Many of the initial inquiries Vancouver Islanders make about yoga circle around physical issues. One wants to eliminate back pain, another wants to relieve carpal tunnel syndrome. In short, pain leads them to yoga.
Many go no further with yoga than management of the physical signals of discomfort. But those who do stay, see that yoga offers a means of self knowledge which extends far beyond the mat and the studio.
As you deepen your practice, everything seems better: sleep comes readily and deeply, everyone seems to appreciate you, you have more energy, life has a luminous quality.
Then one day the practice does not leave you feeling better. Your boyfriend leaves, the landlady needs your apartment for her son, you get a low grade long-lived fever, your siblings nominate you to do the will probate, someone breaks into your car. And your practice falls away.
It seems someone inside has heard about the penetration toward Self you have been doing. The Self has become aware of fear. You, yourself wish for interruption of yoga’s well-digging.
What is the force that resists and sabotages our Peace? In the Sufi-Islamic view, according to the poets and thinkers, the name for the interfering force is the Nafs. It refers to the lower or bitter soul. That part of Self is the Wanting-one or Greedy-One. The Nafs embraces all that is obstructive of spiritual enrichment. It hates discipline, loves flattery and praise and behaves arrogantly. We may be harbouring the Nafs unknowingly until daily life begins to signal its presence.
What is one to do when the Nafs come visiting?
According to Kabir, the Sufi poet, born sometime around 1398 of both Hindu and Muslim spiritual heritage :
"Be strong then,and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off someplace else!
Just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things
and stand firm in that which you are. "
(from What I said to the wanting creature..)
For yogis, return to practice and leave aside any measure or expectations of the work. Simply practice. The practice works upon us in ways we cannot name.
Prana, the life force we take in with breath is a powerful ally in practice. Tuning into the exhaling breath is a means of subduing the Nafs, that urgent greedy impetus to grasp and hold for our own pleasure. Releasing the breath is returning it in a sense. It also evokes the relaxation response in the body. A pranayama practice is one of the greatest gifts of yoga. BKS Iyengar’s book, Light on Pranayama is an excellent guide.
Try this: as you exhale, soften the throat and the belly. Notice the spaciousness across the front of the heart and behind the forehead. In your yoga practice, all pose work should be done with softness of breath.
You see – it’s not cautionary tales and narratives of collapse or loss which move us forward. Fear tends to provoke fatalism and conservatism or personal survivalism. Anxiety can make us pessimistic about the future and resistant to change.
However when we sit quietly, observe the breath coming and going and soften areas of tension within, a silence that is deeper than absence of sound descends. The breath has guided the migrating bird of the Self homeward. Empty spaces and silence can be the wings and voices of our Divinity.