[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]The yoga is not for exercise. It is for looking at the soul. That is all. – Guruji (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) [/mk_blockquote]
You’re not alone if this pronouncement from the father of Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, makes you pause. After all, we spend a inordinate amount of time and energy learning how to arrange our bodies into yoga postures. We work hard to get stronger. We are persistent in coaxing flexibility from our tight muscles and connective tissue. We show up regularly to break a sweat. The exercise of yoga is not easy.
All of us, at one time or another, come face to face with a posture that eludes us. Whether it’s a frightening pose or one our body isn’t yet ready for, it is frustrating not to be able to do something. Sometimes (and these can be the most frustrating times), it’s a mental issue – it’s a posture we’ve pulled off once or twice, but still derails us each and every time we try it. Whatever the reason, over and over again, on my mat and others’, I’ve watched elusive postures become a bit of an obsession.
We hammer away at them physically. (More hard work. More sweat.) We “noodle” with them even when we’re not on our mat. (What if I tried it this way? What was it I saw the man across the room do?) We berate ourselves. (Why on earth can’t I do it? Why am I such a chicken?) And, at the end of our practice, it feels as if the only posture we did was the one we couldn’t do. We can’t even remember all of the postures that made up the rest of our practice. Postures like this can be like an eclipse.
The eclipsing tendency of negative thoughts isn’t limited to those of us who spend a great deal time jumping around on rubber rectangles. In fact, psychologist Dan O’Grady says that our negative and critical thoughts are like Velcro, they stick and hold; whereas our positive thoughts are like Teflon, they slide away. We have to deliberately choose to hold onto positive thoughts before they “imprint.” When we don’t make that choice, the positive slides away while the negative (i.e. the one posture out of 30 that we didn’t pull off) sticks with us like Velcro.
Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditation: Turning Toward the Good (February 18, 2016), expands on this idea: “Neuroscience can now demonstrate the brain indeed has a negative bias; the brain prefers to constellate around fearful, negative, or problematic situations. In fact, when a loving, positive thought comes your way, you have to savor it consciously for at least fifteen seconds before it can harbor and store itself in your ‘implicit memory,’ otherwise it doesn’t stick. We must indeed savor the good in order to significantly change our regular attitudes and moods. And we need to strictly monitor all the “Velcro” negative thoughts.”
In short, the choice to “savor the good” is not just a sweet slogan for a refrigerator magnet. It’s an important way to retrain ourselves to live life in a way that inspires us, invigorates us and instills in us a deeply rooted optimism. As you can imagine, retraining our minds away from a natural bias is not easy. It takes a lot of practice. Where better to do this practice, then, than a yoga mat? After all, each time we unroll our mat, we have many chances to draw our awareness back to the positive. We can pat ourselves on the back for simply showing up. We can savor postures that come easily. We can celebrate postures that we finally conquer. Even in postures that do not go well, we can choose to focus on what we can learn through our mistakes.
This close look at our thoughts, reactions and inner monologue is the beginning of the work that Pattabhi Jois says is at the heart of yoga. As we watch ourselves on our mats – not the feats we accomplish with our bodies, but the way we respond to these feats and also our failures – we are taking a good, hard look at our soul. Each time we redirect our minds to savor the positive we release the Velcro grip of our negative thoughts. We do this day after day. Over time, savoring the positive becomes as second nature as settling into a well-aligned downward facing dog. At this point, we find that yoga is changing the way we experience our lives. It is touching us – body, mind and spirit.
The next time you find yourself caught up in the hub-bub of your yoga practice – the hard physical work, the laser focus on what you still can’t do rather than on all that you can do – remember that this is nothing but distraction. Rather than helping you to advance your practice, obsessing over the physical practice is eclipsing the real purpose of your practice, which is decidedly not physical. You are not setting aside regular time for practice to twist into a pretzel or to stand on your head. No indeed. You unroll that mat to create space in your days for some spiritual stretching and reflecting. You jump around on your mat to make room in your life for quiet and stillness.
When you practice, you are, to borrow words from Jois, taking a look at your soul. With practice, what you see changes. One day, you’ll take a look and smile brightly because the light of the good within you will no longer be eclipsed by the things you’d like to change.