Our yoga practice can give rise to difficult emotions, causing unnecessary confusion in our lives. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras offer a surprising context to help us understand this phenomena.
It seems there is a growing frustration in our contemporary yoga community as the popularity of this ancient Indian practice reaches new frontiers in our part of the world. Recently I have had several students approach me with a particular question about the presence of strong negative emotions in their practice and their lives.
Sometimes the practice of yoga triggers deeply seeded behavioral patterns and brings them to the surface.
For example, you sometimes find that when you practice yoga you may actually feel increasingly more aggravated than before. When you leave yoga class you may even find yourself barking at the people closest to you, such as your children, co-workers and loved ones.
When you practice you may even find that the irritation increases and you might be wondering what is wrong with you and your practice if it takes you to this “un-yogic” place.
But have faith, this is exactly what the practice is meant to do. During my time teaching yoga I have often witnessed new students coming into the practice with the intention and expectation of finding relief from their inner turmoil. Somewhere along the line they have gotten the idea that yoga can make our inner turmoil vanish, perhaps even that the purpose of yoga is to make the turmoil immediately dissipate. If you believe that yoga is meant to take you quickly down the road to inner peace, the experience of anger and other difficult emotions are naturally of great concern.
I find myself in the situation quite often where I have to explain to a student that there is a misunderstanding about the true intention of the yoga practice and the response varies from disbelief to disappointment. Some students have responded with statements such as:
“How can you say that yoga is not designed to make my suffering disappear?”
Yet it is not so! Yoga is here to bring us closer to reality, closer to what is really going on inside and outside of ourselves.
Yoga aims at bringing light towards what really is and to find the courage to see clearly and the peace to accept whatever arises without the necessity to remove or change it. If grief is there, if anger is there or if pride is there, our yoga practice is sure to slowly strip away the layers of subconscious veils in a timely fashion, appropriate to what we can handle.
Methodically, like a surgeon’s scalpel we uncover years of psychological armor, escapism and denial and by doing so we slowly reclaim a life beyond it all. Even though we rarely like to admit it, we are all the kind of person who runs away from our fears, denies our anger and blocks out our selfishness only to justify the whole story to your own advantage. Me too.
We are like this not because we are mean, bad or unworthy, but because this behavioral pattern is one of our most common tools towards dealing with the impact of life.
And it is not making us a bad human being – it is simply making us a human being.
In the ancient Asian spiritual traditions this was a clearly stated fact, but for most of us contemporary Westerners this concept is a bit out of our comfort zone. The Six Enemies towards spiritual evolution, known in Sanskrit as ‘Ari Chat Varga‘, are identified in the classic yogic school of thought. Knowledge of them is a fundamental and an inseparable part of the yoga journey.
They will be part of our nature no matter how many yoga classes we attend in this life. Kama (Desire), Krodha (Anger), Lobha (Greed), Moha (Pride) & Matsarya (Jealousy) are innate conditions within the human being which will always be present, always take us for an occasional ride and always stick their head up from time to time.
The old Rishis, yogis and sages, realized all too well from their exclusive retreats from society that we consist of more than lotus pettles and warm wishes for our fellow man. We experience irritation, restlessness, sadness and anger on a regular basis. Sometimes the Six Enemies surface in straight forward ways such as:
“Why is my teacher giving him/her a new fun asana when I am clearly better and have practiced much longer and could rock that out!?”
But they also appear in more subtle, subliminal ways like simply being grumpy and irritable, restless and eerie towards ourselves, life and everybody around us. If you are living life in its fullness the ‘Six Enemies’ will be triggered often. They tie into each other and always follow each other creating complex weaves of uncomfortable emotional constructions which we would rather be without. Yet they are universal and we can co-exist with them as long as we maintain a certain amount of ease and discipline in our lives which is where and why the yogic practices has found its authority in historic India as well as with the popularity in current Western society. At the same time the classic school of yogic thought offers a way out of the misery of this troubled, emotional mess.
Shri Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras states that the strength of The Six Enemies is inversely proportional to the practice of yoga and meditation, to our Darshana. The method towards dissipating these troublesome emotions which from time to time poisons our minds, is, yes our yoga practice itself!
Confused? Did you get lost in a loop?
Well, here is how it works: When Patanjali talks about practicing yoga he means practicing the full Eight-limbs of yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi. Asana (yoga posture) practice has somewhat become widely accepted in the West as the method to obtain the yogic, sattvic qualities which promote a peaceful and happy life. Yet, where regular asana practice is certainly a key tool, there is more to it than just that.
The two first limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas - Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfullness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (refraining from sexual indulgence) & Aparigraha (detachment), as well as Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (study towards self knowledge) & Isvarapranidhana (surrender to God/higher self) - accurately creates a powerful navigational map which we can turn to in the face of our emerging Ari chat Vargas.
The Yamas and Niyamas can help us with this often overwhelming task.
By picking up this map we have the opportunity to lay some distance to our inner ‘bad breath’ and focus on our new guiding light however far in the distance. The next step is finding a vessel to help us move through the darkness towards the light tower. And, this is where yoga’s asana practice comes into the picture because the practice is the vessel. Yoga’s asana practice gives us the opportunity to shed some of the layers which ‘protect’ us from feeling, seeing and perceiving what is really happening on the decks below, by cultivating awareness and sensitivity in body and mind, by submitting to a method grander than ourselves and by sticking to it.
It is often also at precisely this moment we begin to feel that the practice is not working as it sparks a sea of negative emotions to which we were, perhaps, previously not experiencing.
It is here that we begin to doubt the good within ourselves and the good of the practice. It is here that self-deprecation peaks its head up and we want to drop out and return to our previous way of living. But that would obviously be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Instead Patanjali calls upon our courage and endurance, sometimes called ‘the path of the spiritual warrior’, to navigate through this icky, vulnerable and scary places along the path.
If we are committed to a fuller and richer life, a more informed and wiser living, this is the only real path there is. So, take a deep a breath and accept that you are carrying these negative emotions yourself. If you claim not to have them you probably have the most work to do! When heavy feelings arise nothing is wrong with you nor your practice. In fact your yoga practice is going the way it should be going. Simply recognize the profoundness of the moment and that now is your time to begin looking a little further, study with a little more dedication and explore the Yogic Darshana a little deeper.
By doing so you can turn your troublesome experience into a true act of self exploration and reap the wisdom from such a personal exploration – and that is what the yoga practice is about, the knowledge and wisdom gained from the direct and personal experience of living.
Editor: Tanya Lee Markul
Tim Feldmann is a yoga practitioner who teaches extensively in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Authorized to teach by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois and R. Sharath Jois he is dedicated to Ashtanga’s traditional method and is currently practicing the Advanced A series. He is the co-founder of Miami life Center which he runs with his wife, Kino MacGregor. More info here and here.