It is important for us to keep in mind and affirm that yoga practice has immense potential for improving our lives, as well as the lives of those around us. In the hustle and bustle of life and the pressures we are all in, we often forget that.
There is a tendency to focus on the physical aspect of the practice, to practice in order to become more flexible, stronger, to look better, to be healthier. If, for instance, because of life’s overload we can’t practice for a few days, we say, “ugh, I didn’t practice for a few days, my body is really stiff!” but how often do we say: “ugh, I did not practice for a few days, my mind is really stiff!”? And when would we feel more successful? When we grind our teeth to accomplish a difficult asana, even though mentally we experience stress, struggle, and ambition, or when we are performing a simple asana and experience concentration and serenity?
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The body is a component of the human system and is of utmost importance, but we must view our entire system holistically and remember that yoga practice is intended to transform our entirety. It is essential to remember this especially in moments of difficulty and crisis when dealing with physical or mental difficulties. There and then, particularly, it is important for us to remember that practice is not intended only to obtain more flexible shoulders, or to succeed in performing Urhdva Dhanurasana, but to bring a greater sense of peace and joy to our lives. But how can yoga practice lead to more peace and joy?
The yoga sages have established certain principles that, if acted upon, will enhance our lives and create more peace. Patanjali wrote of Yama and Niyama that: cultivating a caring attitude (Maitri) compassion, (Karuna) encouragement (Mudita) and emotional stability (Upeksha) (Sutra I.33) will lead to a quiet, enlightened consciousness.
Yet, it isn’t easy to apply these principles. It is not enough for us to hear about Ahimsa or Aatya so that the inherent violence in us will dissolve and we will dwell in truth. It isn’t easy to be Mahatma Gandhi. We must acknowledge that we have aggressive and violent tendencies. We may think that nonviolence is an important value, but how do we actually behave when confronted with aggression or a threat to what we perceive as our legitimate right?
It’s not enough to want to be inoffensive. Prashant Iyengar said that our natural inclinations are: Himsa (aggression and violence), A-satia (non-truth), Steya (tendency to take or use what does not belong to us and was not given to us), A-brahmacharya (non-restraint), and Parigraha (possessiveness and accumulation) — that is, the direct opposites of the five Yamas of Patanjali. In order to overcome these tendencies, a transformation is required, and this, in turn, requires practice. Practice at all levels, physical practice (disciplining the body), mental practice (disciplining the mind), and practice of the heart.
Patanjali does not stop by describing the yogic values; he outlines an entire roadmap for the yogi. In Chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutras, he depicts the high states of consciousness and in chapter 3 he describes transformations of consciousness. He points to the means for quieting the fluctuations of consciousness (I.12); lists the five vitamins a practitioner needs (I.20); reviews the difficulties and obstacles we will encounter along the way (I.30-31) and the ways to overcome them (I.32-I.39) and most importantly, in chapter 2, he provides us with a framework for practice: the Ashtanga Yoga, the eight-limbed yoga whose practice will purify consciousness leading to the dawn of the light of wisdom (II.28).
The potential of practice is a radical transformation of the body matter as well as our mind-stuff, a transformation that includes the entire personality and manifests itself in our behavior, not only in our thinking. Modern neuroscience has discovered that our brain is flexible and that continuous behavioral change, such as physical or mental practice brings about, can alter the brain’s neural circuits — it is scientific proof that the body matter changes. The Yogis did not need scientific evidence and knew that practice could change the body and mind substances, creating a transformation that would reduce suffering and help us find more joy in our lives.
As the body and mind stuff transform and consciousness becomes refined, pure and noble, we can spontaneously respond in accord with these yogic values. There would be no need to preach to ahimsa; it will flow spontaneously from within us. Our responses will become more balanced and compassionate. We will behave naturally according to the yogic principles, as an enlightened or a sage would behave.
This is the potential of yoga practice and it is this potential we should remember and reflect on. It is also important to remind ourselves that the fruits of our practice are not only for us but also for all those around us because when we benefit ourselves, we will also benefit those around us. The internal transformation that takes place within us will be reflected outside. When we act in a pure, balanced manner and become more considerate and caring, more compassionate, generous, and happy with the success of others — the ecology of our lives improves and those around us respond to that change. So the potential of yoga practice is not only for us, but it is also for others. It is important to remember this because it extends greater meaning and value to our practice and can help us overcome crises and periods of difficulty in our own practice.
Translated from Hebrew by Eleanor Schlesinger