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Yoga is a Philosophy for Real Life

“Oh, I wish I could, but I don’t want to.” – Phoebe Buffay, Friends

We don’t always feel like doing the right thing

As could perhaps be said for all quotable quotes, this line (at least in our family) is perhaps the most quoted line from one of television’s most quoted shows. Why? Because its hilarity belies the fact that it contains a great human truth: We don’t always feel like doing the right thing.

We don’t always feel like not snapping at the person irritating us. We don’t always feel like telling the truth. We don’t always feel like not keeping our sister’s awesome sweater that she left in our apartment. We don’t always feel like pausing what we’re doing to help someone out.

One of the reasons that we practice is so that we do the right thing – even when we don’t want to – more often.

Moods powerfully affect what we say and do

What is it that causes nice folks like you, me, and Phoebe to say (and really, truly mean it), “Oh, I wish I could, but I don’t want to.”?

In a nutshell, we’re reacting to a mood. Moods don’t happen to us. They are something we – our body and mind – create. Our mood might have us feeling irritated or tired. Or greedy. Or perfectly content doing what we are already doing. Or driven to complete our own plan for the day.

Yes, we feel all these ways. But, if we wait a moment or two, chances are high that we will feel another way. Moods are like that. They’re fleeting. They float through us, casting shadows, revealing light, like clouds across a sky.

Moods have less power when we practice yoga

So, how can a yoga practice help us navigate our moods so that we respond to life like the kind of people we hope to be?

One of yoga philosophy’s most foundational texts is The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali. The most oft quoted line from this work is its second verse. In Sanskrit, it reads “Yogas citta vritti nirodha.” The first word is obvious. Citta is our consciousness. Vritti means moods (and all other activities of the mind such as thoughts, emotions, reactions, and beliefs). The last word, nirodha, means still, calm or quiet.

Patanjali is saying that the experience of yoga is a moment (or more) when the activities of the mind still. The practice of yoga, it follows, is a way to create nirodha, a still state of mind.

Contemplative practices teach us to recognize distractions

In his fourth verse, Patanjali goes on to tell us why this is so important:

“When there is movement in our consciousness, the mind tends to identify with the images that it creates.” – Yoga Sutra 1.4 as translated by Alan Finger

We all learn as we embark on contemplative practices that our mind is relentlessly drawn outward by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings. In fact, I would hazard that this lesson is one we learn almost immediately. Songbirds, traffic, the smell of the bakery across the street, flashes of lightning, and the like are all capable of luring you away from your still, silent center.

While our senses are magnetic distractions, for sure, even more compelling are the “creations” of our minds – thoughts, dreams, worries, reactions, feelings, and moods. Essentially, these distractions pull us away from the present moment.

NOW is the only moment we have to be the kind of person we want to be

The very first verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras states, “Now, yoga happens.” Yoga can ONLY happen now, in this moment. Contemplative practice makes us more resilient in the face of distractions. In a single yoga class, we might have hundreds of opportunities to recognize when a mental “creation” like a mood has stolen us away from the experience of the posture we are in.

Gentle practice helps us stay in the present

Our response to our fickle focus is the most important part. Do we judge ourselves harshly? Do we get frustrated and pack it in when we realize we’ve wandered off with a thought or daydream for the 99th time? Hopefully not, as this simply ensures that the day that we stop practicing is on the horizon.

A better choice would be to take a breath and gently return again to our chosen focus – whether that’s the silence of meditation, the sensations of each yoga posture, or our intention to behave as the person we yearn to be.

What does this look like in the real world?

Phoebe would probably still think or even utter her hilariously real line. But, after a breath, she would say, “Hang on. I’m being ridiculous. Of course, I’ll do it!” Because Phoebe, like you and me, is the kind of person whose desire to do the right thing lasts longer than the few moments of her mood.

Are you curious about this and other real-life applications of yoga philosophy? My new Zoom class called Demystifying the Yoga Sutras starts next week – there are only 2 spots left!