasic by nature.
- According to the five cosmic elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether)
- According to the degree to which, different aspects of spiritual practice, have been completed in prior births.
- According to the individual karmic account of give-and-take, destiny and wilful action.
- According to our temperament – person may also adopt a certain path depending on his/her temperament.
2. Our essence is One
For many Western yogis who come from a Christian background this is an easy concept to understand and grasp as we grow up with the notion that God is One. From a spiritual point of view we have to take it a step further. We need to realise that “the kingdom of heaven is within us” and as such our essence is the same even though we may differ on the outside. The underlying awareness is that we are ALL Divine in essence and that we need to recognise the Divinity in each other and respect it.
Just as we realise that the true essence of the gold earring, necklace and armband is gold, although each looks different and functions differently, we recognise and realise that the underlying truth of those items, their commonality, is gold.
3. Progressing from gross (tangible) to subtle (intangible)
As we progress on our path the next step is to cultivate awareness regarding the states of existence around us. If we want to make progress we need to transform our spiritual practice by going from just physical actions to a practice at a more subtle level. A subtle spiritual practice is more powerful than a gross one.
To explain: Sometimes you will meet a person at a meeting, you will shake hands with that person and will be courteous and cordial even to the point where others around you might think you two are good friends and like each other. However, the physical display of friendship was merely a façade from both sides in order to get a favourable outcome to the meeting. On the other hand, two people may feel genuine goodwill towards each other, even though there may be no physical contact.
Likewise, when it comes to practicing Spirituality, simply going through the motions of external ritualistic worship (gross level), with no devotion, needs to be replaced by having real inner devotion to the Divine and an intense desire for spiritual growth (subtle level).
4. Your spiritual practice must reflect your inner level
This is one of the great dangers of the spiritual path and can throw many off the path if they are too impatient initially on the spiritual path. I have seen this many times, people discover their spiritual path and the more you as the teacher try to caution them to take it slowly, the more they push forward. It is like going to school, just because you can suddenly read and write doesn’t mean you can now skip grades and progress instantly from grade 3 to grade 6! Many aspirants look at the teacher and think teacher has attained his/her level overnight, not realising that their teacher and fellow travellers are on their own paths for years now already.
However, for the patient student who is willing and prepared to follow the teachings of their teacher, progressing according to their spiritual ability and capacity, the reward at the end is great. Just as we must heed against impatient and forced development, so we must heed against getting stuck on one level of our spiritual practice as well.
Let us go through the various stages of development from the more gross forms of worship to the more subtle forms as per the level of the seeker:
- At an initial level, we feel that we can make contact with the Divine, only by going to a place of worship and through praying to a statue of God or a Divine being.
- As we progress the next steps is when we feel a connection with the Divine, not just through rituals, but through reading spiritual books whilst sitting in the place of worship, while doing yoga or just watching nature.
- Usually the next step is that we even feel that words are too gross and we become aware of the “vibrations” of a place. Just experiencing the vibrations in a church, temple or at a spiritual place such as the Buddhist Retreat in Ixopo or going to India are enough to spiritually nourish a person.
- After that we do not need to even go to a place of worship but can experience the Divine in the beauty of Nature, high up in the mountains, at a serene lake, watching a bird feed or the sun setting.
- At an even higher level, we do not need nature anymore but can experience the Divine even in daily living and at great will. No matter where you are, there is a quit presence within that permeates all in your life now.
5. Making your spiritual jumps now
The parable of the sower in the Bible immediately comes to mind here. I know many would like to read this parable as an indication that karma and reincarnation is present in Christian dogma and I am myself very partial to it. However, I also feel this parable has a deeper lesson for us and that is that we need to understand that there is an appropriate time for all things to happen in life. If seeds are sown in the dry months instead of the rainy season, then we will have no harvest. Similarly on the spiritual path, certain spiritual practices are more conducive according to the time (yuga) or era we live in.
Yuga in Hindu philosophy is the name of an ‘epoch’ or ‘era’ within a cycle of four ages. These are the Satya Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dvapara Yuga, and finally the Kali Yuga. According to Hindu cosmology, life in the universe is created and destroyed once every 4.1 to 8.2 billion years, which is one full day (day and night) for Brahma. The lifetime of Brahma may be 311 trillion years. The cycles are said to repeat like the seasons, waxing and waning within a greater time-cycle of the creation and destruction of the universe. Like Summer, Spring, Winter and Autumn, each yuga involves stages or gradual changes which the earth and the consciousness of mankind go through as a whole. A complete yuga cycle from a high Golden Age of enlightenment to a Dark Age and back again is said to be caused by the solar system’s motion around another star. Currently we are in the Kaliyug and as such we are very far from the Sun. The ages see a gradual decline of dharma, wisdom, knowledge, and intellectual capability, and life span, emotional and physical strength, here follow a brief explanation of each yuga:
Satya yuga: This was a very pure era when the average spiritual level of a person was 70% (this is the level of a Saint). These people were so pure spiritually that the Path of Knowledge was best suited to them as they had the potential to spontaneously understand the implied meanings of all the spiritual scriptures.
Treta yuga: This was the era when the spiritual level of the average person dropped to 55% and so they lost their potential to follow the Path of Knowledge. But they were spiritually capable enough to undertake penance (the kind that allowed a seeker stand on one foot for 12 years) and meditation (the kind that made a seeker meditate long enough for an ant hill to grow all over him).
Dwapara yuga: In this era, there was a further decline in the average spiritual level to 35%. People lost their potential for rigorous penance and sustained meditation. Thus it was Divinely ordained that they would be able to make progress through ritualistic worship. These rituals and sacrificial fires (yadnyas) were very time consuming and laborious as they had to be done after searching for the right ingredients. Along with this there were numerous steps that had to be followed to the last detail. But in this era people were religious-minded enough to spend the time, effort and money to do these rituals.
Kali yuga: This is translated as the ‘Era of strife’ and is the current period. The average person’s spiritual level has dropped to only 20%. Our capacity to do any of the above spiritual practices has greatly reduced. But considering the turbulent times we live in and the extent of the spiritual pollution we experience – the Divine has made a simple provision for us to still grow spiritually. And as Sri Durga always pointed out, your greatest spiritual jumps you can make in the kaliyug as the opportunity to grow spiritually is also magnified for those who stick to their path and their discipline.
6. Give according to your talent
All of us have some kind of resources at our disposal. A basic principle in spiritual practice is that we use these same resources to serve the Divine as part of our spiritual practice and grow spiritually. The resources we have fall broadly into four categories: our body, our wealth and worldly connections, our mind and intellect and lastly our sixth sense.
We can use our body to serve the Divine by for example cleaning a venue before a yoga practice or spiritual lecture starts. We can use our body to drive other seekers to the venue or we may offer our body to assist with the lecture or teaching.
When we are unable to offer our body, we can offer our financial resources as way to serve the Divine. We can help to pay for others who don’t have enough, we can ensure that out contributions to our spiritual teachers and institutions are regular and on time in order for them to serve us spiritually.
It is important to apply your good intellect and mind to spiritual practices that may advance others on the path. For example, you can be a guest writer on a blog such as this one if you feel you have something to share, or you can share your knowledge and experience of yoga and spiritual forums.
Lastly, all of us were born with a sixth sense; some just allow it to develop further than others. If you are gifted with a strong sixth sense the onus is on you to use it to facilitate spiritual growth in yourself and others.
The spiritual path is like any other path, there are signs that will indicate where you must go now or what you must do next. Some signs will stop you for a while and then there may be obstacles on your path which will require much effort and persistence to overcome. Sometimes there are exits on the path and we are tempted to take those exist, but I implore you to stay on your chosen path. If you cannot even see you hand in front of you so thick is the fog on your spiritual path, realise that you are not alone and ask for help as well sometimes or accept help when it is offered – it might just clear the fog for you. Stay on your path, but if you need to change tyres or even the vehicle, then follow your instinct and do it.
Same on the spiritual path, to make progress we must traverse all the signs, obstacles, spiritual potholes and other conditions to make progress. Sometimes we need to change from one teacher to the next, but ensure that it will further you on the path. Sometimes your own teacher might give you warnings about upcoming dangers, heed these and don’t think your teacher is just difficult or feeble. However, also take time to enjoy the journey, stop sometimes and remember to just breathe as well!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 30,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 7 Film Festivals
If you read this post you most probably had one of two experiences while doing yoga:
1. You were extremely down before a yoga class and by the time you finished the class you are amazed by the fact that you feel emotionally refreshed, positive and uplifted.
2. You went to class in such a good mood, but during class you started to experience a swell of emotions which totally engulfed you to the point where you just started to breakdown and cry in class.
My own teacher Sri Durga told us that yoga has the uncanny ability to purify us on all levels and more so on the emotional level. We think that we have our emotions under control or that we have dealt with certain emotional issues in our lives, just to discover through yoga that in fact we haven’t. And if you haven’t, your yoga practice will bring forth those emotional issues until you have positively dealt with them. I am a great proponent of Louise L. Hay and her work on how our emotions affects our muscles, our internal organs and ultimately leads to dis-ease and illness. But, as a yoga teacher and practitioner I have learned how yoga can help us to face these emotional challenges and assist us to overcome them.
In Chinese medicine there are twelve main meridians. Along the path of the meridians, there are certain places where the energy pools, making the qi of the meridian more accessible there than at other places. These pools of energy are called acupuncture points. When we do asana in yoga, we either stretch or contract, putting pressure on or taking pressure of these points, affecting the flow of energy in our bodies. It is taught in yoga as in Chinese medicine that there are several emotions identified as having a specific attraction to particular organs. An excess of fear damages the kidneys. Too much anger damages the liver. Excess hate damages the heart, while grief in overabundance damages the lungs. Too much sympathy damages the spleen and sadness destroys the brain. Conversely, equilibrium in the emotions causes the body and its organ systems to work more efficiently.
It is therefore the natural teaching of yoga that every asana have an effect not only on the muscles but also on the emotions. When we awaken to the emotional side of yoga asana and accept the impact of asana on our emotional body, we become more sensitive, perceptive, and responsive to the emotional challenges we have to face both on and off the mat. According to Patanjali yoga asana is a position that is both steady and comfortable, a place where one can feel completely present. From this silent backdrop, we watch the agitated mind. Practice then becomes a purifying method of listening to the inner workings of the mind and emotions. It is important to be patient and compassionate with yourself even in the face of negative emotions leading the way. Don’t judge, but use discernment to enhance your awareness, in other words pay attention to your emotions and how they affect you. And remember above all you are not those emotions, you are merely going through that experience like going through a traffic crossing.
When we come to yoga we all approach yoga from where we are – some might be already flexible and find yoga a breeze, for the next person every asana may be extremely difficult to perform due to stiff and inflexible muscles, some already have severe back, neck, shoulder or hip issues and the next person might be diabetic or have heart issues. It is the intention of yoga to meet you where you are and working with you on all levels, including the emotional level. You may find that practicing downward facing dog pose deeply stretches the shoulders, the spine, hamstrings, feet, and the Achilles tendons, but we can also use this asana to decrease depression and anxiety. A simple asana such as cat-cow breathing can reduce fear. Supine twists are excellent asanas for relieving back pain, but they help us to accept our stresses in life and prevent us from feeling overwhelmed by all our challenges. So gradually you learn to relax, you learn to release the emotions through your sustained yoga practice in a positive and sympathetic environment and you learn that it is save to release those built up emotional tensions in your body, guiding you to greater equanimity, peace, harmony and tranquillity. The ripple effect of this release of even very deep and old emotions, will eventually lead to understanding our bodies and ourselves much better.
Your yoga experience is unique and highly individual according to your body, it follows that the affect on the emotional body or Manomaya Kosha will also be unique and individual, depending on where we store stress in our bodies. In yoga philosophy, we are taught that the emotional body has its own sheath or layer. The Manomaya kosha (sometimes called the astral body) houses all our emotions. When the emotions in this layer get stuck – fear, anger, sadness, joy, any emotion – they can cause energy to become trapped in the physical body, including the internal organs. While some people may manifest anxiety in the throat (i.e., have a difficult time expressing or voicing their emotions) others will experience that same stress in the digestive organs, or the liver (i.e, they have a hard time digesting their feelings as in “I can’t stomach this.”)
Our poses can strongly influence our emotional states. For instance, because of the expansive inhalation and opening of the chest, backbending, traditionally a stimulating practice, can elevate a low mood. Exhale-intensive poses such as forward bends tend to calm an agitated mind. In any balance practice, both inhale-oriented and exhale-oriented postures are executed in order to create equilibrium in the body and breath and to gain emotional harmony.
Examples of a few asanas and how they can deepen our understanding and awareness of our emotions:
- Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) or halasana (plow) help reverse energy blocks— inflexible thinking, stuck emotions, and feelings of sadness.
- Balasana (child’s pose) sends relaxing signals to both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- Garudasana offers relief to the scattered mind and works on the balance of the external and internal worlds.
- Marichyasana (sage pose) is one of yoga’s greatest harmonizers because it both calms the mind and releases sluggishness in the body.
- Janu shirshasana (head to knee) relieves feelings of anxiety, fearfulness, and stress. On each exhalation, let the torso sink further toward the legs.
- Dhanurasana (bow) helps stimulate the inhale and arouses the adrenal glands.
- Woodchopper assists in the emotional release of frustration and anger. While standing, lift your imaginary ax on your inhale, and with a forceful “Ha!” on the exhale, chop the imaginary wood between your legs.
Though every person’s experience of yoga is different, the following are some common emotions that arise in varying poses:
Forward bends – these asana can trigger a release of egocentric attitudes. They force us to face our fears as we turn inward. Those of us always looking behind to see what the world is up to will have difficulty in forward folds, and may have to confront emotions which have to do with surrendering to our own strength. Forward bends calms the mind and body and emotions and tends to bring greater understanding into our consciousness.
Backward bends – these asana are important when dealing with attitudes of embracing life – of being wide open to receive the good, bad and the ugly, to rise to life’s challenges. When practicing backbends, we may have to deal with emotions of being a doormat to others – literally bending over backward to please them, letting go of co-dependent patterns and building our own self-esteem without relying on others excessively to give us a positive self-image. Just as in forward folds, backbends can bring up fears associated to these emotional patterns. Those who are extremely shy or have had their heart broken repeatedly may feel feelings of sadness as psychic wounds of the heart are healed. Because we are exposing our whole self to the world in backbends, they can also bring up feelings of confrontation experienced in the past with the self or others. But on the plus side backbends tend to calm the mind and bring harmony and peace into the body.
Balancing asana – Have you ever noticed that your one side is sometimes more balanced than the other? In yoga philosophy the left side is the female side, it is the ida or moon side and deals with our more feeling and artistic expressions. The left side also deals with issues of the past. The right side is our male side, it is pingala or the sun side and the right side is more logic and calculated and deals with the present. Balancing asanas are extremely indicative of a person’s emotional state. Someone with an un-easy emotional state, or a mind busied with too many emotions, will find balancing poses very difficult. As they find equilibrium in these poses, whatever emotions that are causing the mind to become agitated may increase before subsiding to a more peaceful place. Balance poses help to build a calm, resilient, steady mind.
Twisting asana – as you may have imagined, these asana have to do with untangling the knots of life. All twisting asana initiate feelings of dealing with obstacles we face, and developing strength to face whatever comes our way. Twists, along with backbends give us more confidence through sustained practice, and develop overly introversive personalities.
Finally, inverted asana – when we practice these asana, we are literally turning the world on its head – changing our perspective completely, turning our behavioral patterns upside down. Inversions help us to see ourselves, and our world from a different angle, so you can imagine all the emotions that can arise from turning your whole perspective around. Inversions help to purify the mind and bring greater peace and calm even when our worldview feels shaken.
Finally a few pointers in assisting you to cultivate greater awareness of your body-emotion connection and dealing with them:
Practice Off the Mat – Notice the situations that cause you to become tense. Are you an anxious driver, talker, or worker? When you cook or do the dishes, does your back feel strain? Whether the tension is in the shoulders, neck, back, or navel center, practice moment-to- moment body awareness. This will help you cleanse your negative emotions and trapped issues so that they don’t find a permanent home in your body.
Wise Words – Following the path of yoga cuts through the roots of suffering. Hatha yoga teaches us control of breath and control of body. Through awareness we learn concentration, control of our thought patterns, and emotional control. The serious yoga practitioner will cling less to life’s negative matters, permitting the practice to have a levelling effect on the emotional body.
Frustration in the Body – When we feel frustrated, it generally means that we’re not flowing with the experiences of our lives. Instead we’re pushing away or resisting something. Frustration then collects in the body. Many of us feel it in the shoulders, neck, low back, and hips. Problems in the shoulders represent irritability and resistance to change. Issues in the back can be related to a repression or restriction in your life, hurtful issues from the past, or the need to carry the weight of the world. Repressed anger creates tension in the neck as you force your feelings down your throat instead of saying what you want to say. You can literally experience a pain in the neck from something or someone who makes you angry. The hips are related to general frustration. Notice the person who often stands with her hands on her hips. This is a gesture of feeling frustrated and out of control.
Feel what you have done – Whenever your teacher stops during class and ask you to feel what you have done, take that time and cultivate awareness of your emotions and body and how the influence each other.
Intention is everything – The natural outflow of awareness is intention. Set your intention for each yoga class to work through those emotional challenges your body manifest at that particular point in your life.
Breathe regularly deeply – The breath is everything, my teacher used to say. Cultivate breath awareness and learn to breathe deeply into your belly, putting all of your awareness into the breath. Feel all the emotions of your respiratory system—the air in the nostrils, throat, and chest, the belly and chest rising. Feel the rib cage expanding to the front, to the sides beneath the armpits, and all the way into the lower back. Gently move your attention from your mental state to your breath so that you can more easily observe and step back from your emotions.
Embracing Change – Change is one of the most difficult aspects we have to face on a daily basis. Through the practice of yoga, we awaken to how life unfolds moment by moment. Things are constantly changing—the breath, your state of mind, the phases of the moon, the seasons. This can be both a profound revelation—life is like a flower that blooms continuously—and a harsh reminder that nothing lasts forever. Even your body will let you down in the end.
When we resist change, the ego will try to hold on to the body as it is. Consequently the body contracts and tenses, and the natural flow of energies slows down or may stop completely, creating blocks in the form of a tight hip or frozen shoulder. That’s why until we accept the changes that occur from day-to-day and from year to year, and until we surrender to the natural course of existence, little progress can be made along the path of yoga.
Asana practice shows us how our bodies, minds, and the world around us are constantly changing. Today, through breath, patience, and a watchful eye, we’ll honour our changes from movement to movement and embrace the reality of change.
- Embracing change creates ease and freedom in your world.
- The only constant is change.
- Give yourself room for expansion. Give yourself room to change.
- Allow change to happen to you. Don’t resist it.
- Sunrise and sunset are obvious reminders of change.
- May we learn to accept life’s constant changes.
I did my first fire walk in 2006 with Gordon Cooper (www.firewalkinstructor.com ) and it was at that time a life-changing event for me. This year I decided it is time for my own yogis to experience the magic of a fire walk and I arranged and a walk for them on Saturday 1 September – welcoming spring in South Africa with fire!
Walking over hot coals have very little to do with any mantras or prolonged preparation through meditation or any other mystical nonsense people may dish up. It is pure science – you are 65-70% water and as long as you stay cooler than the fire, you can’t burn as was explained and illustrated by Gordon who placed a plastic bottle of water on hot coals and the plastic neither melted nor burned as long as there was water in the bottle. Personally I prefer this realistic approach which Gordon Cooper advocates as I feel that the hype created around chanting mantras for hours or doing meditations detract from the real truth about walking over hot coals and that is we all can overcome our inner fears and do it!
The walk started with a fire dance by Christa, one of my yoginis. Her fire dance put us all in the right mood and created such a special atmosphere that was loaded with spiritual energy. Her dance was followed by a 45 minute talk by Gordon in which he explained many aspects of the walk, the history, why it was done and why we still do it. He also gave us insight into ourselves and what actually prevents most of us to walk over hot coals and I would like to share three aspects here which I think has much value on and off the yoga mat for most of us.
Our Boundaries limit us
When you introduce a fish to its tank it will swim around in the tank for a few hours starting from the outer limit working its way to the middle until it eventually has established the boundaries of its tank. A very interesting point is illustrated in the story of the piranha. In an experiment, a piranha was placed in a large tank and fed from the same corner for a few weeks. Then it was separated from its food by a glass divider. After several hours of ramming its head against the glass, try to get to its food, the piranha learnt that it was futile effort and started to swim around and around in its tank establishing the new boundaries of its tank. The glass wall was then removed and although the piranha had free access to its food, the boundaries it has established and created for itself eventually led to its death through hunger.
The moral of this story? We humans are similarly subject to limiting beliefs and most are self-imposed and created. Especially during childhood when most of us are genuinely physically, mentally and emotionally incompetent to know otherwise, we look to adults for emulation and guidance. When limitations are imposed, we tend to view it as a permanent part of our identity, not realising that limitations can be overcome. We become like the piranha, clinging to outdated beliefs and boundaries and in the process we deprive ourselves from growth and development on all levels of our being.
I my yoga classes I see it so many times, many aspirant yogis will tell me during their first class that they will never be able to do a headstand. I usually just smile and say: “well, let’s talk about that in a year from now again.” Through committed training and hours of talks with me over a course of their foundation year, most are surprised if I told them you are ready now for that headstand and are even more elated and surprised when they do it and come out of it.
The boundaries that limit us are self-created and can be broken!
Changing your Perspective
Standing at the foot of a mountain and looking up, the mountain always looks larger, more imposing and much more challenging to climb. And most of us have this view of the mountain and have lost any hope of climbing that mountain even before we have started. From the bottom looking up, the mountain always looks much more dangerous and insurmountable, which causes us to rather look down at our feet and when this happen we lose hope and we surrender to our negative feelings of depression and hopelessness.
We all reincarnated with the correct backpack to climb our many mountains in this life – it is only our attitude and our own perspective that will prevent us from standing on top of our mountain looking down and actually realise it was an ant hill all the time!
We are our greatest enemy! Our inner fears that we nurture and harbour and which we sometimes use as a shield as we belief it protects us from the harsh reality out there, keeps us in a state of fear. Don’t get me wrong, we need a healthy dose of fear to protect us from all sorts of everyday dangers such as a hot pot or a dangerous crossing. Those fears are reasonable and necessary to navigate life successfully.
However, when we create fears and start to use them as an excuse why we cannot achieve something in life or why we cannot do this or that, then we need to look at these fears and see them for what they are – excuses not realising our soul purpose!
One of my mantras in class is that most of have a few good reasons and too many excuses why we cannot of will not do something, we hide behind those feeble little excuses and offer them as reason, misleading ourselves and creating a false sense of righteousness. If we carefully examine our excuses we will see that most of them are actually self-created to keep us in a place of fear. It is fears that prevent us from reaching our full potential.
When you stand in front of that strip of hot coals and you realise now you have to take the first step and when you take that step and you realise I am not burning, it then that all your fears are stripped of any reality and basis in your life and the moment you step of the coals on the other side – victory over fear. One of the central teachings of yoga is to become fearless and the fire walk demonstrated this in a very practical way.
So, if you have the opportunity next time to do a fire walk, grab it, do it and see how your yoga finds a real practical application and how you start to live your yoga after that walk!