Yoga is the realization of the Oneness of being; it is a state of being and not something that you can actually do. What we can do are practices that show us where we are resisting this natural state.
How to make Yoga benefits last overtime?
Too often, yoga practitioners unroll their mats for a peaceful 60 minute session and then walk out of the door to their studio and back into the confused chaos of life, wondering why those peaceful moments are not everlasting. But they can be.
The physical yoga practice, known as asana practice, is meant to be a controlled stressful situation within which the practitioner can practice releasing tension and remaining calm when he or she is being (sometimes literally) squeezed or stretched. We experience moments like these off of the mat every single day; moments where we instinctively want to react with anger, sadness or despair. The yoga practice helps us to discipline the mind and emotions so that they work for us rather than leading the way into further confusion or added drama.
The practice dissolves our perceived limitations about ourselves and our ability to stay elevated and to maintain a larger perspective in the tiny, squeezing moments of life. In a word, the yoga practice increases our awareness.
So what does this have to do with compassion?
Our own happiness comes from bringing happiness to others.
Likewise, our despair and our suffering arises from inflicting harm or suffering onto others.
If we were to completely purify our relationships with everyone around us, we would inevitably find that our natural state of mind is calm, serene and joyful. As my teacher Sharon Gannon, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga, likes to say, “How we treat others determines how others treat us. How others treat us determines how we see ourselves. How we see ourselves is, ultimately, who we are.” And so it is a very potent, and perhaps the most enlightening, practice to become keenly aware of how we are treating others. How we treat others begins with how we think about others and extends to include how we behaviour towards others, how we think about others, and the food that we eat. Yoga asana practiced jointly with kindness and compassion in each of these areas is the key to fully liberating ourselves. Oppositely, yoga asana practiced jointly with rudeness, callousness or aversion to others will most likely never lead to an enlightened, joyful state.
When yoga students are confused about why their practice is not helping them to remain calm off of their mats, my first question would be: what is your diet like? And how are your relationships with your family and closest friends? Often times, we fail to make the connection between our relationship with ourselves and our relationships with others. But this is the key…and it has never been a secret.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the oldest written texts on Yoga philosophy, there are listed five yamas, or ethical restraints. The first and most potent yama is called Ahimsa in sanskrit (the ancient language of Yoga). Ahimsa translates into English as non-harming. Doing all we can to avoid causing harm or suffering to others is a practice of compassion. Compassion, or ahimsa, is an active practice. That means doing all we can to avoid inflicting pain onto others, and further, to do all that we can to alleviate the present suffering of others. This understanding of compassion transforms the yoga practice from one of mundane exercise to an active and intentional way to live harmoniously within the web of life.
If Yoga is the realization of the Oneness of being, we cannot expect to become liberated through this practice without first observing honestly where we are treating other beings as if they are separate from ourselves. In 2018, the most gruesome and vivid example of treating other beings as objects or commodities is animal agriculture. In factory farms all over the world, sentient beings are being tortured, abused and brutally slaughtered for the sake of what some consider human benefit (i.e., the enjoyment of eating meat or wearing fur). What this atrocity of an industry is failing to recognize is that, by abusing the lives of others and treating others as separate from ourselves, we are only contributing to our own suffering. Perhaps the animal agriculture industry and so many humans’ willingness to contribute to it has led to the rising levels of cancer and other diseases both mental and physical amongst North Americans (including depression, anxiety and general confusion about oneself), as well as the destruction of the environment that we are so dependent on.
The yoga practice is not about touching our toes and standing on our heads, but sometimes these acts can reveal to us where we are holding on to limiting beliefs about ourself and the potential we have to live in harmony in this lifetime. In fact, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras rarely mention asana practice because asana practice without living a compassionate lifestyle is baseless. The foundation to our own happiness is to provide happiness to others. Thus, compassion is the central yoga practice and the means to cultivate everlasting peace in our lives, on and off of the mat.
Questioning the way we live our lives is not an easy process. It requires bravery, honesty, courage, self-love and a perspective of life that encompasses something greater than our own selfish desires. It requires first being unsatisfied with our own unhappiness and our inability to remain healthy physically and mentally, and then empowering ourselves to make changes to alleviate our suffering. It is the wisest choice to practice compassion in all that we do.
Start with you. Start with the food that is on your plate, the words that you say and the thoughts that you think.