June 15, 2012

Is Yoga Selfish?

… the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things.

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion—and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.
~ David McCullough

(Click here to read a full transcript of this powerful commencement speech given by a Massachusetts high school English teacher. It’s worth the 10 minutes, I promise.)

Day after day we unroll our yoga mats. To do so, we may have manipulated schedules, perhaps not just ours, but our family’s, our colleagues’ or our friends’. We may have turned down invitations. We may have delayed work on an important project. We may have said “No,” when the “pleaser” within us yearned to say “Yes.” We have had to make this time for ourselves a priority. We have had to put ourselves first.

Day after day, we choose to dedicate valuable time and precious energy to our yoga practice.

We do so for many reasons. Physical wellness. Inner well-being. Peace and quiet—inside and out. This daily “time out” on our mats is a luxury that we give ourselves. A vigorous yoga practice can leave us glowing. A restorative practice can leave us as rested and relieved as a deep-tissue massage.

When we step onto our mats, we are, as a matter of course, stepping out of our hectic lives. We are getting away, even if just for a few minutes, from the challenges and headaches of our day. Like a retreat, practicing yoga gives us a little space to be alone, to focus on ourselves, and to reflect.

Sounds more than a little selfish, doesn’t it?

We receive many gifts from a regular yoga practice. Strength. Flexibility. A leaner, more energized body. Toned muscles. A general feeling of lightness. A distinct sense of our own capability and power. Confidence. Poise. Peace. These gifts are great. They’re undeniably awesome.

And, they’re totally beside the point.

The real gifts of our yoga practice are much greater—and we are not the sole recipients. Practicing yoga gives us the ability and willingness to engage fully in each moment, in each relationship and in each activity of our lives. Yoga teaches us to soak up every drop of every experience for no other reason than having the experience. It creates in us an impulse to reach out simply because we can. It gives us the confidence to be ourselves in a world overflowing with copycats, replicas and wannabes. It helps us recognize our passions, listen to (and honor) our consciences and follow our dreams. It unveils the countless ways, great and small, dramatic and quiet, that we can change the world around us—not for glory and recognition, but simply to help make the world a better place.

Sound a little less selfish now?

We selfishly make time for a regular practice because the gifts we receive make us better able to do the work we’ve been given to do in our lives.

By honing our powers of observation on our mats, we are better able to clearly observe the world (and its needs) around us. As we practice non-judgment of ourselves on our mats, we naturally become more accepting and compassionate off our mats. By taking care of ourselves, we’re better able to care for others.

What initially seems selfish is actually a practice for living more selflessly. It is here that we smack into what David McCullough calls “the great and curious truth of human experience.” Selfless living is the most direct route to a fulfilled, satisfying and rewarding life. Our ancient yoga teachers figured this out thousands of years ago. So did generations of religious leaders, philosophers, teachers and even a handful of moms and dads.

But, this is one of those lessons that we each must learn ourselves. Doing so requires practice, focus, energy and time (sometimes lots and lots of it). But it’s worth every ounce of effort. Selflessness truly is the very best thing we can do for ourselves.

McCullough closed his speech with a request that I’ll leave you with, “Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.”


Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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