The one thing certain in life is that everything changes. So it has been said. It is a keystone of Buddha’s teachings, it is part of many other philosophies and even modern physics certifies it.
“Ch-ch-ch-changes“, sang David Bowie in his rock classic, eulogizing on the temporary nature of all he was experiencing, through fame, success and then trying to find himself. It seems everyone in their life reaches moments of ‘transition’, a shift from what they’re doing now to something they might wish to be doing. Many students of yoga find themselves in a transition that very often is brought on by the process of yoga itself. In fact the majority of students I have come across in trainings state they are “in transition”.
What does this transition, change, transformation mean? Roget (thesaurus and dictionary) defines it as “the process of passing from one form, state, stage to another“. The world is described as transitory, an adjective of the noun transition. Everything is in a constant state of flux. So this world and all we know of it is constantly changing, every second. Yet, as Bowie puts it, “the days flow by but still they seem the same”. In a sense letting us know how little we actually observe and see. Continuing “time might change me but I can’t change time” is the plight of us all once opportunity has passed us by.
Transformation takes that even further. It is defined as the action of “changing form, appearance, condition, function, especially in relation to potential or type”. This would imply a certain level of involvement in the ‘transition’ process.
Taking the perspectives of ancient philosophy, the Buddha’s teachings and even modern poetic rock ‘n’ roll we can perhaps gleam a few nuggets to help us:
– change is inevitable, “pretty soon now you’re going to get older” (Bowie)
– transition then is continuous, lifelong
– we can, and even should, participate in the changing process, the transformation
– the best way to engage in this transformation is to be in the moment of each activity or thought we have
Yoga philosophy has recognized this fact of transformation and offers tools to enable it. The philosophical base of yoga is in Sankhya. It gives the word “parinaama” for transformation, meaning a change occurs such that there is no going back to that previous state. In practical terms the behavioural patterns of an individual have been so affected via change in the nervous system (due to correct practice and living) that this person’s outlook and behaviour is so altered or changed that they consider themselves grown or changed. It seems while this is going on and while each individual is trying to come to terms with the changes they are experiencing they call it “being in transition”.
The other major philosophy out of India, Vedanta, uses the word “vivarta” to define transformation. As the basis of the belief here is that our essential true nature is divine and can never be touched or changed it is thus only this illusion that appears as changing, merely superficial changes that one experiences as their transformation.
Taking this further then we can fairly state that there is a divinity to all of us, that is never lost or gone, just the association occurs with the temporary. Yet in practical terms it is this temporary we are dealing with. So we can keep in mind that we are divine and part of the Divine, yet, as the science of yoga offers, this ‘temporary’ is something we can work with to change and affect our growth.
This is really what is behind yoga; affecting a positive and uplifting growth in an individual so the association with the true inner self is closer at hand, regardless of whether one subscribes to ‘all are one’, ‘this being an illusion’ or ‘this is nature that we must work with‘. From day to day we need to apply the practical in order to help us. Yet this must go hand in hand with the constant reminder of our true divine nature.
Many religious festivals are built around this process of transformation. In Christianity there are Novenas, nine days and nights of prayer. In India the celebration of the Holy Mother is focused around the Navaratri (Nine nights) festival. The first three nights of this are focused on removing the old, that which is stale, stagnant, of no use to our growth (tamas). The second three nights focus on the building of the new, raising a new level (rajas). And the final three nights are the result, which is transformation (sattva).
I have always found this description as an ideal way of describing the process in yoga. Initially there is a period of cleaning and clearing out, provided we’re also not adding more rubbish to the pile. This could go on for years. Yoga students feel it as aches, pains, emotional outbursts, in class or later, toxic release from the body. It is best handled by understanding there is a process of clearing and to watch it, let it happen, and continue with practice and the appropriate teacher’s guidance. There might be times for modification as things become intense but again this is where the guidance should help. When much of the old stagnation decreases there is room for growth of the new, rebuilding as such. This is also experienced in form of delicate nerve changes causing temporary trembles throughout the body. As it continues it gets more and more subtle and sensitive before one becomes or feels more durable. One can feel the movement of prana, energy, throughout the body and one can see what is happening on the mental level. Depending on how one lives this could go on for years or even lifetimes till the result of complete transformation is experienced, which is simply a return to our true nature. However, along the way one can identify some key spots where we can ‘stop’ and say “I have transformed”. We are saying I am not the person I was. My behaviour has changed, my outlook is different, my heart is bigger, my mind is clearer.
Nature provides the best example. A garden uncared for grows wild and full of weeds. We then participate in its development to cultivate it. First removing the weeds. As the weeds start to clear out new flowers and plants can start to grow. A new life is experienced in the soil. Along the way a section of the garden will look transformed, beautiful, but still the work goes on till the entire garden is transformed and reflecting a beauty only nature can offer.
As we have said, change, transition, is inevitable. Yoga says participate in it fully. What is the alternative? Leave a box of books in a room for a year. Come back and you’ll find them tatty and old, stained even. No one touched them yet decay a la natural forces, gravity, sets in. Leave some vegetables on the counter for a few days and they become inedible. Even the garden left untended grows weeds, a plant in its own pot left abandoned will wither. Thus, without any direct participation the outcome follows a downward path, one of decay. Though it is true our bodies will age and deteriorate it need not be the case for our heart, mind and soul, really our essential nature. Thus the teaching of yoga is saying, participate in your growth and here are the tools to uplift you, to experience ‘you’.
To highlight this I see my teachers in their 70s to 90s, mentally and spiritually fresher than most 20-40 year olds I know, though their bodies have aged yet gracefully. Then I look to where I live or grew up and see how life has dragged the mind down with the aging body by some in their 70s and more, where life just went on and no effort was made in early years to look in to oneself, to work on oneself.
It is not an easy process but is anything worth ‘having’, worth growing, easy? Let it be earned through a level of self effort. Then the hand of grace joins it to reward such an effort. As you feel yourself in “transition” then embrace it. Learn the practices in a correct way. Give yourself to them. The only way is up!! Embrace your growth. Participate in it. And do so by being with each breath, by being tuned into every little thing that you do. Be in the moment and do your best. Each day get up and again do. You will get stronger, the feelings of insecurity pass, a new inner light starts to shine within, you experience your “transformation”, bit by bit. And above all, be grateful for what you have, every day the opportunity to participate in this change and growth. Think and thank each day the source of the practices you have been given that help you through this transition. Love the process, the doing and the ‘change’.
Paul is a senior teacher of Pranayama, Asana and the meditative art and science of Yoga. He has been a dedicated student for over a decade of both Sri O.P.Tiwari, one of the few remaining classical yogis and masters of Pranayama, and the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in ashtanga vinyasa. Both of these great teachers have personally certified Paul in these practices, a unique position as the only one to receive this double honor. One of his main gifts is to be able to relate the teachings in a very down-to-earth way for the modern seeker. He does not take life or yoga too seriously and as a result the discussions and philosophical sessions are lively and humorous, helping to explain the meaning behind the practices and philosophy. For more please see his full bio. Paul is the founder and director of Samahita Yoga Thailand, a premier retreat center in Asia, and Centered Yoga, a leading yoga training school since 1999.