Sometimes a day in the life of a yogi is plagued by fear of the yoga postures that claim to lead toward inner peace.
Yet this ironic dichotomy is exactly how yoga teaches practitioners to find that elusive state of calm. Since yoga asks you to learn peace of mind it also demands that you remain totally in the present moment. The moment you worry about the future, whether that future contains images of challenging yoga postures or other apparently stressful situations, you are simply no longer being totally present.
The first step down a sometimes long and winding road of awakening is the simultaneous realization of how remarkably far you have come and also just how far away you actually are from where you want to go. Chances are that if you find yourself in the midst of paralyzing fear in yoga, that same state of mind is also somewhere else in your life.
The format of yoga offers you a chance not to escape from it all but instead to face all that you fear and in no uncertain terms find the freedom to move past it. When you expect painful experiences in the future based on past memories, you almost always get what you expect. The lesson that yoga asks you to learn is how to find freedom from the past by being fully in the present moment.
Daily yoga practice demands that you remain awake and alert while feeling your body moment-to-moment. Injury most often comes when you demand that your body recreate results given in the past, or when you tense your muscles out of fear or pain. Ideally, the yoga practitioner expects nothing from each breath and instead remains curious to explore the unique variations that arise with each new day of practice. The premise of presence in yoga means that practice is more about listening to how your body truly feels in the moment rather than dictating from above what you want your body to do. Yet at the same time we experience pain in our bodies all the time, sometimes as tightness or stiffness, other times as injury. Whenever you experience pain there is almost an automatic mental and emotional association that causes you to run from any experience that resembles the painful one in the future. This running from pain in itself is a source of misery. You cannot control life and no matter how much you want everything to be light, free and easy you cannot escape the truth that sometimes it will be hard, heavy and labored. If you run from the seemingly negative experiences based on memories from the past you are allowing the past to dictate the present and are caught by it.
While it is nearly impossible to forget the past and abandon desire for the future yoga asks you to accept the reality that no two practice sessions will ever feel totally the same. No matter how much you try to control the circumstance it will always vary a little and this variation is in fact your key to freedom. Once you learn first hand how things inevitability change within your own body you learn how to let go of the futile attempt to make things happen exactly as you think you want it. Rather than jumping into your yoga practice with a goal to accomplish everything in one session the humble task of yoga is to stay on the sensation of the breathe, posture and gazing point to help calm the mind. If you set your mind on a goal in the future, whether that is two postures away or two years away, when you do your daily practice you are in essence not really at peace wherever you are. The acceptance of your “now” does not mean that you cannot visualize your future and still be at peace. But if you let your attainment of a certain posture be the sole reason you turn up on your mat then in some sense you have missed one of the central teachings of yoga,that is to remain present in the moment.
What makes it so hard to stay fully in the present moment is that the past leaves its scars and traumas both on the body and the mind. It is almost impossible to be totally free from memories, both painful and pleasurable. But the demand of a daily yoga practice is at least to try to see each moment as fresh, alive and containing the seeds of awakening. Without your ability to remain present the possibility of true transformation evaporates as quickly as an exhalation. For all change happens only in the present moment. The past it is meant to teach us, but not meant to be as definitive as we sometimes make it. When we believe past experiences to be the always, only truth we literally recreate past experiences with our certainty about them. For example if you experience your hips as tight one day it does not mean that they will be tight the next day. That is easy to accept if you feel tightness one day and openness the next and harder to feel if all you have felt for the last five years is tightness. But yoga’s promise to bring about real change comes from its seemingly miraculous ability to transform years of tightness into openness with the magic of each practitioners’ own inner work, sometimes in a single moment.
When you practice yoga you embark on a jedi mind training that teaches you how not to get so caught up in past experience that your future is absolutely determined by it while at the same time using your real world experiences to teach you both on and off the mat. Yoga asks you to reflect on the past as a learning device, not as an absolute future determinant. It would be naive simply to say that there is no past and no future without a firm understanding of just how to live in the present moment. The epiphany moment that wipes away painful past experiences and opens the door to a new way of being happens in one instant and is the culmination of many years of hard work and determination. This moment of transformation is grounded in the past while reaching toward the future and yet must happen in the “now”. Growth often manifests with seeming light speed but this effervescence is actually dependent on years of learning spent on the tight tope between past, present and future. My teacher, Sri K. Pattahbi Jois often talked about “samskaras”, negative thought forms and mental images that have an uncanny way of determining what our life experience will be, most often for the worse. One of yoga’s most powerful tools is its ability to condense life learning into more easily digestible fragments. If you have an image of yourself as a weak person who needs to work on strength then every time you start your practice you will look for evidence that you are indeed weak. But if you change your mental image, or samskara, of yourself from a weakling to someone who is in the process of building strength you are already creating the change you want. If you see yourself as you have always known yourself to be it is simultaneously something reliable and restricting. If you allow yourself simply to not know who you are in each moment it becomes more possible to give yourself space to discover who you really are underneath all the samkaras created in the past.
It is possible to change samskaras because the depth level of human nature is an eternal, changeless peace that defies all definition that is beyond the products of the past. Culture, family, history and the habit pattern of the mind form the pieces of our personality, but are not who we at the essence of our being. When you believe the externalities of life to be your essence you see them as eternal when in reality these aspects of the self are only temporal. Yoga teaches you how to truly be free from the past just enough so that you can actively choose your future, breathe by breath, posture by posture. Yoga asks you to know yourself deeply not so that you are chained by that knowledge to always be the same as you have always been. Instead the part of yourself that yoga asks you to know is beyond any constructs of time, past or future, and lives only in the present moment.
Along the way you must get intimate with the parts of yourself that are transcendent of time so that you can be as you really are, infinite and totally present.
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