Sure, you have an epic backbend. Or can balance on your hands for days.
But if you still act like an asshole, safe to say your yoga practice isn’t working.
It’s understandable yoga could be mistaken for a collection of poses. In its modern ‘western’ manifestation, this is often the most celebrated, and widely consumed, aspect of the practice.
However, yoga is a rich and ancient ecosystem of ideas, techniques, ethics, and philosophies collated around India and South East Asia over the past several millennia.
Since yoga was imported to western society 100 or so years ago, the postural practice has become increasingly highlighted and, let’s face it, glorified at its forefront. A familiar phenomenon of extractive cultural colonisation.
But today, many people are questioning this appropriation and looking deeper at what being a ‘yoga practitioner’ really means.
By understanding the bigger picture of yoga’s history and depth, we can use its guiding wisdoms as tools not just for physical flexibility, but to train our minds, our hearts, and our ways of living together in today’s world.
Yoga is skill in action
One of the seminal texts of yoga’s cultural traditions (Vedic / Hindu) is The Bhagavad Gita. The star of that story, Krishna, momentously said, “Yoga is skill in action”
He goes on to describe how humans are never not acting. By being here and being alive we are presented with the option to choose our actions (including thoughts and speech) every moment.
Any new-age self-help-shelf advocate will know well, whatever we do the most becomes stronger in our lives.
We are always practising something. Unconsciously embedding our habits of being in our body and brain with every action.
Hence, a yoga practice often begins with the self-awareness to realise that everything you do matters. How you move, how you talk to others (and yourself), what you pay attention to matters.
Whether you subscribe to the doctrine of Karma or not, there is clearly a cause and effect system at play.
So you’d be right to ask, how do we choose our actions wisely? What compass points, which guiding stars, should we navigate our choices by?
At Human.Kind, we spend a LOT of time getting clear about our values.
We’re deeply inspired by the lineages of India’s spiritual practices; the ancient wisdom traditions of the Vedas, the Buddha, Tantra, Zen, and others.
We also lean on contemporary scientific surveys of the human body and brain, of nature, ecology, and the systems that shape our current social reality.
We believe there is no single simple answer how to navigate skilfully through the complexity of our shared humanity.
Interestingly though, we find asana an excellent starting point.
The poses are a pathway to physical and energetic stability and vibrancy. The postural practice teaches us concentration, it offers us self-enquiry. Classes hold space for a collective pause, to settle our nervous systems enough so that we can see things clearly.
Challenging ourselves on the mat is a safe training ground for how we meet the bigger challenges in our lives. We learn to cultivate inner steadiness in the midst of chaos. To respond to discomfort with equanimity.
A dedicated asana practice breeds resilience.
The poses were never the whole point. Yet healthy bodies and minds are an essential foundation from which we can begin.
With that clarity and steadiness, we then have the capacity to broaden our awareness, and notice the bigger picture of which we are a part.
The ethical frameworks of classical yoga, (Patanjali’s Yamas and Niyamas), offer us simple steps, useful moral stances like non-harming and truthfulness. The 8 Fold Path of Buddhism offers a similar framework, with tips like wise speech, and a livelihood with integrity.
These invitations help us to wake up and look out beyond our own small selves or ego, which the yogis call asmitā (a fundamental cause of suffering or ‘kleśa’). We see how we each play such a small part in the unfolding drama of existence.
There is great solace available in this realisation of the bigger picture. It helps loosen our grip on the relentless narrative of our small problems and orient our minds to better questions like ‘what is really important?’.
As Mary Oliver says,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do.
With your one wild and precious life?”
Reconnecting to a sense of purpose is what helps humans flourish.
Back in the Bhagavad Gita again, Krishna says, “Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma”. Here, dharma means purpose, or the gift that you can give this life.
Contemporary neuroscientists have studied how focusing on contribution brings a deeper sense of fulfilment than pure personal gain.
The Gita calls this ‘lokasaṃgraha’, literally translated as “holding the world together”. It means choosing actions that benefit the welfare of the earth and all its living beings (remember, that includes you too!).
Our yoga practice then becomes an act of remembering (smaraṇa) what is truly important in each moment, and then skillfully aligning our actions with those values.
All evidence points to this being the true path to contentment.
Everything comes full circle.
At the end of all our seeking we realise that our practice must begin right here and now.
In the words of Grace Leebox,
“We must transform ourselves to transform the world”.
Taking your yoga off the mat means bringing the same presence and dedication you learn while balancing on your hands, to every part of your life.
We ask ourselves how we can bring more wisdom, care, and courage into every conversation, every breath. The world responds by revealing to us how deeply we belong to one another, and to life itself.
Tessa Leon is Creative Director and Lead Facilitator at Human.Kind.
One of Australia’s leading yoga communities.
Living Yoga is a 4 week course to help you take your yoga practice ‘off the mat.’
Sundays 16 Oct – 6 Nov 2022