“There is just enough suffering to get you in the door,” writes Michael Stone in The Inner Tradition of Yoga, “so that is our starting point.” I love this viewpoint – it highlights the simple fact that some discomfort, be it mild or intense, is often what first propels to yoga. For some, it may be physical suffering, such as a sore back, tight shoulders or hips, and for others it could be discomfort on a mental level, such as anxiety, worry, or restlessness. You might have been drawn to yoga because of a major life shift, including changing relationships or illness. Whatever the reason may be, most of us come into the arms of yoga seeking some relief, and for the most part, yoga meets us exactly where we are at and then graciously offers us more.
I first came to yoga because I was finding my new job as a Montessori preschool teacher quite stressful. Days of trying to keep calm and hold my little gaggle of youngens engaged in their work was much harder than my training presented. So I began taking yoga classes 2-3 times per week to help with work stress, and the practice offered more than I anticipated. I didn’t expect that I would cry during almost every savasana, and for seemingly no apparent reason. Tears would just run down my cheeks, and yet I can’t say it felt exactly like sadness. Somehow it felt more like a lifting of the heavy burdens I placed on myself, and the tensions I held in my body were released. I felt lighter and for the most part, happier. After class there was also this palpable amount of space in my mind, whereas before I felt hemmed in by my inner voices. Those voices had a lot to say about being the “perfect” teacher. To finally begin to release this pressure on myself was so liberating. I could just BE, without needing any stars of approval. And as sweet as it was to touch my toes again, and to feel stronger and more vibrant, I was deeply mesmerized by the subtle inward process – I was softening. I naturally begin to treat myself with much more kindness, and this began to affect my teaching and ways of relating with others. Where once I thought yoga might offer me a nice stretch and some peace of mind, I soon discovered a practice that would continuously offer up areas of healing, deeper expansion, and joy.
I feel it is so worthwhile to go beyond what we thought we came to yoga for, and open ourselves up to the possibility that much more awaits us through steady practice. If we focus in too much on only loosening up our hamstrings, touching our toes or perfecting some challenging pose, I am afraid we are narrowing our view of the full potential yoga has to offer. To rally on yoga’s behalf, I often tell my students that we are not only stretching our bodies, we are also stretching our minds and our hearts. As teachers, we might offer back-bends or hip-openers as a target group of poses for a class, however the bigger picture is that much more is happening through the practice and we can only hint at the depth of this unfolding journey.
Taking this concept of suffering, and how this might be a gateway not only into the doors of yoga, but more importantly, into one’s deeper inner unfolding, we have only to look to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. With 196 pith teachings on the nature of consciousness, we are taught early on that much of our suffering comes from our anxious, thought-ridden minds and the disconnection from our hearts and our true nature. Imagine, thought-ridden minds! Way before our crazy digital age, Patanjali was speaking to this universal problem some 2000 years ago. For most people, the mind’s thoughts are a continuous stream of related and unrelated ideas, pouring forth, looping over and repeating back on themselves with rarely a moment resting in the present. With the mind’s thoughts so rampant, we are basically cut off from our body – we become “talking heads”, to quote my teacher Reggie Ray.
Now bring in the practice of yoga. The beauty of yoga is that as we work with the alignment of our poses and our breath, we are directly affecting our mind. We are loosening the tight grip of the mind as the director, producer and star of the entire show. We have done this by simply giving our mind a task – attend to the body. Because the mind likes tasks, it accepts, meanwhile unbeknownst to it, we are encouraging the thinking mind to drop into the depths of the body. The body, when entered with our keen attention, has so much to offer – no less than a galaxy of wisdom, guidance, and space. The mind also LOVES the breath. As the mind dances more slowly with the breath, matching her ebb and flow, one’s thoughts begin to have more space between them, maybe even spacing out entirely as the union of breath, body and presence merge. Thus often when we come out of our yoga sessions, we will likely feel this correlation of a more spacious body and a more spacious mind. With our mind now less busy with rampant thinking, we can also begin to hear and feel more clearly the guiding thoughts or feelings of our body and heart.
As to the heart, well, there is much to expand upon … like I expressed in my own experience, a regular practice also encourages a stretching in our hearts. For most people, the stretching or softening that first emerges is a kindness towards oneself. It comes gradually, once we let go of getting it right and move into a non-judgmental experience of simply being with each pose as fully as we can. Yoga meets us directly, with our hips, our bellies, our tight hamstrings, our shakiness, our anxieties and our fears. It does not shy away from the places we would like to hide. And what it asks of us is to breathe into all of these disconnected places back into wholeness again, to welcome them all back into our heart. So it is not just a softening around your tight places, your hips or back, it is a softening around your anxiety, it is softening around your anger, it is a softening around your regrets, it is a softening around your high demands. With practice, you will come to find that your heart is able to stretch to embrace all of you, exactly as you are. This kindness, as it is kindled within us, grows into compassion, and begins to expand outwardly, to our loved ones, our friends and beyond. Our practice for ourselves evolves into a practice for the whole world.
The purpose of this writing is an invitation for you to come to your practice with a more expansive view as to what may unfold. Yoga’s basket of offerings is abundant.