I ask all of the yoga instructors at my studio to include a quote along with their bio for the studio website explaining their personal yoga philosophy. There are wonderful and insightful quotes, but my favorite still remains Suzanna Spring’s: “Whether or not you believe that yoga can transform your life, it will happen. All you have to do is make room in your life for some time on the mat. I think of yoga as a moving meditation, a dance of strength and grace that unexpectedly brings the mind in tune with the heart.”
It’s easy to see the obvious benefits of yoga: a supple body, increased strength, and stress relief to name a few. But there’s more – yoga changes us internally as well. Suzanna’s philosophy profoundly describes this internal transformation, the hidden power of yoga.
Patanjali is known as the “Father of Yoga” (born sometime between 5000 BCE and 300 CE) and compiled the Yoga Sutras which contain the teachings of yoga. In this ancient book, Patanjali presents the secret power of yoga within the very first few verses: Samadhi Pada (Chapter 1), verses 2 and 3: 2 – Yoga is to still the modifications of the mind-stuff. 3 – Then, the Seer (Self) abides in its own true nature.
Don’t worry, you did read that correctly! Yoga stills the thought waves of the mind. The chatter, the neurosis, the “mind-stuff” is calmed, tamed, mastered. It really is the big secret of yoga, and it’s not hidden – it is laid out directly in front of us. Stop the presses! Go running to your therapist, your doctor, your pastor. This is huge!
Hmm, you’re not running yet? Why IS this such a big secret then?
In the book Happy Yoga, Steve Ross shares a well known story from India: “You’re living on a mountain of gold and you don’t even realize it. Every time it rains, the dirt and muck are washed away and the gold is revealed. And you run out into the rain, scooping up fistfuls of gold and dancing around. But you mistakenly think the rain is bringing the gold, so you worship the rain, and you make sacrifices with your schedule to please the rain. When there’s a drought, you become poor, starve, and bemoan the absence of rain. But the gold is always there, just beneath the surface, and the rain has simply been revealing it. If you’d just dust off the mountain the slightest bit, you’d see it for what it is. Scratch the surface! Look deeper!”
This is the way it is with us humans. We often fail to see the very stuff we sit upon. We don’t know what, or who we are, we don’t know our true nature. The truth is, beyond the mind, beyond the body – rests this true nature, this pure awareness described in the Yoga Sutras. We attempt to name it soul or spirit. We talk about it, but this pure awareness cannot be fully understood unless it is experienced first-hand. Yoga gives us the tools to do this.
Years ago, at the beginning of my yoga journey, I attended a dharma talk titled, “The nature of suffering.” I expected to hear about the trials of living in the third world, but instead was taught about the intense suffering I endured internally every day at the hands of my untrained, wild monkey-mind. I was taught for the first time in my life, “YOU ARE NOT YOUR MIND.”
A few months later, I loaded my car with children from our ward for a Primary field trip to visit the Oakland Temple. When we hit Oakland, I accidentally took the wrong exit, separating myself from the caravan of parents. There was no clear way to turn around and Oakland is not exactly a place I wanted to be lost with a car-load of children. My mind started to panic, unconsciously taking me to worst case scenarios which included thoughts such as, “You are a flake,” “Everybody will be waiting for you and worrying,” “Get out of here as fast as possible!” I felt panic and an impending sense of doom.
I had been doing a lot of yoga training at the time and instinctively kicked into Ujayii breathing, a breathing technique used during intense forms of yoga. I was able to notice my thoughts and feel a bit of space between them. Straight ahead of me was a family mini-van that caught my attention. It seemed odd, as Oakland is not a place I associate with families large enough to need a mini-van. I looked at the van and its bumper sticker lit up just like the freeway sign in the Steve Martin Movie, L.A. Story. Now, I’m not a huge believer in signs, but this glowing bumper sticker seemed like a message glowing just for me. It was as if God said, “Duh! It’s a sign, literally! Now, pay attention.” The bumper sticker read, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Suddenly, I saw my thoughts and delusions clearly and I started laughing. I saw the situation as the fun adventure that it was and I saw my panic as the delusion that it was. I turned around instinctively, making my way to the temple within minutes. I have never been the same since.
That day, I experienced the hidden secret of yoga: I am not my mind. I am something else completely. Stilling my thought waves shot right through the delusions in my mind, allowing me to live in my own true nature of peace, clarity, and happiness. I learned that my mind is not a part of who or what I am. From that piece of insight, the world became a new place for me. I stopped being so afraid, so depressed. I stopped believing my thoughts.
Years later, after hundreds of hours on the yoga mat and living intimately with the reality of what I am and, just as important, what I am not, the time came to write my personal yoga philosophy: “Through yoga, we can learn to speak the language of the body. The body speaks of wholeness, of grace, of liberation. Spending time on the mat connects us to this understanding, guiding us to a sense of peace where the world is finally seen for the friendly and loving place that it is.”
Question of the week: What has your religion or spiritual practice taught you about the mind? Have you always known the hidden secret, “I am not my mind?”