“Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame.”
– B.K.S. Iyengar
Almost everything feels new and different and surreal right now, doesn’t it? Safety measures like social distancing and stay home, work-from-home orders have created a sense of isolation and uncertainty, and our lives have changed in ways we’ve yet to even see.
But if you look back, there are some things yogi’s have known long before the current pandemic, one of which is that our practice doesn’t end when we leave the mat.
In the Western world, it’s common to think that asana, or the physical practice, is yoga, but that’s just one small part. The poses have made their way from India across the world, but much of the practice remains a mystery to even the most committed practitioners. Yoga’s countless teachings beyond asna ask us to inquire within and reconsider the way we approach the world around us. Ultimately, they help us create a path to peace and enlightenment.
Now is the perfect time to get familiar with yoga philosophy. When things feel dark, what are the ways we can use this ancient and enduring practice to invite light into our lives? Let me share a few yoga teachings that reminded me that I chose this practice for a reason, and if I stay close to it, it will always serve me, and always surprise me, too- as I think the follow teachings will do for you.
“You have the right to work, but never the fruit of work.
You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself — without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.
For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.” (2:47-48)
-Bhagavad Gita, translation by Eknath Easwaran
The Bhagavad Gita teaches us to never take action for selfish reasons and to release our attachment to the outcome of that action. You’re probably familiar with the word karma. Together with phala, or “fruit,” they represent our actions and the positive or negative consequences we reap from them over time.
Don’t get caught up in results, good or bad. Choose right action — staying home, washing your hands, keeping the vulnerable safe — because it’s the right thing to do. It also means doing what we can to release anxiety about the outcome of the pandemic. Anchoring ourselves in the present by connecting to our breath is a good first step to helping us calm the anxious mind. And just like on the mat, consistent right action helps us find our balance.
Karma phala in action: Consider carefully a situation that’s causing you anxiety. Write out the first 10 possible outcomes that come to mind, no matter how outlandish. Positive or negative life events don’t hold the weight we often assign to them since we adapt to them over time. Write out how you can accept and adapt to each outcome. If you feel anxiety arising, close your eyes and take three deep breaths to kick your parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system into action.
“By the observance of aparigraha, the yogi makes his life as simple as possible and trains his mind not to feel the loss or lack of anything.
Then everything he needs will come to him by itself at the proper time.”
– B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga
Part of Patanjali’s first Limb of Yoga, the Yamas, aparigraha means non-possessiveness. We’ve all seen shelves empty of essential supplies like toilet paper, hand soap, and flour. Aparigraha asks you not to be that guy. Don’t take more than you need. And in this moment, aparigraha asks us to re-examine what “need” actually means.
Attachment to things is attachment to ego. When we go without, we learn we can live without our creature comforts. We come out of our ego into our more enlightened selves. The result is not only that there’s more for other, more vulnerable people, but peace of mind within ourselves. And one day, if we’re able to revisit those comforts, we’ll appreciate them even more.
Aparigraha in action: Make a shopping list for your next trip to the store. Identify one item that’s a “want” instead of a “need.” Go without this item and the following week take 15 minutes to write and reflect on whether it impacted your life in a meaningful way.
“Suffering can be viewed as a necessary but difficult way that the universe reveals ourselves to us. It is important to set a deliberate intention to identify and reduce duhkha, and then follow up that intention with on-the-ground action in order to move in our desired direction of mental, emotional, and spiritual growth and transformation.”
– Nicholai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras
Have you ever struggled through your most-dreaded asana pose over and over until one day you find yourself unexpectedly at ease in the same posture? This is duhkha, or suffering as opportunity. In experiencing suffering, we discover how to break harmful patterns and find ease in the future.
There’s no doubt that we’re in a moment of suffering. But these moments can be our greatest teachers if we let them. Now is the time to find a moment of pause between thought and action to sink into self-reflection. You can’t control what you’re feeling, but you can control whether you choose to inhabit those feelings and for how long. Give yourself time and compassion in grief, then set your path forward with confidence.
Duhkha in action: Next time you feel strong emotion rising up, pause and reflect on what you’re feeling. What’s actually happening right now, in this moment? Do a body scan, checking in on each part of your body, head to toe. What do you feel, physically? Where are you holding tenison? Imagine creating space by breathing into these body parts.
Now check in on your mental state. What stories are you telling yourself about your current situation and are they true? Don’t ignore your stories, reckon with them and dig into how you can change your outcomes. Write down three alternate endings.
“As we embody santosha, we become less compelled to react, fix, analyze, change, or manipulate. We assess desire by whether something will take us closer to or further from inner peace and contentment.”
– Jennie Lee, True Yoga
It’s easy to feel like so much of our daily lives have changed. But the truth is that change is the only constant, from our thoughts to our actions to our circumstances. Our job as yogis is to find Santosha, or contentment, in whatever we encounter in a given day. But instead of trying to make your current life resemble your pre-pandemic one, try finding gratitude. Recognizing a few specific things that make you smile each day can be a powerful tool in fighting depression and anxiety. It doesn’t matter how insignificant they seem. Small moments of contentment beget larger ones.
Santosha in action: Think of someone you’re grateful to have in your life. Sit down and write them a note, email, or text message telling them why. Get specific about their good intentions, the potential cost to them, and the positive effect of their actions on you. Expressing gratitude strengthens relationships and over time, it rewires the brain to recognize contentment. Repeat this exercise once a week to begin building a gratitude habit.
These teachings can be invaluable in navigating a world full of uncertainty. And the truth is there’s not much new about compassion, self-reflection, and acceptance because not much has changed about human nature since the time of the ancient yogis. This practice has just as much to teach us about creating light in our lives since yoga asana swept the globe as it did in ancient India.
Now is the time to deepen your practice and, in turn, burn that much brighter.