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The Alchemy of Yoga

“WE ALREADY HAVE everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves—the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds—never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.”

― Pema Chödrön, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

I’ve practiced yoga going on 18 years now and some days I feel like I’ve barely begun. Sometimes in my life I’ve practiced more diligently and consistently, while at other times I found, it’s all I can do to get my body on the mat. And don’t even ask me to be conscious about my practice—I mean, I am here aren’t I? Sometimes I’ve viewed my yoga practice as a way to improve myself, and sometimes as a sanctuary to just let myself “be.” But to be perfectly honest, most of the time I usually vacillate back and forth between these two poles.

However, the longer I practice yoga, the more consistently I’m able to actually show up for myself either way, and more than just as my body on a mat. This consistency is a form of self-acceptance, kindness, and compassion. I show up with the good, the bad and the ugly I’ve called “self.” And slowly but surely, I’ve been learning to allow space for it all—this is the alchemy of yoga. And the longer I practice, the larger my capacity to be with the parts of myself I’ve deemed as unacceptable or unworthy. Little did I know that what I’d been doing in my practice is called “ahimsa.” In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, “ahimsa” refers to non-harming, or nonviolence in Sanskrit. “Ahimsa” , of course, also includes non-violence toward self. Some of you might be questioning how the idea of harm or violence can even be connected to yoga at all. I know I did when I first began to understand the practice of “ahimsa.” How many times have you said to yourself in the privacy of your own mind, “I’m too fat,” “I’m too weak,” “I’m not -----”? You fill in the blank.

The next time you go to a yoga class, observe all of the thoughts, emotions, and moods that arise in your body as you practice. Do you get angry at your body? Do you load it with the frustrations of your day and then expect it to perform the way you want? See for yourself how every strong emotion, from frustration and fear to longing, is felt in the body as tension, restriction, heat, tingling, tightness, aching and so on. In turn, each of these bodily sensations can be released through yoga, which will free the body from the violence we often unknowingly direct at ourselves through dissatisfaction, judgment or disallowing. Of course, many of us have been using this type of self-critical orientation as a tool to motivate ourselves, to push ourselves to the level of excellence we desire, for the version of ourselves that will finally be worthy of our love and acceptance. Thinking that we can improve ourselves by rejecting the parts we don’t like is a form of self-violence—cutting the self-off from its entirety.

A regular yoga practice can support us in having a greater sense of equanimity and well-being with who we are right now, on and off the mat. Instead of using the force of criticism, perhaps we can use the force of love to accept where we are at in our journey right now—in this moment—even if our mind thinks it’s far from perfect. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali also writes that all suffering is the caused by regarding the “non-self” for “self.” Like Chodron eludes to in her quote above, the self is eternal and never changing, but in our ignorance, we mistake the changing forms of the mind—namely thought--to be unchanging “Truth.” Thus, we find no contentment, always looking for it out there somewhere in a promised future.

As we begin to bring an increasing sense of “ahimsa,” to yoga practice, we can’t help but bring this awareness throughout our day in all life’s different situations. We begin to release the body when the mind starts to feel pressure or anxiety of “there is something wrong here.” Moreover, the cultivation of a soft spaciousness of body and mind points to the true intention of yoga, which is liberation from the subtle forms of aggression against who we really are. It is this rejection of self that is violent. It is my experience that this is the natural progression of yoga. It leads to the cultivation of one’s capacity to be with ALL of who you are—without trying to use force or violence to exile the parts of ourselves that we think should be different or better. And this is the true awakening.

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