Political scenarios in many parts of the world are quite unsettled right now. From the US to ongoing refugee situations and terrorist attacks, things are feeling unpredictable and unsteady. Many of us are personally affected. In the meantime, we are all doing our best in daily life to make clear decisions in our relationships with friends, family and at work, while maintaining a sense of contentment, peace and mental steadiness. However our collective levels of stress are high, and our technology-obsessed lives leave little space for time-out. Whatever your lens of perceiving and engaging with the world is, it’s an unsettled time.
As a long-time overseas human rights worker who suffered from emotional, physical and mental burnout (not an uncommon story!), this for me, is where yoga came in. Yoga ultimately helped me find a sense of stillness in the every day, to decompress and then be able to re-engage with life in a more healthful way; from a place of discernment, clarity and a more sustained sense of compassion.
I’ve found both the yoga psychology and practice useful.
I’ve had an ongoing keen interest in the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali (particularly Chapter 2) since 2015 when I decided to become a yoga teacher. I completed the Yoga for Svastha: Teacher Training and Personal Well-Being Program in Bali with Dr. Ganesh Mohan. A friend and I spent the year reflecting on what had been shared with us in the training and consciously integrating what we’d learnt into our daily lives. It was really interesting, (and fun!) to meet up with a bunch of close friends a year later at the next training, and see how much we had all shifted and integrated some of the knowledge we had been taught.
The Yoga Sutras, far from being out-dated, are a yoga psychology text with parallels in Positive Psychology and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. They provide a practical philosophy and tool kit for de-conditioning our mind, so that we can let go of unhealthy thought patterns and are left with our best selves.
We learnt that the starting point of yoga is not actually the body but the mind, and that quietening, stilling and steadying the mind, gives us the willpower for both internal and external change.
Actually, it turns out that the whole aim of yoga is not to be super fit (although this is a welcome by product of a regular practice(!)), but it is in fact stillness: citta vrtti nirodhah “yoga is stilling the changing states of the mind” (Yoga Sutra 1.2).
I’ve begun to see glimpses of this stillness of mind since I started practicing and teaching. For example, when my body feels balanced and light from a good asana practice present with the breath, and my mind is relaxed and still from pranayama and meditation.
We never stay in this state though (as we are not Buddha). This is because have three modes of mind – sattva (stillness, lightness), rajas (energy that causes thoughts to arise), tamas (energy that causes thoughts to subside). These modes of mind or ‘gunas’ are intrinsic to the physiology of the mind. They are normal qualities of the mind, but it is an imbalance of them that creates problems.
Although we may never have complete stillness of the mind, we can stay in this state of sattva for longer periods of time through practice gaining some stability of mind. This is key because it allows us to see whatever thoughts and feelings come up and be with them, rather than be reactionary (a rajas imbalance), or feel dull and overwhelmed (a tamas imbalance). We can then, ideally, choose to take action or not from a place of discernment in which our quality of awareness is clear.
This is being in our true nature.
I’ve since had the pleasure of studying Yogic Mindfulness with A.G and Indra Mohan, in Amsterdam, which re-iterated and further clarified the deep wisdom found in the Yoga Sutras. Yogic mindfulness is to be in a state of continued awareness, attaining freedom from the agitated and dull thoughts in the mind and bringing about this sense of sattva.
Why “yogic mindfulness” to attain this sense of stillness and not just a purely seated meditation practice?
Dr. Ganesh Mohan explained later on (another trip to Bali!) during the Svastha Yoga Therapy Program, that the physiology of our spinal cord affects our thinking. The nervous system in fact starts at the tips of our fingers and goes through our spine to our brain. The ability to maintain a neutral spine in the yoga practice and for some (but not all) of the day is important.
Consequently, doing an asana practice before pranayama or meditation means we come to the seated practices with a less disrupted mind. Note: a breath based yoga practice is integral, as the breath is the foundational link between body and mind.
Yoga, far from being an elitist pastime, is a revolutionary act rooted in tradition and science, which is gaining more and more relevance these days – a holistic approach to wellbeing of mind and body that enables us to be as clear, perceptive, compassionate and discerning as we can be.
First published by Network Yoga Therapy Amsterdam, October 2016 here. This is the second (slightly rewritten) version.