Photo Credit: Chris Ensey | unsplash.com
We step on our yoga mat. It’s got a trace of every footprint we’ve ever made in our asana practice since it became our mat. We use the same mat every day. But the experiences we have on it change all the time. The circumstances change all the time. Different teacher. Different sleep last night. Different sequence of poses. Different state of mind. Is there something that is unchanging amid all this change? If so, how do we connect with it?
Our practice begins, as Patanjali tells us in the very first yoga sutra, (or “threads of wisdom”) with “Now”. In order to connect with that very powerful “now,” we start by stopping. Each time. We stop in order to clarify the shift of place and intention. We were at work, we were visiting a friend, we were commuting, now we are here. “Now begins the exposition of yoga.” (YS 1.1)
With a brief pause before beginning, we can study where we are at the start and then later, where we’ve come by the close. That is a way we can use our asana practice for svadhyaya, or self-study, in a way that goes deeper than the bones and muscles. T.S. Eliot, in The Four Quartets, wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
We practice svadhyaya in order to discover freedom. The moment of discovery is often fleeting, but it is freedom nonetheless. In a yoga practice, whether we are practicing asana, pranayama, or seated meditation, we aim to still the happenings in the mind in order to be fully present in the “now”. As a result, we occasionally taste a moment, or some moments strung together, of quietude. In that quiet, we can experience pure consciousness.
Most of the time though, according to yoga philosophy, the mind is flickering. That’s its nature. It’s busy thinking, planning ahead, remembering painful times, reliving good times, fantasizing, or it is flowing toward some sensory experience we may be having. This can be problematic because we tend to identify our Self with whatever movie is playing on the flickering screen of our mind. If we’re on a roll or if we are going down a rabbit hole, either way, we are likely to force our Self to fit into rather one-dimensional confines. We have a setback at work and we get ourselves stuck in a whole story of who we ARE based on how our career is unfolding. The Self sometimes appears to take the shape of the wanderings of the mind, but when the mind quiets down for a moment, the truth is revealed.
Here is a simple practice to illuminate the wanderings of the mind, and to examine the possibility that we are more than we think we are. Have you ever heard the saying, “Don’t just do something; sit there”? Here’s how you can try this out for yourself:
Take a few minutes and watch your breath move in and out.
While you inhale, mentally say, “In.” While you exhale, mentally label the breath “Out.” Center yourself within the framework of your breath.
Watch how steady your mind can be. Watch how it gets distracted. Observe where it goes (sensation, thought, memory…) and then gently bring it right back to the “in” and “out” of your breath. Even if your mind behaves like a puppy that, as Jack Kornfield teaches, you are training to “sit” and to “stay,” and you have to pick that puppy up and put him back on his little bed again and again. Do it with great patience and a friendly firmness.
While we patiently await the arrival of our attention, we notice the thoughts, emotions, and happenings come and go; and so it goes with everything in nature. But the part of us that observes the mind coming and going? That’s the Self. The part of us that witnesses the mind in its whirlwind of activity? That’s the part of us we aim to experience more and more fully, more and more often. Our true Self is undisturbed by the changing circumstances of life. It is undisturbed by the teacher, the way we slept last night, the sequence of postures, or the state of our mind. As Pema Chodron has said, “You are the sky; everything else is just the weather.”
Along the yoga path, we come upon obstacles; the “emotions or instincts that arise when our buttons are pushed, causing a negative reaction instead of a positive action.” This is how Nicolai Bachman writes of these obstacles, or kleshas, in his book, The Path of the Yoga Sutras. “They are buried deep inside our being, waiting to surface at the opportune moment.” The more clearly we can see these instincts at their first sprouting, the more facility we have in minimizing their effects.
Svadhyaya, according to Nicolai Bachman, “is learning about and developing the heart-mind by reading and listening to promote self reflection, and by observing ourselves in action.” With a willingness to look inward to see our habits honestly and objectively, we begin to make space between our circumstances and our response. We improve our capacity to see our instinctive reactions and what kind of footprints we might leave behind us. We begin to have insight based on past experience as to what the most skillful response might be. This way, we can avoid future suffering based on our choices in each moment (see YS II.16). It is a practice. And it’s worth noting, as Patanjali explains, that “practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time.” (YS I.14, Edwin Bryant translation).
We leave footprints of experience, of moments of freedom, on the yoga mat. Everywhere else, we take care to tread lightly and with as clear and as unclouded a mind as we are capable of. We extend that capacity through svadhyaya, in order to deepen ourselves, to situate ourselves as the unchanging witness to our changing circumstances. We practice in order to experience the truth of who we are. It takes a long time, as Patanjali has gently reminded us, and, of course, the time to begin is always “now.”
Sarah Bell has been teaching yoga classes, retreats, and workshops since 1994. She is a member of the Teacher Training faculty at YogaWorks in New York City, where she has taught over twenty 200 and 300 hour teacher training courses over the past ten years. She recently completed a two year teacher training course at the Iyengar Institute of New York. Her classes are simple, dynamic, and clear. Sarah is deliberate and attentive, and she inspires students to practice gently, patiently, and whole heartedly. She’ll be back here in Manila this coming November for another YogaWorks Teacher Training at Urban Ashram Manila.