A few months ago I read Finding Your Inner Yoga: From Zero to Infinity (a Huffington Post Interview with Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee, reposted on Yoga U), which I found fascinating. I wanted to expand upon some of the things they mentioned. Here is one quote that I really liked, as well as a development of one of my responses:
“One of the things we always teach is to use the practice to feel what is. Not to become something necessarily, but to focus on the unfolding of the present moment. There’s so much joy and so much beauty being offered to us in every moment.”
A yoga practice is an opportunity to feel what is – not a recourse to feel things as we want them to be. This can be scary, because some feelings outright suck. Sometimes it’s exceedingly difficult to recognize that a certain moment has any iota of joy or beauty in it.
Not only is your yoga practice an opportunity to feel these things, but yoga is generally considered a tool that helps us develop the ability to be with our experiences, not run away from them. And yet, yoga can also be used to escape. Indeed, there are many other activities out there that are tools to help us “be better”… but that we often use instead as a way to “feel better” – for example, eating, sleeping, watching TV, socializing with our friends, using our smartphones, etc. We often run to these things as conduits of escape from our daily lives.
I wonder how often yoga makes it onto our list of escapist activities. And I wonder if using yoga as a form of escapism is more insidious than the other forms… or if it’s more helpful.
On the one hand, turning to a yoga practice to get away from the struggles of life is a more subtle form of escapism. It’s insidious because we might be deluding ourselves. We are likely under the belief that yoga is actually *helping* us deal with life, instead of realizing that we’re just trying to avoid it: “I feel stressed out. I’m going to go to yoga to feel better!” Going to the yoga class probably will help us feel calmer and less stressed out… but if we go to the class, only feel better while in class, and then dread returning to the world of stress outside – well then, that’s yoga as escape. In the case of, say, watching TV as escapism, we’re a lot more likely to realize what we are doing: “Ugh, I don’t want to do the dishes. I’m going to watch another episode of Bones instead.” When we go to a yoga class or do yoga at home, we inherently know that we are doing yoga to try to understand ourselves, our life, and life in general – and so we assume that we are automatically dealing with these things, even though we may not actually be doing so. When we watch TV, it’s pretty obvious to most of us that we are not trying to deal with things like stress, emotions, and other uncomfortable experiences. And that’s kinda the point, ya know?
On the other hand, this is exactly why yoga as escapism might be more helpful than other escape forms. Ultimately, the intention is to deal with our lives better – it just might take awhile to get there. Sometimes we go to our mat and actually believe that we are dealing with our struggles – we think that we are letting ourselves actually experience life… But sometimes, we are lying to ourselves. We focus on our breathing so that we don’t have to think about our job; we try to have the best Warrior I in the room so that we don’t have to feel inadequate; we want the teacher to praise us, but not too overtly, so that we believe that our beliefs about the world (e.g., that everyone is perfect just the way we are) and the views we actually hold of our individual selves (e.g., I’m not good enough) are aligned… which they clearly are not. If you are anything like me, I bet you’ve experienced something like this. Maybe you’ve noticed it, maybe you haven’t. But that’s why yoga can be a helpful form of escapism – because eventually, you can’t keep escaping: you will start to notice that you might be lying to yourself.
Yoga truly is a practice to help us re-examine ourselves, our lives, and life in general – and there’s not really any way to get around it. It is possible (although rare) to have a yoga practice that focuses entirely on getting a “yoga body” or some other goal that does not relate at all to self-discovery. These intentions of the yoga practice are also, just like the more subtle ones I just discussed, goals of “becoming something,” like Yee’s quote above.
But no matter what, you are going to eventually encounter the question, why do I want “to become” something other than myself? You will encounter the principle of awareness – e.g., when you cultivate an injury because of not listening to the body. Or of compassion – e.g., when you find a teacher you really admire. Or of surrender – e.g., when your body can’t always keep up with what you want to do. Whether or not you choose to examine these principles and how they apply to you and your life is up to you… but you are already starting the path of examination, even if you choose, No, thanks. Whether or not we intend to examine ourselves, the practice of yoga “transforms consciousness”¹ – and the extent of the transformation depends on the strength of that intention of examination.²
Yoga is a tool for us to find the moments in which we are not peaceful – and to help us cultivate a peaceful attitude towards those moments. ALL moments are beautiful, awesome, and important in the yoga-view… even the ones that hurt. And so, sometimes yoga isn’t comfortable. Once we start finding those moments in which we are not peaceful, we might freak out a bit, because, well shit – it seems like it’s all the time! And did we really want to know that?! Probably not. We might also turn to yoga when we are sad about something, in the hopes that focusing on our breath might help us to “forget” the sadness. As our practice grows, we find that cannot forget the sadness, and that it comes right along with us onto the mat. In both of these cases (and many others), yoga is a double-edged sword; and we may not want to deal with it. We may not want to just “be” with ourselves, the way we are right now… Fortunately, though, through yoga, we develop the ability to deal with it.
And the beautiful part about yoga is – all of that is okay. It is okay that we might never be peaceful right now, and it’s okay that we’re sad about something, be it trivial or large. It’s okay that we just don’t want to freaking deal with it sometimes! But the thing is, we are going to deal with it – just by getting onto our mat, or going to that class, even though we don’t want to deal with it. And it is healthy to consciously bring all of this junk into our practice with us – because we are going to bring it into our practice no matter what, so why try to suppress it? Suppressing things about our life – to “become something” other than “what is” – that is yoga as escapism.
¹ “…practicing the wisdom of yoga transforms consciousness by means of an ingenious two-phase process. First, the ego ideal — our longing for idealized mental, physical, and emotional states — is assuaged and to some extent satisfied… And then, the ideal ego is deconstructed through insight practices…” Stephen Cope, The Wisdom of Yoga, p. 258-9
² Patanjali, Yoga Sutra, Sutra 1.22