photo provided by Katie McClelland
Many of us first embark on a spiritual path with boundless enthusiasm and a vision of completely transforming ourselves through the practice of yoga and meditation.
We feel confident that the tired, anxious face staring back at us in the mirror will be replaced by a soft, monk-like face, wise and knowing, unaffected by life’s challenges. Indeed, we experience breakthroughs in the beginning including the unraveling of physical and mental tensions, emotional releases and sometimes, profound insights into the truth of who we are. Along the way, however, we can start to feel discouraged if we buy into some of the spiritual myths commonly making the rounds on facebook and in spiritualself-help books.
Below I have taken to task some common beliefs around spiritual practice. I’m sure there is a swami or two turning over in his grave at some of the following disputes, but I believe a spiritual practice must be alive, evolutionary and personal and it’s from this place that I share!
Myth 1: I’m ‘doing’ Yoga!
Contrary to popular belief, yoga is not something you can ‘do’. It is a state of ‘being’. If you are walking your dog or washing your dishes with mindfulness and are truly present to the moment, you are practicing yoga. If you are having a conversation and are really listening to that person, while at the same time being aware of your own breath and body, you are practicing yoga. A yoga mat and studio simply provides you the opportunity to practice the art and skill of ‘being present’. Which leads to my next myth in question…
Myth 2: You have to be flexible to practice yoga!
Do you want to know how much flexibility has to do with yoga? Nothing. Did you hear that? I know you don’t believe me, but the sooner you can realize this on a cellular-and not just intellectual-level, the sooner your practice will feel truly free and joyful. Flexibility is a by-product of regular practice, but is not the goal itself. Case in point: One student is a dancer and naturally flexible and can lay her body on her legs in a forward fold. She then proceeds to pick her toenail polish and look around the room. Another student is in a wheelchair and is gently reaching the crown of her head up towards the sky, aware of any tension in her body and breathing slow, mindful breaths. Who is the more advanced yogi? The woman in the wheelchair.
Myth 3: In order to meditate, you must empty the mind!
Quieting the mind completely is virtually impossible. If your mind were empty, you would be dead. Thinking is part of the human experience, and in fact, a new thought arises on average every six seconds! Do not fight the tendency to think. Rather, resist the tendency to be drawn into the drama and stories that your mind creates. Don’t identify with them as being ‘you’. The practice of meditation can create space between you and your thoughts, enabling you to be less reactive and free from the trappings of cravings and aversions.
Myth 4: The ego is evil!
Your poor ego. Always taking a lashing. Let me share with you some wisdom my mom bestowed on me: Your ego is like a small child who actually has your best interests at heart and wants to protect you. It just doesn’t always realize that you are ok without it. In a competitive, fast-paced and sometimes very mean world, your ego is just trying to help you keep up. It is interested in survival, not growth or evolution. Opening your heart? Too risky! Letting someone else ‘win’? Too scary! Once in a while, have a heart-to-heart with your ego and reassure it that everything is going to be just fine, even if you let down your guard.
Myth 5: ‘Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’
This is a verse from the yoga sutras and yes folks, I am attempting to rewrite this ancient text. From what I’ve learned and experienced, your mind will never stop fluctuating—that’s what a mind is designed to do! Through the practice of yoga you may experience longer periods of peace and spaciousness within, but your thoughts will not disappear. What can lessen is your attachment to—and identification with—the fluctuations of the mind. So, rather than being a slave to the drama of your thoughts, you are able to recognize them as meaningless noise and connect with your true self—the part of you that is unchanging and un-phased. From this place, you are able to witness the fluctuations of the mind with detached, amused compassion.
Myth 6: ‘Everything is perfect just as it is!’
I would hear this in a yoga class and wonder, what exactly does that mean? Maintaining my zen-like facial expression, I would be screaming on the inside ‘Everything is NOT perfect! Nothing on my ‘vision board’ has manifested! I hate my thighs! My credit card is maxed! What are you talking about, ‘everything is perfect’??’. Now, I think I have a better understanding of this definition of ‘perfection’. ‘Perfection’ doesn’t mean everything is just as you want it to be but rather, wherever you are in your life, without exception, is exactly where you need to be to learn the lessons you need to learn. Your are also in a perfect position to receive the gifts and blessings that are being offered to you, if you choose to open your eyes and see them. This means this moment is absolutely perfect for facilitating your growth. I now take great comfort in knowing that at all times, I am right where I am supposed to be!
Myth 7: ‘Do it NOW!’
Boy, what a pressure filled command! We see that phrase everywhere and it forms the backbone of many spiritualand self-help programs. Motivating yourself to act now is a wonderful thing, but problems arise when you don’t follow through on your intentions and end up judging yourself harshly for not manifesting ‘greatness’. This perpetuates a cycle of feeling badly about yourself and therefore undeserving of wonderful things. When I used to get really upset with myself for not following through on something, my mom would say: ‘It’s ok, honey! There is no rush. There is no finish line. You have all the time in the world! If not in this lifetime, the next one!’. I love this philosophy! And the paradox is, when you take the pressure off, you actually accomplish more.
Myth 8: ‘To hear answers to your questions, become silent and look inwards’. Or, ‘Don’t act until you have clarity’.
I spent what felt like years frozen in indecisiveness, while I tried to meditate, read and reflect my way to answers to the big questions I had about my life. I have my dad to thank for helping me break free from chronic navel-gazing. He is a man of action and a strong believer that answers come through acting, not pondering. I have found that moving forward even while confused or uncertain has been the best way for me to find clarity in my own life.
Myth 9: ‘No one is judging you; everyone is too preoccupied with themselves’.
Really? Then I must be the exception because I judge people, things and places all the time! I believe this phrase should be modified to say: ‘Everyone is judging you but don’t worry about it, they will move on to something else quickly and the judgement will be forgotten’. Accepting the fact that I will be judged by others my whole life, and that this is an inevitable part of being human, has actually helped me to live more boldly and take more risks. Hey, I’m being judged anyway so might as well live big!
My hope is that this article will inspire interesting discussions and debates with your yogi friends!
Katie McClelland has been teaching yoga full time since 1997. She likes to joke that she was ‘certified’ to teach yoga while still in the womb, as her mother went through yoga teacher training while pregnant with her! Katie’s roots are in ashtanga yoga and she derives inspiration from many styles of yoga including Vinyasa, Iyengar, Anusara and Kudnalini. Katie is the found of De La Sol Yoga Studios in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada which first opened in 2006 and expanded to a second location in January of this year. She is the host of Yoga With Katie, a 30min instructional yoga show which airs six days a week and is seen by 900 000 viewers. Recently, Katie has been speaking out at highschools and recovery centres about her history of drug addiction and ongoing journey towards wellness and wholeness. She is currently working on her first book, a memoir titled ‘Waking Up’.
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Assistant Editor: Lacy Rae Ramunno/Ed: Bryonie Wise