Transformative yoga requires discomfort
India’s most ancient teachings, The Vedas, date back to 2000 BC and hold the early seeds of yogic thought. These authoritative teachings were ‘heard’ as divine wisdom by sages (rishis) who undertook long periods of asceticism and meditation. The rituals and prayers of the Vedas describe elements of living an exalted life, and guide the reader away from worldly attachment, toward realization of divine consciousness. The Vedas were transmitted first through mantra, and later written down. It is believed that all forms of yogic wisdom have roots in these early texts.
Although he lived much later, Maharishi Patanjali is considered to be one of those enlightened sages, and he is credited for organizing yoga into a cohesive system around 200 BCE. His spiritual roadmap -- articulated in four short chapters – is an important reference for all who want to forge a path of self-inquiry and pursue a meaningful life. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, self-actualization is essentially god realization and stands at the top of the hierarchy of human existence. Patanjali denotes many things we can do – meditate, practice equanimity, visualize an enlightened being, even become one with a turtle – to help the process along, but the ultimate goal remains realizing our highest potential through personal experience. For lasting recognition of divinity within, Patanjali says, the individual ego must eventually be obliterated.
How does this relate to you and your downward dog? Well, it relates to all of us, because what is packaged and sold as “yoga” today stands in stark opposition to destroying the ego. We practice in hopes of spiritual union, whether or not we label it as such. But the widespread popularization of yoga has largely depreciated and standardized its content to make it more palatable to more people. We have, as a culture, drained yoga’s spiritual potential in favor of fitness, entertainment, stress relief and commercial profit. These may be standard entitlements of American life, but on the tree of existential value they are the lowest hanging fruit, reflecting our cultural preoccupation with the base energies of fear and desire.
In our frenzied efforts to feel better in the moment, we have skipped right over the pith of the sutras, commandeering a few surface concepts that congratulate us on what we are already doing. The result is a gross under-utilization of the exquisite system Patanjali presents and, worse, leads us down the path of conditioned reinforcement rather than spiritual revelation. Using tools designed for self-actualization to meet basic health and self-esteem needs is like using a diamond cutter to file your fingernails. You can make it work, but the true craftsmanship of the equipment will never be fully realized. While we are busy trying to squeeze yoga into an overcommitted life, our well-intended efforts get quietly washed downstream . . . into the culvert of maintenance yoga.
Maintenance yoga’s most notable achievement is that it leaves you feeling better after class than before. That may be a legitimate starting point, but it’s not exactly self-actualization. Neither is losing weight, buying a Namaste tank top, or balancing in handstand. These things may happen, but they should not be confused with the pick and shovel work of enduring discomfort, self-inquiry and humility, all of which are necessary tools on the journey. If we’re not vigilant, yoga becomes just another breeding ground for our preferences and ego entanglements. The initial desire for self-actualization gets knotted up with our habits and insecurities like a mass of tangled necklaces. We keep tugging on the parts that we can see, convinced that deep transformation is taking place, while the center of the problem remains untouched.
How do we know when we’re stuck? Well, we don’t. That’s the whole problem. If we could see the rut, we would dig ourselves out of it. Patanjali calls this mistaken state of mind avidya, and it is constantly shape-shifting as we gain insight and experience. That’s why forming an alliance with an experienced teacher, an authentic text and a meaningful personal practice are so important; these are the tried-and-true external reference points by which we can triangulate our internal position and progress. Good allies will not inoculate us from difficulty, but they will stand by us – undisturbed by our flailing –- to offer compassionate guidance when we feel like giving up.
Self-inquiry eventually seeps into the mind, and unhealthy patterns can now be seen in the light of day. At first this process can be jarring because for anything to change, well, something has to change, and most of us impulsively resist that. But gaining access to subtle thoughts helps us manage their impact in our daily lives. As an example, let’s say that you doze off in meditation because you are not getting enough sleep. The exhaustion reflects having too many commitments, and when you sit still the body has no choice but to collapse. When you inquire within, you discover the chronic tendency to over-commit is based on a desire for approval. Once you see the desire for approval, it also becomes clear how that manifests in other areas of your life. For a while, you live with the inner conflict between changing and doing nothing. Until you can’t anymore, at which point you either suppress the new insight or take the necessary steps to untangle yourself from the habit. And that’s pretty much how it goes, over and over again.
Maintenance yoga reinforces comfort. Transformative yoga requires discomfort, as what was once unconscious is made conscious. And I believe that’s exactly what Patanjali had in mind.
Jai Sri Maharishi Patanjali