In the new yoga that has emerged in the western world over the last decade or two, there is a tendency to directly equate yoga practice with various forms of free expression—such as tribal dance and stream-of-consciousness writing—the overall feeling being that yoga is part of the culture of free-form emoting whose ultimate goal is some form of cathartic release. There are workshops promoting yoga and creative self-expression, there are crossover yoga dance classes, there are teachers who consistently encourage us to “move like ourselves” and to “free it up.”
As a photographer, writer, and musician myself, I absolutely hold creative expression in the highest regard and consider the creative impulse and the fruits of it among the highest of human achievements. Poetry liberates us in ways that years of cerebral study cannot. The right music opens a direct channel between us and something higher, causing us to shed stresses quicker and free ourselves up more readily than we would without it. The yoga that first got me into yoga was good, solid, music-accompanied vinyasa and I continue to practice this style—in addition to my more silent and stoic ashtanga practice—to this day. On Sundays, I teach a vinyasa class with a hard-hitting, uplifting, and undeniably loud gospel soundtrack.
However, as much as I honor and practice creativity, it has been a very important part of my practice and my relationship with yoga to start to explore on a deeper level what yoga really is, historically and traditionally, and what it has to say on the issue of self-expression and emotional release.
To be straightforward, yoga traditionally has very little if anything to do with emotional release or creative self-expression. Quite the opposite. It is no accident that at the very heart of the yogic teachings, in fact right there in sutra 1.2, we have the word ‘harness’ or ‘yoke’ (yoga), and the word to ‘restrain’ or ‘reign in’ (nirodhah). Yoga is in essence a practice of many, many beautiful layers of restraint and refinement and stilling, and while it is a very positive thing that we — in our physically and emotionally stuck and underused western bodies — start to shake things up with lively inspired practice, it is similarly vital that the word restraint enter into our practice… somewhere.
The first foundation of modern eight-limbed yoga—the yamas—are the restraints, or deaths. Those things in us that have to die in order for practice to even begin. Although the ultimate freedom that is realized through practice is boundless, limitless, and undefinable, there is absolutely no denying that traditionally this liberation was achieved through dedicated practice in which restraint, refinement, and stilling played a central role. Feeling whatever you feel whenever you feel it and expressing it however you want to express it is not an aspiration or practice to be found anywhere in any of the traditional practice or lineages or texts of yoga.
In the modern western romantic individualistic view, feelings—as opposed to thoughts—tend to be put on a pedestal, since feelings are ‘from the heart’. But central to the yogic understanding is the truth that feelings lie to us as often as our mental vrittis. How much destructive behavior falls under the loose categorization of “following the heart?” How much substance abuse, how many confused relationships, how many one-night mistakes and awkward mornings and how much profound failure to live up to our commitments in life? I know personally that looking back on the thankfully fading horizon of my pre-yogic life, I can see pretty vast landscapes of unconscious, harmful behavior from those times when I was “following my heart.”
Truly following the heart is a very, very deep practice, and it has nothing to do with blindly chaining our selves and our self-worth to feelings and impulses and the temporary expressions of such.
I’ll write more on the specifics of this practice later, but suffice to say that if our practice is to routinely hurl all our feelings against the wall over and over again and to think that by doing that we are “working with them” we are—from the yogic perspective—not really getting the picture. Accessing pain and emotion and drama is not the same as working with and working through emotion and pain. In fact repeatedly accessing such reservoirs carries with it a thrill and rush and an addiction of its own.
No other spiritual discipline gets so wrongly referenced in defense of the practice of free-form self-expression and cathartic release than Tantra. Those who are hesitant to practice stillness or refinement or restraint and instead tend to indulge in whatever feeling or emotion or lifestyle choice happens to present itself from their ‘hearts’ at the moment often do so under the auspices of being “Tantric.”
Such behavior ignores the undeniable reality that Tantra in all its forms is among the most prescribed and specific of all spiritual practice and traditionally requires immense ethical and practical groundwork before any of the deeper practices are begun. Tibetan Buddhism, the most widespread of the living Tantric traditions—requires a foundation of refuge vows, precepts, and years of meditation. At a recent workshop in Hindu Tantra led by Paul Muller-Ortega, one of the most authoritative scholars in the field of Shaiva Tantra, some students were dismayed when Ortega told them that in order to experience the benefits of Tantric meditation they should refrain from drinking alcohol, apparently thinking that if any tradition would support their habit of doing whatever they want whenever they want to, it would be Tantra.
Yoga—and particularly Tantra—is not concerned at all with the immediate release of emotion. Nor does Yoga in any way involve stifling or repressing emotion. Rather, yoga is the deepest practice of truly working with feeling—slowly, methodically and deliberately refining our emotions into their clearest, sweetest, and most beautiful form in which they are our greatest allies rather than forces with which we do battle. Yoga is transformation through gradual refinement, and it is as precise a practice as the western alchemy to which it has so many parallels.
The larger picture is that as profound and deep and seemingly wonderful as our immediate feelings are, in their raw unrefined form they are short-lived, and myopic. What we strive to follow in our practice is what we can call the Divine Alignment. Binding ourselves to that which is Divine in quality and nature, that which is infinitely vaster and greater and sweeter and brighter than even the most exalted of human emotions. Yoga is nothing less than forging our unbreakable chain to the Supreme Light, and that starts with very simply, very humbly, and very methodically removing all the things that get in the way of that direct bond.
So we practice clearing our hearts daily and we make a conscious distinction between what is healthy to hold in our hearts and what is harmful. We carefully sit with and examine our feelings before we act on them or wantonly express them. We practice stilling and slowing down so that we can get in there and really work with feelings over time. We bring the clear light of awareness right into the core of each feeling. And we refine it to its clearest, sweetest essence.
In yogic, in Tantric, in Buddhist, in Hindu, in pretty much all spiritual thought, it is impossible to do this practice if our foundation is confused, undefined, blurred, clouded or non-existent. The yoke to the Divine runs directly along that elusive—but true—place, our center-line. Any behavior in life that takes us off this center—such as thrusting ourselves heart forward into the world without a proper foundation—directly effects our ability to connect to the Divine. And so we practice yama and niyama as the basis of yoga, of our inseparable yoke to the supreme.
I know of course that in the modern western world asking students to follow all the yamas and niyamas is something of a tall order. But I will say this—as someone who used to explore some of the more complex and elaborate Tantric and Taoist meditations —99% of my practice now lies within the yamas and the niyamas. There is enough in one word—saucha, for example—to last years. There is enough in the practice of truly ‘following the heart’ to last our entire spiritual lives.
Expression in yoga practice is a wonderful thing. It is also worth examining how much of our practice revolves around catharsis and how much is geared to developing restraint. And if we find there is almost zero restraint in our practice then how about, say, practicing one of the restraints or observances of traditional yoga?
Stripping away the obstacles that lie between us and pure radiance of ourselves is, almost paradoxically, achieved almost entirely through restraint, in the same way that asanas in which we are bound are the asanas that free us up the most. There is profound beauty, profound humility, and profound depth in practicing this way. The invitation is to look far past the lure of the immediate and to forge our bond accordingly. Breath by deeply measured breath.