Connecting to the Self in Yoga Poses
Yoga is often defined as the union between our lower self and our Higher Self. The "higher" or transcendental Self is referred to as purusha, or pure and unchanging spirit. The lower self is generally referred to as the ego or asmita and is concerned mainly with one's individual thoughts, body and senses, all of which are changing. It is the clinging to that which is changing that brings about suffering. Alternately, remembering who we truly are, via connection to the Self, brings about the inner peace that Yoga seeks. In this article, we invite you to allow your physical Yoga practice to become your spiritual practice. "Spiritual" refers to how we connect to something larger than ourselves-it is the union of our lower and Higher Self.
A spiritual practice means renewing your deepest intentions--your driving motivations--every day. In Yoga philosophy, samkalpa refers to our personal intention. We can better understand our intention by examining the three basic qualities of all nature, or gunas. In simple terms, rajas refers to activity, tamas to inactivity, and sattva to balance or equilibrium. Many of us can probably identify with all three states of being, whether we are feeling energetic and obsessive (rajasic), dull and depressed (tamasic) or calm, clear and focused (sattvik). In Yoga, we seek to magnify the sattvik state of being because it best facilitates our path of Self realization. In our physical practice, this means cultivating an intention that matches the lucidity and luminosity of Consciousness itself.
Let us consider the example of Mary, who represents a typical scenario for the different types of intention Yoga students bring to their physical practice.
Mary is a 36 year old woman who has come to class in order to lose weight. She has just given birth to her second child, feels unattractive, and is afraid that her husband is beginning to look at other women.
From a sattvik (balanced) perspective, Mary realizes that what attracts someone to us is not our external appearance, but our inner vitality. We remain attractive when we are happy with ourselves, and growing as a person. Mary recognizes that by taking care of herself, doing things that are creative and fun, she will be a balanced woman, mother and wife...and also fascinating and very attractive. She starts to see that the level of love that she and her husband have for each other far outweighs the shallow attraction he may have to the younger, pretty women. In her Yoga classes, she is inspired by lectures as well as her own growing sense of self. She begins to eat healthier food to feed her soul, and her weight starts to normalize. She starts to glow and her husband notices this internal beauty-it is her experience and self confidence that make her beautiful...much more so than younger women. They both realize that beauty is not skin deep, but of the soul.
The motivation of her sattvik state is self-care and love.
When in a tamasic (inactive) or depressed state, Mary has a fatalistic attitude, a sense of lethargy, and a fear that her husband will never really love her again. In order to run away from these feelings, she secretly eats a lot of food that she knows isn't good for her, but it brings her comfort. Not mindful of eating three meals a day, she becomes more flustered and disorganized, feeling like she does not have enough time to exercise and eat well. She might come to Yoga in spurts, but her fear then grips her and she drops out. Her husband, with understandable cause, starts to be unsatisfied by their relationship.
The driving force of her tamasic state is disorder and fear.
If dominated more by a rajasic (active) state, Mary turns her fear into action. She eats low-fat foods, experiments with fad diets, and tries expensive products to help her look younger and more attractive. She spends extra money on babysitters so she can do anything, at all costs, to make herself as pretty as she can. She works really hard to impress her spouse in a more external way, attached to his approval. In Yoga she desires to look like the young women she sees in Yoga magazines, and she compares herself to others in class, struggling to make her body look like theirs. She fails to understand the deeper aspects of Yoga. Her underlying belief that she is not good enough and her extreme and obsessive actions actually push her husband away.
The unconscious intention of her rajasic state is attachment and egoism.
Through the example of Mary, we can begin to get greater understanding of the different samkalpa we bring to Yoga, as well as the results of such intention. Rajasic intentions are basically those that serve to boost the ego: What can I do and how can I work harder to look better, be more fit, and improve my external self so that other people like or respect me more? Of course, we can see this intention mirrored by the cultural values ingrained in us from childhood-we had to study more, compete in school, and stay busy at all times! Our capitalist society promotes speed, profit, power, progress, stress and materialism. As we continually seek "more and better" than what we already have, we are like a mouse chasing its tail, never finding the happiness we think we will find. This type of attitude in our Yoga practice continues the fast pace, with no chance to rest or feel, preventing us from the slow-paced awareness required for self understanding and healing.
Our tamasic intentions stem from fear, confusion and depression, and cultivate a state of inertia, disorder, disorganization, and dullness. A sense of helplessness, or lack of our own voice, causes us to practice Yoga simply because our doctor or friend told us to. Laziness leads to an intention of wanting instant results without putting in the effort required to really change our habits and perceptions. We start Yoga but then quit because we don't really want to know ourselves, or are not really ready for change.
We find freedom from suffering (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) when we cultivate sattvik intentions-bright, calm, clear, immaculate, illuminating, balanced. We learn how to practice this state in our mind, body and spirit. The intention for our Yoga asanas (postures) can then become a virtue like "compassion" or "courage", changing with each day, depending on what we need to live well. Greater fitness is achieved through balance rather than overstraining. By reducing competition, we reduce the risk of injury. Our new perspective helps us deal with stress and transform our attitude toward daily interactions. As we understand the true source of our pain, whether it be childhood pain or the wrong chair at work, we learn how to take responsibility for becoming who we want to be. Through our Yoga practice we gain higher awareness, facilitating the greatest healing.
This article is an excerpt from the book, "Mastering a Yoga Pose" to be published in November, 2007, by Julie Rost and Dr. Bob Butera. Excerpt was featured in the Aug/Sept.07 issue of aspire... Magazine
Julie Rost, RYT, is Director of the Yoga Life Institute's Classical Yoga Teacher Training Program in Portsmouth, NH. Dr. Butera is the editor of Yoga Living Magazine, and Director of the YogaLife Institute in Devon, PA.