by Alanna Kaivalya, Ph.D: Sure,there are people who go to yoga just for the physical benefits…
to counteract the effects of a desk job, or as active recovery from impact sports—but more and more these days, novitiates are turning to yoga not just for postural alignment, but in an effort to align their spirits to the truth.
Whether you’re a yoga instructor who wants to learn how to guide your students to soul-deep transformation or a practitioner searching for ways to enrich your practice and unlock the potential for true change, this is step one. Here, I’ll introduce you to some of the complementary tools I use myself and teach my students, explain the part each plays in your spiritual journey, and begin helping you shape a practice that sustains you and evolves with you as you grow.
Satya: Remaining Truthful with Our (Highest) Self
The Vedic texts talk about the highest self (what is called the I AM) in terms of satchidananda, or truth (sat), consciousness (chitta) and bliss (ananda). There is an intimate connection between the highest form of truth, our ability to elevate our consciousness, and accessing our bliss. We maintain a direct connection with our personal bliss by integrating all aspects of our consciousness.
But what is objective truth? Ultimate truth can be defined as what two sides have in common. While each of us individually has a personal truth, it is a subjective way of seeing the world. To find a sense of lightheartedness—particularly in our dealings with others—we find a more objective truth, a common ground, and a way for the two sides to find commonality. And how do we recognize it? Well, that’s where this practice comes in.
Measuring the Truth of the Heart
In the Egyptian culture, the goddess Ma’at weighed hearts against a feather. Only if one’s heart was as light (or lighter!) than the feather, would she offer her blessing. Like Ma’at, yoga practitioners measure the lightness of our own hearts to allow ultimate truth to prevail. In order to practice this, we keep our scales handy for discussions, and even arguments, in order to find a way through them without weighing down our hearts.
This practice requires presence of mind and willingness to let go of the desire to be right. The next time you find yourself in conflict with someone else, get out your metaphorical scales. As we measure our hearts against the feather, we can determine which arguments make it lighter and which make it heavier, and choose the most uplifting. Of course, this practice becomes more challenging the more heated the discussion is. But the more you practice, the easier it will get.
When your adversaries stop being your enemies, they start being your teachers. If we embrace the challenge of an argument, we eventually recognize what the two sides have in common.
This leads us to new ways of thinking, being, and understanding.
Greater objectivity smooths the way to a connection to those around us—even when their subjective truths differ from our own. As we search for our own personal truth, we learn to interact with others on a level that supports a higher, more universal truth, and brings us closer to bliss.
Overcoming Abhinivesha: The Power of Connection
Abhinivesha is the fear of death. We take extreme measures trying to preserve our youth and vanity to avoid dying, but death is inevitable. We will all die, and at some point in our lives we must make peace with this fact. But I disagree with Patanjali’s assertion of the fifth kleshat hat what we fear most is death. It is, instead, disconnection.
I don’t believe that death is the end of interpersonal connection. We remain connected to people even after they die by visiting their graves, speaking with them as if they were present, honoring theirmemoriesthroughouractions,andeventhroughprayer.We are comforted by the idea that even after our own death we connect with the living by remaining present in their hearts and their minds. In disconnection we are completely lost, alone, out in treacherous waters with no one to throw us a life raft. This is something that, to the core of our being, we simply cannot bear.
As we develop our yoga practice and establish a consistent feeling of personal bliss, we facilitate a lifesaving connection to ourselves and to all the world. Through this connection we can bear all things, thrive in our environment, pursue that which ignites a spark within us, and make meaning within our lives. This connection is essential, critical, and non-negotiable. Here’s a practice to help you deepen your connection to yourself and others.
We are the most digitally connected society that has ever lived, and when we’re connected via our devices, we are not connected personally. Though the quest for comments and approval can fool us into feeling like we’re making connections, we are not. Our brains require the physical presence of another human face in order to fully engage in and experience our world.
Because of the mirror neurons in our brains, when we see the smile of another person, we share in their joy; when we see the tears of another, we share in their grief. This is the biological basis of human empathy. Interacting digitally robs us of this connection—keeps us from sharing our human experiences. The digital world is not a stand-in for connection; It is an obstacle to it.
That said, we live in a digital age, and a total digital disconnect is a tall order. With that in mind, here are a few practices to help you establish real world connection (without going totally off the grid).
Limit your email time to 30 minutes per day.
If you set the boundary of reading and responding to your email in this time frame, you will achieve much more than if you try to read every email as it arrives. A 24-hour response rate is totally reasonable, and many phones have “VIP” settings where you can be immediately alerted to pings from your inner circle. All others can wait, because your life is happening now.
When you’re with people, commit to being with people.
In an intimate setting with friends or family members, leave the devices behind. Place the phone in your bag and put it in do not disturb or airplane mode. Participate fully with your friends and loved ones rather than displacing the joy of your experience by tagging friends on Facebook and posting pictures on Instagram. Look for the loving approval of your friends and family who are grateful for your connectedpresence.
Overcoming Raga & Dvesha: Getting Out of Our Comfort Zone
Much of life is uncomfortable. Truthfully, we have minimal control over the circumstances in our lives; we will never stop experiencing things that are difficult or uncomfortable; our work is to find ways to become comfortable with them.
How much easier would life be if you could be at ease all the time? Well, you can. The secret is overcoming raga (the attachment to pleasure) and dvesha (the aversion to pain). These things are responsible for most of the suffering we experience.
If we chase things that we think will bring us pleasure, we will never be at peace, because pleasure is impermanent. When something pleasurable ends, we are bereft because we have displaced our contentment to a location outside of ourselves. Being happy all the time isn’t realistic; being content all the time just might be.
Santosha is the deep contentment that arises when we are at peace with our ever-shifting circumstances. Discomfort sheds light on patterns of resistance. Anytime resistance arises, it is a signal that we are disempowered and discontent. Learning to be content means mooring ourselves to the bliss firmly rooted within us.
This practice is particularly poignant in terms of sensations of pain. We do whatever we can to numb, avoid, or run away from that sensation. Pain, however, tells us where care, healing, or comfort is needed. The ability to remain present with discomfort—or even agony—is transformative. The goal in working with raga and dvesha is to feel all emotions and sensations completely while remaining tethered to inner contentment. The key to doing so is presence.
Rather than running toward an ever-elusive desire or avoiding present pain by numbing out, staying present allows a full immersion into all the expressions of our humanness. Every one of these expressions is part of our growth experience and personal development—if we remain present for them. I developed a simple mantra to help me when my discomfort felt too great: “This is what is happening now.” It’s a reminder to stay tuned to the present moment and practice overcoming raga and dvesha.
Our battle to overcome the obstacles that obscure bliss is, in large part, a matter of cultivating presence. We waste time in a past that is already gone or in a future that has not yet arrived. Life is happening now. Every moment is carefully crafted to foster our spiritual development. And transformation can only occur in the present. Yoga, the state of deep personal connection and bliss, happens at only one time: NOW.
In the present moment, everything is perfect exactly as it is, simply because it can be no other way. There is nothing to argue with, nothing to avoid, nothing to deny, exclude, omit, repress, or push away. The present simply is. The practice below will help you cultivate presence and identify the areas of resistance in your psyche.
Eating with Friends
This practice reveals so much about our attachment to pleasure and aversion to pain. Everyone eats every day, and we develop attachments to the kind of food we eat, either because certain foods bring us pleasure or certain foods are undesirable or painful.
If you have a food allergy or illness that requires certain dietary restrictions, please follow them! This practice isn’t designed to create serious physical pain/illness or cause emotional harm, but to bring up the discomfort that occurs when you are faced with the possibility of not getting what you want!
The next time you are dining out with a friend, try the following: Set down your menu or give it to the person across from you. Explain to them that as part of your yoga practice, you’d like them to order for you. Alert them of any dietary needs or restrictions, but do not tell them your preferences. Not liking green beans is not a dietary restriction; it is a preference.
Your dinner companion will likely protest. It can be a lot of pressure, and they may try to wiggle out of it. Stand your ground! Explain that your work is to be content with whatever is chosen, and you will be content with their choice. Do not answer any questions of “Well, do you wantthis or this?” or “Have you had this before?” Allow the person to decide for you and wait contently for theirdecision.
When the food arrives, put on a smile and eat it. The person across from you has gone through an agonizing decision process on your behalf, out of love and consideration for you. Feel the joy in their heart when you take a bite, smile, and proclaim a job well done. Watch them smile in relief and marvel at the trust and vulnerability you’ve shown. It’s just one meal. Use it to confront your resistance and to establish a deeper bond with the friend with whom you share it.