You probably heard me say this in class, as I too have heard it from my teacher.
Richard Freeman, one of the masters of modern Yoga wrote a whole book about this idea: “The Mirror of Yoga”. Sadhguru also famously said: “Yoga is a mirror to look at ourselves from within”
Our yoga practice is a potent tool which can change our life, and give us insight into parts of ourselves which we may never been conscious of. What we experience and do (or don’t do) on the mat is a direct reflection of how we think about and participate in life.
How (and if) we arrive to the mat, what we focus on during practice, and how we use what we have learnt can reveal a lot about our character. This insight can be the most fertile ground for transformation. Becoming more aware of these patterns and belief systems, known in Yoga as “samskaras” can become a process of reflection from which we can learn and grow as an individual.
Ask yourself this:
Am I a disciplined person? Do I plan and prioritize well? Am I often late? How often do I cancel my Yoga class? Do I take things personally very easily? Am I rigid and avoidant of changes? Do I seek perfection? Am I hard on myself? Do I often have injuries or pain in my body? Do I push myself? Am I happy to Netflix binge for hours? Do I avoid challenges or discomfort? Am I an introvert? Extrovert? Do I like small or large classes? Do I prefer slow classes, or am I drawn to the dynamic sweaty ones?
These are just a few questions which can help us mirror our world within. Noticing tendencies around our practice, how and if we arrive, how and where we unroll our mat, our motivation and thoughts during practice is a place where we can begin to reflect on our patterns. The same patterns which we are likely to find in our life off the mat.
As a teacher, I often notice high-energy, physically strong people gravitate towards the vigorous Ashtanga yoga classes. These students have a lot of "tapas" -a commitment to show up- some students have never skipped a class and much can be learned from their sense of discipliine! But, sometimes, the practice can reveal a pattern of ambition, perfection and (conscious or unconscious) competitive streak as the student strives to achieve the asana. This may be accompanied by unnecessary tension in the body, shortness of breath, and mental distraction. Sometimes, it may look like speeding through class, as if just wanting to check the practice off the to-do-list. My job is to provide cues which can stimulate internal reflection on these samskaras- “slow down; control your breath, empty the mind, go gentle…”
If you recognize yourself in this example, as a student your work is to notice how your body and mind respond to your patterns- are you sore and very tired after class? Do you feel famished, in need of food to replace the energy expended in class? Are you over-stimulated rather than calm? Can you begin to create connection between your “samskara” and health? Can you begin to bring more balance in that aspect of your life, including approaching your practice and life with more “ahimsa”- compassion, acceptance and nonviolence for yourself. Similarly, if you are the type who is regularly late for class- do you notice similar patterns in your life off the mat? Are you an over-scheduler? An optimist with your planning? Or are there other reasons why you are chronically late? Does this affect your work performance, relationships, practice commitment etc?
In one of my favorite books “A Life Worth Breathing” senior yoga teacher Max Strom reminds us that "To control your time is to control your life force.” Yoga philosophy reminds us that being late, just as interrupting people mid-sentence is a way of taking time (or word) from someone else- “asteya” – taking what is not mine, or as it literally translates into stealing. I write with no judgement: We have ALL done this at some point in our lives. But can we become aware of how these patterns affect our way of being in this life?
We can learn so much about ourselves through Yoga, and with that awareness begin to challenge and change our “samskaras” which we have so grown to accept. We may even notice that some of those behaviors are not even truly ours and do not serve us. They might have been inherited from our parents, or conditioned culturally - for example, the over-achiever, so-busy type, who tends to cancel last minute because of their work- is a reflection of the society we live in, which values us as busy, working, producing parts of the system.
Once we create these connections, there is an opportunity to create new patterns. To create positive change that supports our wellbeing, opening space for a more authentic life expression.
How to do this? Here some ideas:
- Set an intention for your day or for your week that is realistic, supportive and honest for your mind and for your body.
- Commit to your yoga practice in a self reflective way: being a student of yourself first.
- Listen to your body speak to you: Is it tight, sore, tired? Which parts are flexible which are not? Where do I hold tension, stress, anxiety? What is my body trying to tell me?
- Practice regularly (in class, or at home): this is an indication of your self-discipline and ability to create positive change in your life (“Tapas”). You will soon begin to place greater value upon yourself, your health & wellbeing.
- Be open to transformation: quieting the mind, and opening the heart is a way to release stagnant old ways and ideas about ourselves that may no longer be useful. The energy of these resides in our bodies, in our tissues and in our organs- and manifests in our health. While letting go sounds like a good idea, this is no easy task- our process can be a stressful one, accompanied by resistance to change and full of triggers. Practice staying with ALL of these feelings. Become a witness to your process, always grounding in your breath and kindness. Creating positive change can be a long transformative and a non-linear process of getting to know ourselves. Always remember to infuse this process with compassion and self-love.
PHOTOS: Sanjin Kastelan