After a summer of mostly hedonistic living, free of study or much yoga, I bounced in the
door of The Bodhi Tree, high on the first chapter of Yoga Bitch (by Suzanne Morrison),
for day one of my one year long commitment – 200 hours of yoga teacher training (YTT), and pretty much unprepared for the year ahead.
Back in February, I had a whole reading list in mind, and a raft of intentions, but prolonged periods of preparation tend to turn me off. Maybe they are too reminiscent of my days of study at school and
university, where I self-imposed long periods of revision and diligent scholarly rumination, for fear of failure and having to repeat examinations and coursework. In fact I haven’t pressured myself to prepare in advance for much ever since I left education.
So by the time arrived at my YTT, I had read very little; Stephen Cope’s enjoyable, The Wisdom of Yoga, and also parts of The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. In truth I only started the latter as I heard they were very brief – the original being less than ten pages of large type. Brilliant, I thought; a brief summary to put this thing in a box which’ll help me to start to make sense of it…Or not…
One analogy for The Yoga Sutras may be the splitting of the atom; that ‘smallest thing’ thought to be the end of the story, defied all expectations by spilling out inordinate possibilities; a universe in itself.
As you begin to dig into The Yoga Sutras, the translations, transcriptions, the studies of…Plus you start to appreciate how much is encompassed in a few Sanskrit words (a language which specializes in compressing multitudes into brevity), ones hope of a quick and easy read begins to dwindle.
I pause here for a second to say that this is not my normal kind of blog; it is more notes reflecting on my ongoing YTT course. While these are not going to take over the subject of my blogs for the remainder of the year, I do envisage the effects of the course surfacing from time to time. What I have learnt in just the first two weekends of study has revealed that, what most people think of as yoga, barely scratches the surface of the breadth and wisdom it actually encompasses. Physical practice is that well-known tip of the iceberg, with the vast mass of theory, knowledge, history and learning, swimming in the depths, where the once-a-week mat-pounder does not venture.
We (as in most people) tend to think of ourselves as living a purely physical life, in the solid crude matter which makes up our bodies. In reality, we are more centred and immersed in the psychic nature; just most of us fail to see, feel or listen to it.
It is said by some of the schools of India that the psychic nature is a mirror to the things sensed with our physical faculties, and those images remain, taking on a certain life of their own. We build an internal world of the images of things physically seen and heard, a world of memories and also hopes and desires, fears and regrets. Mental life forms on these impressions, measuring and comparing, massing images together to form general ideas, abstractions and notions specific to the individual. The result is a world built up inside, full of desires and hates, ambition, envy, longing, judgement, self-will and self-interest – with the ego marshalling us through it.
What if the psychical mind is the real power, and what we direct our thought and attention to, is where our physical reality goes. This being the case, we could focus on what we actually want from life, our physical reality would follow, resulting in a happier and more peaceful existence. An analogy for the way in which our minds work could be a train with a locomotive on each end – one representing the ego’s version of the world, and the other, mindful guidance towards what we actually want in life.
In order to make the train go, only one of the locomotives can push. The ego driven locomotive is the one most people are conditioned to use, which makes it the default, the easy option. It gets a person to the same place they have been again and again, following their conditioned patterns (Samskaras). Pushing the train from the other end (to go towards a happier, more fulfilled life, less driven by ego) demands an individual take control of their own thoughts and initiate a regime of mental discipline.
One needs to power down the ego locomotive, and this is initially (for most gown ups) a challenging thing to do, what with a lifetime of experience, expectations, disappointment, teachers, parents, peers all telling us ‘how it is’… One has to first gain control of one’s own thoughts, and let’s face it, thoughts bound around like untrained puppies, first running after the stick, then veering wildly off after the butterfly, only to be distracted by the arrival of another dog who it should go and bark at. Our ego is a product of our internal reflection of experiences in the physical world – and in its striving to keep us safe, ranges in action from a jealous, angry child through an overbearing authoritarian, to a reactionary body guard. When our ego is in command, we have no real control over our thoughts and can see our mood spiraling off in whatever direction it deems necessary.
Abstractly, these opposing thought patterns could be seen to be the real heaven and hell. While the ego rules, you’re in a false reality, a self-imposed hell (even though it may not feel like it); you’ll live in a reality which is threatened by lack, pestered by need, competition and injustice, as opposed to being comfortable in the infinite nature and abundance of the universe, full of faith, confident in the path of your life. It’s your choice which way to go.
From my first couple of weekends of study, I have realized that yoga is all about helping us to attain that mental peace – with learning, wisdom and also physical practice to help us to guide our thoughts in directions which calm us and point us to peace…to quiet the voices and insistences of the ego.
Another thing physical yoga practice does for us is to aid us in the release of stress from our bodies. Every demanding situation; be it from a fire fighter walking towards a burning building they must enter, to sitting in traffic, to chairing a meeting, being crammed on a crowded train in the armpit of a stranger, or dealing with raucous children, creates a cocktail of stress hormones in our bodies which stay in our physical tissues. These physical stresses are carried with us (neck tension, back pain, carpal tunnel, to mention a few everyday ones) until we can physically release them. Yoga practice is a way of helping us to release those stresses from the physical material of our bodies, and quite literally feel better and more relaxed, happier, and better at everything we do.
The more I study, the more convinced I am that we (particularly in the in the west), with our seated stressful lifestyles – often to feed, or support the capitalist machine which runs us (we are totally in The Matrix! - but that’s a whole other rant) - the more we need to wake up and release ourselves to what is actually important, and feed our souls.
On an early Monday morning which followed one of the YTT weekends, I was sitting at my desk at work, with the increasing feeling that it was becoming less and less the environment for me. Then I happened across a chapter in Timber Hawkeye’s book, Buddhist Boot Camp, where he relays a story (originally told by Heinrich Boll), which goes;
“Live simply, so others may simply live” – Gandhi
…And without further ado, I began planning the strategy to simplify my life and to start doing all those things I want to do, now, not later.
I encourage everyone to re-evaluate where they are from time to time – Is it still making you happy? If not, what can you do to change it?
Until next time…Namaste…
Read also about the benefit of physical yoga practice for children, here.