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how yoga looks at life
Photography by samuel henderson

how yoga looks at life

by Robert Birnberg robert birnberg
Practice Yoga | What is Yoga?


my brother’s mullet

How yoga looks at life

Though human beings have the potential to experience boundless joy, most people would admit that suffering and sorrow are facts of life. According to the Sutras, this distress or duhkha comes from the mind, specifically from our habits. As long as we are alive, we are creating habits or samskaras, both consciously and unconsciously. These patterns are interconnected and exist in all areas of our lives. Our tastes, emotions, attitudes, beliefs and behavior are all linked to habits of body and mind. Samskaras are essential, as they help create a sense of identity, stability, and control. Therefore, habit-making serves an important function.

For instance, the habit of standing with the upper back rounded hides the chest and protects the heart. Holding the breath stops the flow of unpleasant emotions. Habitually telling lies helps us cope under pressure. Overeating serves as a reward for a difficult day. These familiar patterns have one thing in common: they help us feel better. They work... for a while.

Even my brother’s mullet hairstyle used to work. This short-in-front, long-in-back haircut defined him and expressed his twin values. His sholo once told the world he was someone who could, as he put it, “work all day and party all night.”

Things change

Life, however, (at least the material part) is constantly changing. Over time, even our best habits (or haircuts) can stop working. Responses to present-moment challenges from past experience are often inappropriate and inadequate. The result is increased suffering in daily life.

Eventually, a rounded back can lead to back pain and low self-esteem. Shallow, irregular breathing can contribute to asthma and depression. Lying often results in angry, confused relationships. And overeating is a contributing factor in numerous health issues. Simply put, yesterday’s solutions become today’s problems.

My brother, still sporting his mullet, can’t seem to land a job – or a date.

This is our dilemma, our mullet. A mind that is totally free of habits would be unstable and overwhelmed by life’s infinite choices, but years of unconscious conditioning confine us. So we are stuck in an eternal tug of war between the urge for freedom and the need for security.

Yoga’s solution

Yoga’s strategy for solving this age-old problem is ingenious. Rather than insisting that we stop creating habits, yoga encourages us to become fully involved in the habit making process. With yoga’s help, we can begin to create patterns consciously, becoming healthier, more positive versions of ourselves. When we use our native intelligence to refine our samskaras, we are linked with a universal power as steady as the seasons and as old as the tides.

To aid in this process, yoga recommends finding a person with the perspective and detachment to see us clearly, and the experience and skills to help us change. We need a teacher. (In the classical model, only one teacher.) Since the yoga teacher will teach largely by example, we must have a teacher who is equally committed to self-transformation, and who has a teacher. In other words, we need a teacher, who is also a student. For many of us, committing to a teacher is itself a new pattern. The old habits of stoic self-reliance and keeping our options open by not committing (which once worked) will now keep us from progressing on the yoga path.

The dynamics of transformation

The Yoga Sutras outline several components of conscious habit making, and guidelines for smooth, positive change. These include:

• Abhyasa - a new practice, habit, or pattern. It must be the correct practice, done gradually, for a long period of time, without interruption, and with the right attitude.

• Viragya - detachment. This is releasing, letting go of old patterns, the results of the old patterns and the emotions attached to both the patterns and the results.

• Tapas - refinement. Taking contrary actions to have a different experience of oneself. This is described as “cooking out the impurities.”

• Svadhyaya - reflection. Usually, this is with the help of a teacher, revealing the correct way to change a pattern. It is also an aid to measuring progress.

• Isvarapranidhana - willingness to change, teachability, emphasis on the quality of behavior, letting go of the results.

The eight limbs of yoga

The Sutras also name specific areas of life in which habits form, as well as tools and guidelines to create positive change in these areas. Collectively, the areas and tools are known as the eight limbs (ashtanga) of yoga. (Ed. – The Sanskrit term ashtanga does not refer to the modern branch of hatha yoga.)

The areas are: relationships, lifestyle, body, breath, senses and the mind (three limbs deal with the mind). Yoga’s transformational tools include: relationship counseling, lifestyle guidance, asana, pranayama, visualization, ritual, sound, and meditation, among others.

Refining and replacing outdated patterns through daily practice is the principle behind yoga’s three most popular and most recognizable tools: asana, pranayama, and meditation.

• Asana - Yoga postures replace our old and limiting neuromuscular patterns with better ones. Continued practice reshapes the spine and improves the body’s overall flexibility and strength.

• Pranayama - Breathing techniques are designed to replace short, shallow, irregular breathing with slower, deeper breath. Over time, pranayama vitalizes the system, stabilizes the mind, and brightens the emotions.

• Meditation - Visualization and other meditation techniques replace negative mental patterns with more positive ones. A distracted, dull or agitated mind is transformed into one that is focused, attentive and relaxed. As the mind becomes more stable and sattvic, an inner light begins to shine through for all to see.

Mini ksema

Yoga, therefore, is a process of constantly refining our habits and continuously improving our lives. With the help of a qualified teacher, we can choose the appropriate tools and practice regularly to achieve our goals.

The results are a richer, deeper life, a mind that is stable and free – and increasingly better hairstyles.

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