When I came to yoga, my mother had just died at 64. Through her last illness I was reading, Stephen Levine; Who Dies?, Elizabeth Kubhler Ross; On Death and Dying and the Buddhists of the Tibetan tradition. The common truth was that death is an illusion. Or recently, as BKS Iyengar wrote in, Light on Life , "Discover what does not die and the illusion of Death is unmasked."
I hoped that yoga would inoculate me from illness of the sort that threatens ones existence. And I applied myself to the postures I found in books and on records. Little did I realize then that although the exercises were excellent, I was not doing yoga.
I had misunderstood the nature of yoga. All the while I was bending and stretching and twisting and up-ending myself, I was focused on the body. But pouring the energies of the body into movement both soft and strenuous brought little freedom from my patterned and predictable behaviours off the mat. I was no closer to knowing myself.
The peaceful afterglow, the feelings of contentment and presence were wonderful. But I had hoped for more. I wanted to know what lay beyond the mind and body.
The history of yoga tells us that modern postural yoga is new. Barely 100 years old. What preceded those authors and their teachers was meditative, philosophical and primarily seated contemplation. Very few of the yoga asanas familiar to North Americans now would have been recognized by the yogis of old.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali tell us that the purpose of yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness. Otherwise we confuse awareness of the world around us with the patterns of consciousness. We mistake the way we frame up our responses to the world with who we are at the core.
In simple terms, we mistake what we see, hear, feel, smell touch, taste and remember for what reality is. Our organs of perception provide rapid-fire information which comes so fast that it seems to be an unbroken stream of "reality”, "self” and the "other.” That makes it almost impossible to distinguish between what is out there with that which is within us.
Fortunately, as physical postures strengthen the body they also work on the mind. Mind strength allows us to turn our attention inward to the breath and to reside with body and breath in the poses. It does not come quickly or without disciplined investigation on the mat.
In this practice, freedom from "mind stuff” comes when we focus on the mind’s responses to the body-breath activity of yoga. Thus the mind is the object of our attention in yoga. BKS Iyengar says, the body is the subject and the mind is the object. We unclench the body and the mind becomes more supple as well. When we release our psychosomatic grip, we allow what simply is – to be, without judgment.
Patanjali calls this vairagya or restraint. He means that we do not need to react to every stimulation, we can remove ourselves from the familiar triggers and know something beyond our knee jerk reactions to life.
Again, BKS Iyengar, "When the lens of consciousness is pure and clean, it will be clear that its illuminating light is the innermost soul." And yoga is the vehicle for bodily purification. One’s holding patterns in the physical body become known and pose work helps to create balance. Mental disturbances are calmed, clarity of thought comes more easily.
Yoga is not an easy method of self knowledge but it is immensely practical. Those new to yoga will experience the benefits straightaway in the release of tension in the body along with a sense of spaciousness in the heart and freedom in movement. Those who continue to practice will begin to catch glimpses of something else. Beyond awareness of the breath and between the thoughts.
My mother’s early death left a legacy which has been invaluable. Yoga will not prevent my death. Nor will it guarantee that I shall never become ill or experience pain.
Instead, she led me to sure and certain knowledge that I am not my body or my perceptions. Nor am I the patterns of reaction and behaviour that I associate with my "personality”.
What Jack Kornfield calls the "dizzying dramas” of the self, are no longer compelling. Grasping for new and "better” poses follows me sometimes. As do delusions about who and what I am. However, I know I am moving toward more moments of joy untethered to anything external and experienced for its own sake. Perhaps one can call that freedom or even grace.
Kelly Murphy is owner of Bend Over Backwards Yoga Studio in Nanaimo.