People were suffering long ago. People are suffering today. Old age is suffering. Sickness, the loss of loved ones, our own impending death – these all point us to question what our life is about. While we can look for philosophical or religious answers to the deep questions of “why am I breathing?”, yoga implores us to look directly into our body and breath itself to learn the answers.
In other words, we have what we are looking for. Or, we are what we are looking for. Opening a book or searching the internet is already moving off the path of liberation from suffering. Yet if we don’t know how to look at our self, then we need to open a book or search the internet for the answers, or to seek the council of a yogi.
The trouble is that when we look at our self – body, breath, mind, heart – without the guidance of teachers and a tradition, we are confronted with obstacles such as self-loathing. However, and this is a very subtle point, when we just begin to practice yoga we don’t recognize obstacles as obstacles. Instead, we misidentify the obstacles as our true self. In other words, we believe the negative thoughts we have about our self. We identify with feelings of anger, or self-hate. We look at our body with dismay because we perceive our body as our self.
When we have guidance, either by a living yogi, a book, or perhaps an illuminating experience, then we can begin to recognize obstacles as obstacles. We begin to see that the emotion of the moment is not who I am, and that, while I have a body, I am not only my body, I am also free from my body in this moment.
As a competitive swimmer from seven years old until 21, I identified myself with my fastest times. I could do the 200-yard breastroke, for example, in 2 minutes and 12 seconds. I took pride in that number. My identity as a swimmer was tied up in my best time, something that I did in my past. The last time I did a 200-yard breastroke, I don’t believe I was able to crack three minutes. I am obviously no longer the person who was 21, competing at top level. At this moment, I am simply a human being typing out some letters while hearing the hoot of an owl come into my ears. And now I’m not that person either.
When obstacles are recognized, then we have confidence that there is something beyond the obstacles. By their very nature, an obstacle reveals that there is something beyond it. But if we don’t recognize the obstacles first, we identify ourselves as that obstacle.
This is just the mind playing tricks on us.
Hatha Yoga, the physical practice of moving the body upside down, twisting it, standing in certain postures, etc. came as a result of yogi’s who were having trouble stilling their minds in meditation. They had physical or mental ailments such as phlegm, fatigue, joint pain in the back or knees, loneliness, and anxiety. The physical postures known today as asanas were prescribed as ways to deal with the suffering that they were experiencing, so that they could deepen their meditation experience.
The Yoga Sutras make things extraordinarily simple for us to understand. While there are many obstacles or “kleshas” as they are referred to in the sutras, the sutras tell us that all of them stem from just five: ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred, and clinging to bodily life. (Yoga Sutra 2:3). Then the sutras go on to clearly define what each of those five are (Yoga Sutras 2:4 – 9).
This is wonderful!
Sages before us have done the work of identifying the foundational kleshas so that we don’t have to figure them out. There may be other kleshas, but chances are they stem from these five. Knowing just these five kleshas is the first step to being free from them, and walking on the path of liberation.
The practice of yoga does not begin when we arrive on our mat. Yoga has no start time, no finish time. Yoga is not slow or fast, or in-between. Yoga is the study of our heart/mind. The root of the word “Yoga” is “yuj” which means to unite, or yoke. It’s referring to connecting our small self with the big Self of the universe. It’s also a reference to carrying out our sacred duty, despite our misgivings about the situation.
What yoga on the mat can do is to help us become curious about our actual experience. We can ask several questions to orient us to practice, such as, where is my attention placed in this moment? What do I notice about the quality of this movement, and about the muscles in the back of my legs? What are my thoughts engaged in? How do I feel? Is there a connection with my present moment experience and one or more of the five kleshas? If so, what do I need to do to untangle myself from the klesha, or to dissolve it in this moment?
Moreover, our hatha yoga practice on the mat can guide us into clarifying how we may be entangled in the kleshas, and to help us unbind. I remember reading somewhere that Swami Satchidananda, when asked, “are you a Hindu?” replied, “no, I’m an undo.”
I believe that Swami recognized that there are obstacles that bind him. The work of a lifetime is to recognize these obstacles, and to be like Houdini on a grand scale, figure our way out of being all bound up. All Yogic postures aid us in this endeavor. They help us to recognize where we are stuck, to practice tapas – austerities – by staying with the stuck-ness of the moment, and to trust that the universe will come to our aid when we’ve learned the lessons we’ve come here to learn.