A yogic view of life is a lot more than postures on a yoga mat, says Chandrika Gibson. We can even think of it as preventive medicine allowing us to live in flow and peace
Times of great difficulty are often reflected on as amazing opportunities. The toughest phases of our lives may grant us insight into our highest attributes. It helps to have some preparation, some tools in our internal kit to work with in the event of a crisis. Yoga is a system that is known to forge our strengths and fortify our weaknesses. It can be applied to a purely physical practice, a purely mental practice, a devotional practice of bhakti yoga, an intellectual pursuit of jnana yoga, a life of service or karma yoga.
No matter which path of yoga you follow, it seems to embrace all the aspects of your being. Yoga can give you the kind of strength and flexibility you didn't know you had until you are faced with a challenge and find you are more than equipped to handle it. Yoga can stimulate renewed hope in the face of crisis.
Each day is an opportunity to renew our commitment to practise yoga. Sometimes that takes the form of rolling out a sticky mat and moving through a sequence of postures. Other days, it is simply not possible or appropriate to do a structured practice. When parenting, illness or the pressures of modern life squeeze our energy and resources too much, we have to rely on the inner resources and skills we have practised in order to maintain our sacred space within.
If the outer environment is not conducive to yoga, do we get annoyed and frustrated? Maybe, but the skills we have practised when we could will stand us in good stead when times are tough. Rather than focusing on the act of sitting down to meditate or moving through an asana practice, it can be helpful to see all aspects of life as part of our personal practice. If we have really absorbed the benefits of yoga, it must become our internal compass. The regular practices when they happen create positive habits for mind and body that can flow over into areas of life not so obviously yogic. The most mundane activities can be approached with equanimity.
Difficulties such as interpersonal conflicts can become warrior poses in action, offering us opportunities to balance strength with softness. In chaos, we can recall the feelings of flow that yoga creates and use it to keep us present with the necessary tasks at hand. Rest and relaxation, so necessary for mental and physical rejuvenation, can be approached meditatively, even without utilising any particular technique.
All aspects of life including relationships can become sadhana or spiritual practice; an opportunity to put theory into practice. This includes the relationships with our own narratives, the stories we tell ourselves. Practising the yoga of our own inner space helps us to shape our own stories from within. After all, our lives are not really built or destroyed by what happens to us but rather what we tell ourselves about what happens.
Any of the techniques of yoga can help us to apply an attitude of appreciative inquiry to our own experiences. The poetry of a yogic perspective flows from the space of slightly detached observation of our processes. The ever changing flux and flow of our minds and bodies, the many transitions of a life lived fully, become a mystical dance of joy. How can we face the ups and downs in a way that creates and enhances our bliss?
The movement of physical yoga is one tool to shift from any potential downward spiral into the building momentum of an upward spiralling journey. By applying mindfulness to the movements, whether they are familiar or not, the effort to move consciously gives the mind an anchor point to steady it in the present moment. The physical benefits of asana become wonderful side effects, symptoms of our inner equilibrium. The biochemical changes, such as endorphins, hormones and other neurotransmitters, let us know on a cellular level that we are transcending our limitations and renewing our programs.
It may be that we have long standing mental habits, such as judging each experience as good or bad. Just as likely is that we judge ourselves as good or bad at whatever we are doing. If we approach a yoga practice with judgment in mind, we are likely to find that we love some postures and loathe others, usually the ones we are no good at. We may then struggle to maintain the pose for the required length of time, or chastise ourselves for falling out of it, or succumbing to the temptation to rest the arms or legs. This is the way many activities can be approached, yet it does little to enhance our states of mind.
Instead, the yogic attitude is to take it as it is, accept the present experience as neither good nor bad, painful or pleasurable, just an experience. We hold the pose as well as we can this day, this minute, this moment and then it is gone. With repetition, it becomes easier to approach the physical postures this way, and that flows into the mental habits that encroach on all areas of life.
Somehow the science of yoga makes inroads into our old negativities. Each experience forms a new and lasting impression. When we continue to practise giving unbiased awareness to ourselves, we also begin to appreciate our wholeness. Wherever we have come from, however we start out, there are strengths that show up and continue to develop. It may be tiny breakthroughs in physical abilities that make us leap in confidence. Or there may be no obvious change at all, but the mental struggle dissipates and contentment seeps in.
Different phases of life require different strengths. The transition into parenthood is an especially challenging life change. Many women are drawn to practise yoga during pregnancy. The invitation to experience the changing body through appreciative enquiry is appealing. In a culture that values a flat stomach, the rapid change for first time mothers can be confronting to ideas of self image and identity. For women prone to anxiety, there are more fears to face than ever before, now that a vulnerable tiny being is growing inside, completely dependent and influenced by every action.
Other major life transitions include diagnosis of serious disease, relationship breakup, grief, moving, or having an upheaval in work or social life. In the thick of any crisis it can be hard to find the tools that carry you through to the next phase. And yet, in some way, the renewal of self happens. Though we seem to be hard wired for struggle and strife, eventually, we look up and see fresh hope in some form. The same mental and emotional patterns that yoga encourages can help make these life explosions bearable and draw out the gifts inherent in them.
If we allow the grace of our non judging self to shine, offer ourselves loving kindness and compassion, we can be our own best friend through any trauma. And so the mindfulness of yoga, the appreciative inquiry into our own experience, the sifting through mental rubble to find the surviving dreams, comes more easily, with less inner battling, when we have practised proactively. We could say that our yoga is preventive medicine for all the possible pitfalls. With a sense of wonder we can stand back and admire our own hard won strength and flexibility.
With increasing skill we are able to handle increasing challenges. The model of the flow state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shows how a high level of skill combined with a high level of challenge can create the peak experience state known as "flow". Being in "flow" is a sought after experience that can seldom be controlled or willed, but can be cultivated as actions and awareness merge. When our skill level is low and challenge is also low, we feel apathetic. We can hone our skills in any arena, but if there is little challenge we may feel relaxed but probably bored. In a highly challenging circumstance, if we are unskilled for that challenge it will likely generate anxiety. Ideally then, we want to practise what we need to be skilled in to meet life's challenges.
So yoga is a kind of upskilling for life. It may not be an athletic pursuit, depending on your preference, but whether it is the discipline of seated meditation, the focus of pranayama, the melodies of kirtan or the rhythm of vinyasa that appeals to you, if you make it your inner life, it will gird you for the challenges and give you skills to embrace the delights of living authentically.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath