“The entire outside world is based on your thoughts and mental attitude. The entire world is your own projection. Your values may change within a fraction of a second… That is why Yoga does not bother much about changing the outside world. There is a Sanskrit saying, ‘As the mind, so the person; bondage or liberation are in your own mind.’ If you feel bound, you are bound. If you feel liberated, you are liberated. Things outside neither bind nor liberate you; only your attitude toward them does that.” ~ Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The mind is a powerful thing. We know that outside of managing thousands of life-maintaining bodily functions, our mind is capable of appreciating art, processing wisdom, cultivating relationships, self-reflection, and so on. I remember a friend challenging me once by posing the idea that when we were not in one another’s presence, how did we know the other continued to exist? Whaaaaaaat? ::mind blown:: That is the power and depth of the human mind, which sets us apart from other animals. We also know that when we experience trauma, depression or anxiety – whether through biological/chemical challenges or environmental disturbances – our mind can feel as if it has taken over the controls and we are just a passenger in our own bodies.
I’ve sat with many clients who believe whole-heartedly that they are not capable of managing their anxious or depressed thoughts. And in some severe trauma cases, physical changes in the brain pathways can result in some hard to overcome “automatic” behavioral responses. There can be an argument made for one’s readiness to change, or potential barriers to finding hope for change. Fear, self-doubt and insecurity can be some pretty powerful emotional influencers. Yet, in many philosophical, spiritual, physical and mental sciences, there is a pervasive belief in our innate ability to learn to gain control of our mind.
This week in YTT had me experiencing just that. Clearly with the amount of mindfulness and meditation I advocate for, it was a great learning moment for me to practice what I preach. The first week of class left me super sore. Two and a half hours of yoga will do that to a beginner yogi! I went into my second week feeling a little stiff, but after our morning asana (practice), my body felt loose and my mind was happy. I physically felt stronger, and that sort of tangible progress is always up-lifting. And then we had a second practice that employed a beautiful group exercise in which I was able to execute a balance posture for the first time. Not only did it bring enlightenment to a personal struggle (to be continued in a future post), but I felt I had conquered my nemesis in balance poses. Double score!
And then we hit our third practice. Class was led by one of our “seniors”, a lovely soul close to her graduation. Her strength is incredibly admirable, and she truly embodies the physical effortlessness in which you’d imagine an experienced yoga instructor to possess. I swear she was floating on her mat. Mid-way through practice, I felt myself struggling. My feet started feeling like elephant feet, and someone turned up the gravitational pull in my section of the room. My wrists started throbbing in every downward dog (typically a “rest” posture), which only increased my aggravation. At one point, I caught myself coming out of a posture to just stand on my mat rather to relying on a rest posture more suitable to the flow.
In a moment like this, we have two choices. Acceptance, or resistance. When we resist, we detach from our Self. We allow our wounded parts, or even external factors, to determine our reaction. We turn away from higher guidance and miss the lesson in our challenge. When we accept, we acknowledge our limitations as a strength. We release judgment and create space for growth. We practice compassion and forgiveness in a way that allows us to quickly move through our blocks and find peace. And while an intense moment may escalate quickly, it is important to remember we ALWAYS have a choice.
So as I am in the practice of choosing acceptance, and have developed the habit of self-reflecting continuously throughout the day, I was able to catch this moment of potential defeat. I stood on my mat and returned to my breath, something that serves to not only physically calm my body, but spiritually and mentally grounds me. I connected back to the positive feelings I experienced in my earlier asana practice, and challenged the sneaky thoughts that tried to convince me I was too weak to become a yoga teacher.
I was able to finish the class from a much calmer place, taking note of the areas that I would dedicate extra attention to improving. It is in this example that I embodied the yogic principal of which Sri Swami Satchidananda spoke. But how do I do that off my mat and in the craziness of “normal” life? It is one thing to be in an environment that encourages mindfulness (as in a therapy or coaching session), it’s entirely another thing to be driving down the road and get cut off while spilling hot coffee on yourself.
One of the beautiful aspects of YTT so far is the understanding that yoga is more than a work out. It’s ancient roots bring us wisdom and insight into a way of living that can be life-changing for so many. We are living in a reality today where even the most basic of interactions can be politically charged, and conflict is almost our default way of seeking resolution to difficult matters. I am sure I will expand on this in future musings, but for today I believe it is enough to plant the seed of hope that we already have access to a profound solution.
When we take a simple principle, a single belief, that we can control our mind - that if we just shift our attitude - our entire world can change. For a moment, can you imagine this rippling outward? Close your eyes. Connect with a thought rooted in love. Find a happy memory, and feel it warm your heart. Now allow this warmth to spread throughout your whole body, and then beyond. Fill the room with your warmth and love, and spread it out to your neighbors, your entire street, your entire town. Can you send that love and warmth across your state? Your country? The globe?
Know that you can return to this space any time you choose. Know that in any interaction, in any challenge, in any moment, you have the CHOICE to find this space again.