What is your purpose of practicing yoga ? Why do you do it ? What does it do for you ?

On the surface Yoga practice is great exercise. Asana and Pranayama how ever you happen to practice them are great for the body and mind. Given that the body and mind are so interrelated keeping the body in good health will also help to keep the mind in good health. Some might also practice yoga for temporary stress relief, deep relaxation, getting into your body and out of the constant chatter of the mind. You come to your practice with all of the struggles from the day and hopefully leave rejuvenated ready to face what ever comes your way. Although when challenging situations come up, things don’t go as you expected or deep emotions bubble up where is that peaceful feeling that you left your practice with ?

Physical health, relaxation, and a few moments of peace are nothing to be taken lightly and if that’s what brings you to Yoga your still doing much better than many others struggling to find those things in life. Although with a deeper understanding of the practice there is an opportunity for more than just a temporary relief. How about liberation, happiness independent of conditions, insight into who you are,  a sense of lasting peace that does not fade in the hard times as well as the good times.

Through my recent experience at a 10 day Vipassana course, during which we were encouraged not to practice yoga, a few things about my own practice and what Yoga means to me became a little more clear. It was apparent to me, that at some level i was indeed attached to yoga practice. That great feeling you get working the body, and the deep relaxation that comes when you are done. What an amazing feeling ! Who would not want to have that ? To what extent though is that useful ? Does yoga just become yet another thing in your life that you feel like you need to be happy ? Something outside of your self that is bringing you this happiness. If only i could practice yoga everyday , maybe a few times a week , ahhh then i would be really happy? That feeling of craving that might arise after a stressful day, “practicing some yoga would really make me feel better right now”. If you know anything about yoga philosophy you probability know that yoga is about being in the moment, allowing things to be as they are, contentment and non attachment. I make no claims to say that your not actually doing that, but really investigate your own experience especially when it comes to practicing yoga its self.

I really feel that the insight from Vipassana mediation has much to offer a Yoga practice. Turing it from a temporary relief to a real beginning of transformation and change. Here are the basics of Vipassana mediation and why it is useful:

Buddhism is primary based on what is called the four noble truths:

1) There is suffering

2) The origin of suffering is craving and aversion

3) There is a way to stop suffering

4) This is a path leading to the end of suffering ( Enlightenment )

You could go on in great detail about these four topics, but what is important for my purpose here is the second noble truth.  Simply put the very root of our suffering is because we crave things that we like and avoid things we don’t like. If the world was a perfect place and we could always get what we want and completely avoid the thing we don’t want then there would be no problem here. Unfortunately at least from my own experience that is not the case, sometimes we don’t get what we want and sometimes we can not avoid situations we would not like to be in. What is interesting here is that we often attribute the cause of this suffering to outside factors. If only i could acquire some thing or have some experience then i would be happy. Even when we get that thing or experience we are still not satisfied looking for yet another external thing to bring us happiness. If only that person would change or act differently to me then i would be happy. We attribute our happiness outside of our self’s because we don’t understand what is going on at a deeper level. How do we maintain peace and balance of mind though all of life’s ups and downs ?

It is said that there are five things that make up our experience:

1) Physical Matter

2) Consciousness

3) Perception / Evaluation

4) Feeling / Sensation

5) Reaction / Mental Conditioning

With everything that we experience through any of the 6 sense doors ( Sound, Sight, Smell, Taste, Touch, Mind), anything we experience outside or that we generate inside with our own minds:

We first are aware of it through Consciousness. We then perceive it through the lens of our past experience and conditioning, evaluating the raw data and making logical sense out of it. That evaluation results in a positive, negative or neutral sensation arising somewhere in the body (regardless if we are able to detect it). We then react to that sensation with craving or aversion. Wanting to hold on the the pleasant sensations and get rid of the negative ones. This is not something we are normally directly aware of, when very strong emotions or sensations come up we are very aware of them. When very subtle emotions or sensations come up we are not aware but the deepest level of the mind is always aware and reacting to sensations on the body. We think that things outside our of selves are making us feel good or bad, where we are recognizing the object, evaluating it and then reacting to the sensation that was produced. Mind and Body are interconnected, with an experience in the mind manifests a sensation in the body. It is in fact our reaction to the sensations that we are holding on to or pushing away, not any person , experience or material object that is the root of our habitual reactions.

Through the practice of Vipassana you first focus your attention on the breath to calm the thoughts and focus the mind. You do this in a very specific way concentrating on the very small area right underneath your nostrils. Simply observing the breath as it passes through the gateway of your nose, in and out. You begin to become aware of the very subtle sensation that the touch of the breath has as the inhale and exhale come and go. As the breath becomes more subtle the sensations become more subtle and your mind becomes more subtle maintaining awareness of the increasingly subtle sensations. Eventually your mind becomes so focused that you are constantly aware of this subtle level of sensation that is always there, right under the threshold of ordinary awareness, even if the breath is flowing or not. At that point you are ready to begin to scan your entire body , bringing this focused mind, becoming aware of the subtle sensations that are present through out the entire body. These sensations will manifest in many ways, some times pleasant, some times unpleasant, some times you don’t notice anything, sometimes extremely blissful, sometimes painful or horrific. Just like life sometimes good , some times bad. What will become very clear is that all of these sensations are impermanent, constantly changing, pulsing, vibrating. They come and the go, stay for a little while and then dissipate, arise and pass almost instantaneous. When you get to this very subtle level, nothing is solid that you can hold on to, even a very solidified pain when probed deeper is changing and pulsing. If all these sensations are impermanent and constantly changing what is the purpose of clinging to or avoiding them ? As soon as you reacted it has already come and gone. The practice now is to simply, objectively observe the sensations with equanimity. Meaning seeing them for exactly what they are, not identifying with them, not reacting to them, allow them to be and pass through you. To the extent you can be aware of sensations and have equanimity towards them, the process of purification and liberation has begun.

Understanding this how do we relate it to Yoga practice. In Yoga you are already slowing down the mind, focusing on the breath,  you are already aware of sensations in your body. What may be missing is this concept of equanimity. Balance, non reactivity, freedom from attachment or aversion. On the surface we all understand this, but it can be really hard to do, speaking for my self at least. It can also be a fine line, for instance how can you approach a pose with complete non attachment yet still exert some effort. If your in a simple forward fold, you get in there and reach your edge. Some craving may arise to want to go a little bit deeper, you almost have your chest on your thighs but not just yet. At this point what is really the goal ? Is it to get as deep as you possibly can in the pose, get your chest flat against your legs ? Or is it to bring your self to your edge, where you need to be in that moment and let go. Become aware of the sensations in your body and observe them with equanimity. If there is a pleasant sensation that arises because maybe the stretch feels good, maybe your deeper than you have ever been before, don’t become attached to it just observe it knowing that it is impermanent and will change. If there is an unpleasant sensation that arises because maybe there is a little bit of strain, or something in that moment triggered an emotional response, don’t push it away just observe it knowing that this too will pass.

Combining the insight of Vipassana meditation with Yoga practice may be able to transform and not just bring temporary relief. Don’t believe me because logically this all makes sense, experiment, practice, know for your self through your own direct experience. Go to the level where the subtle mind is reacting with attachment or aversion to the sensations throughout the body. Our mind has been trained to react, to cling to the things we like , avoid the things we don’t. Not recognizing the impermanent nature of all these sensations we try so hard to control but never can. It’s not too late, this pattern can be changed with time and practice. Practice patiently with determination. Bring this awareness into your yoga practice. What ever sensation arises observe it, as it is, with equanimity. Bring this awareness into your meditation, what ever arises observe it, as it is, with equanimity. Free your self from the habit of reacting and just observe, allow sensations to be, allow your self to be. Be Liberated !