Yoga is a practice of change and transformation. I think anyone who has sustained a regular practice for more than a few weeks will agree that this is undeniably true. Yet, despite this fact, a surprising number of students come to me frustrated by the lack of change or by the type of change they are seeing on their mats.
You see, the change that yoga creates does not necessarily follow any trajectory or schedule of change that a right-minded person would plan. In fact, yoga’s change can be quite ephemeral – showing up and then disappearing. It can be glacial – so slow as to be nearly imperceptible. It can travel a route filled with as many backward steps as forward. And this route can include detours that no one in their right mind would choose to take.
To receive yoga’s changes we must be persistent in our practice. More so, we must be profoundly patient. We must set aside any and all expectations lest we be crushed by disappointment. We must hold our successes lightly, with the knowledge that nothing is permanent and everything is subject to change (often at a moment’s notice). We must be willing to explore new territory which can at times be frightening, frustrating, and sometimes painful (mostly to the ego). We must resolve to be as content in the valleys as we are on the peaks. We must persevere as we journey across miles of deserts and wander the occasional plateau. Change like this, can be confusing to say the least.
Allow me to digress for a moment into the worlds of paleontology and philosophy to provide some insight into the specific nature of change to which yoga is exposing us.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a geologist and paleontologist. As a paleontologist, he took part in the discovery of fossils now known as Peking Man. These are the remains of a male who walked the earth nearly 800,000 years ago. Though the man who was Peking Man could never have dreamed of the scientific advancements he would be responsible for in the unimaginable future, his skeleton has revealed a huge amount of information to us about our heritage and evolution as a species.
To me, it seems that Tielhard’s work on this important paleontological find left its fingerprints on his spirituality. His philosophical writings reveal a deep sense of optimism, hope and a profound patience in God’s plan and God’s time.
Cynthia Bourgeault, a Christian writer and thinker herself, paraphrases Tielhard in Monday’s email from the Center for Action and Contemplation:
“… rather than the very small snapshots represented in our short lifetimes, evolution’s span is measured in eons, not decades. When we lose sight of the cosmic scale, the result is anguish and impatience. If we measure human progress only by our usual historical benchmarks—the span of a presidential administration, the not-yet 250 years of the American democratic experiment, or the “mere” 2,500 years of Western civilization—we are still only catching the smallest snippet of the inevitable process …”
A faith such as this in “the process” requires an understanding that as special, unique and precious as our individual existences are, we are each but a tiny piece of the magnificent, unfathomably large whole of Creation – a creation that spans thousands of generations of lifetimes. We play our part, putting our personal gifts, talents and passions to use, content in the knowledge that we may never see the end result of our actions. We trust that the intentions of our actions will ripple beyond us through time.
Contemplating Tielhard’s thoughts is freeing in a historical moment when the amount of “work to be done” can seem overwhelming and slightly paralyzing. It is a reminder that “small snippets of progress” are what make up all great change and growth. It inspires me to do my own small “right thing” with faith and trust that it matters not only now, but in the long run. On a smaller scale, contemplating Tielhard’s thoughts frees me on my yoga mat as well, which brings me back to where we began, but with a new perspective.
Yoga asks us to have faith in its long-range plans for us. Long-range in yoga is a little like “God’s time.” To the surprise (and frustration) of many new yoga students, yoga works in years and even decades rather than days or weeks. (Speaking of slow, it took me actual years to figure that out.) Because of that, we must resist relying on mental “snapshots” of our practice each day for satisfaction. Instead, yoga requires us to look at the whole scope of our practice – from our first day to today – to see how far we’ve come.
When we do this, not only do we realize that our physical practice has changed dramatically (proving that “small snippets” of progress do add up to great change), we also realize that these changes that were once so tantalizing are now almost incidental. For the “other” gifts that yoga has given us – peace of mind, contentment, and an ability to navigate the ups and downs of life with poise and equanimity – have changed the way we are experiencing our entire life. It’s at this moment that our view of our practice shifts to what Tielhard calls a “cosmic scale.”
We suddenly understand that each time we unroll our yoga mat is just a “small snippet” in a practice designed to sustain us for a lifetime. If we step back and squint a little, we may even be able to imagine the possibility that as our practice changes us, we are changing the world around us. And that, in some unforeseeable future, the world may be a different place indeed because we (and so many others) had faith in a practice designed to create transformation over the long haul.