Integral Yoga Teachings

Almost everyone, when you ask how they are doing, responds with something about how busy they are. It has become the status quo for our lives and daily schedule to be filled to the max and beyond, so that we are no longer aware of how driven we are, how stressed our lives have become, and how it is affecting us. Even when we are aware of our “busy–ness” to some degree, we feel unable to do much about it. We seem to have become human “doings” rather than human “beings”. Our sense of self–esteem has become so strongly associated with being busy and stacking up accomplishments that we sacrifice real self–worth to create an impressive image that will make us look good. When we live this dis–ease of busyness, we no longer live well and at peace.

karma yogaSo many of the ways that we hurt ourselves seem to be rooted in this need to win the love of others (and even ourselves) so that we can be happy. Yoga teaches us that our effort to find happiness by controlling things outside ourselves, such as the opinions of others, will never bear lasting fruit. Our efforts to prove worthy of love may bring temporary results, but as we probably all know from current relationships, the affection of others comes and goes; demanding it or holding it too tightly is generally counterproductive. Keeping busy may enable us to feel good about ourselves, but this satisfaction proves temporary when the pain of pushing so hard catches up with us. It is truly ironic that we can actually hurt ourselves in an effort to feel good and to be happy.

It is well known that a number of the physical problems we experience in western society are caused by or complicated by stress; and, that proper rest, diet, exercise, and self acceptance can improve many ailments significantly. Of course these lifestyle changes take time and effort. It is rewarding to see the current popularity of Hatha Yoga, but even in these classes, the engrained belief that–“more is better” can dominate one’s experience. Straining to perform a better pose can be the norm. I will admit that I’ve injured myself more than once from wanting to be or look better than I am. Especially in my younger fanatic days, I remember really overdoing it with fasting and counter balancing with equally zealous overeating.

What is there to do? I won’t presume to have mastered this “dis– ease.” In fact, some of my colleagues snickered when they heard I was going to write on this topic, suggesting I have a lot to learn. I can share how I’m learning and what Sri Swami Satchidananda, my spiritual teacher, has taught us. We can address the issue by both reflecting on the root cause in the mind and by undertaking step by step changes in our daily habits.

The Benefits of Hatha Yoga 1A first step is to consciously begin to value our physical and mental health in concrete ways. In the midst of busy days, with even a few extra minutes (i.e., if someone is late for an appointment,) we can relax and reflect on how we’re feeling. A few minutes of stretching, deep breathing and consciously relaxing the abdomen, neck and shoulders, jaw and especially the eyes, can have a marvelous renewing effect. When we eat, we can make it a habit to stop for a moment, calm ourselves with a few breaths and bless the food, then chew it well. When we answer the phone, we can pause for a few seconds to be present for that call. Preparing healthy meals, getting a massage, taking a Hatha class, spending time in nature or with loved ones, and time alone to be quiet or creative, are all things that will help maintain a balance between giving out and restoring energy.

An even more powerful change with deeper benefits is to reserve one evening per week as unscheduled time that you can devote to caring for yourself. On the appointed evening, turn off the TV and the phone, do something creative, cook, take a bath, do a deep relaxation, read and/or go to bed early, whatever will refresh you. Sri Swamiji has often encouraged us to spend some time each week practicing silence. Being silent conserves energy and can help us be much more aware of ourselves – how we’re feeling physically and emotionally. If you have a family, such an evening might be an important time apart from them, or it might also be planned as an evening to have meaningful time together to play, relax and appreciate each other.

Meditation 1A similar practice that has been so helpful to me is to fast one day per week. Fasting gives a rest to the body and provides me with some extra time to rest from “doing.” I always sleep better that night and feel rejuvenated the next morning. In addition, my practice of meditation and Hatha the next morning is more alert and focused. Some may find it difficult to fast the whole day. They c o u l d b e g i n slowly, by eating only fruit for a day or skipping the evening meal, which provide similar benefits to a daylong fast. When we experience even a little benefit from these minor changes in our day–to–day activities, we will be inspired to continue them and perhaps to take another step toward the same goal. We may even be inspired enough to try a bigger step, like attending a weekend retreat dedicated to rest and reflection, communing with nature, or spiritual practice. A retreat can effectively relieve built up stress and help establish new habits, such as regular practice of Hatha Yoga and meditation. Hatha Yoga and meditation are more powerful than all of my other suggestions. This practice can heal the harmful effects of stress and restore balance to the body and mind most effectively. Another remarkable benefit they offer is showing us how to prevent stressful responses to life’s difficulties. By developing inner awareness of our physical and mental conditions, we learn to notice tension or anxiety when it first appears. We can respond to each situation mindful of our capacity at that moment, and equipped with the effective tools for relaxing that these practices bring us.

As a meditative practice bears fruit, we begin to have moments of real contentment that are not contingent upon completing tasks. A deeper examination of such moments reveals that this experience is the result of letting go of our preoccupation with making things happen, with trying to create happiness. Instead, as the mind begins to quiet down, we begin to sense a natural completeness within, a feeling, which is wonderfully healing and rejuvenating. Though these glimpses of our nature may not last as we move on with our day, they can help in several ways. One is to inspire us to continue making time for the practices that have quieted the mind. Secondly, we can create an affirmation based on that experience which reminds us of what we have found to be true in ourselves, and use that affirmation regularly to assert that truth, to counter the old patterns of thought we have held that still arise. As our practice enables us to repeat this experience of inner peace and that peace deepens, our old ways of thinking about achieving happiness begin to erode and we can create a new relationship to ”doing” things. Our doing can become a joyful expression of the wells of light and love that bubble up from within. When we approach life with neediness, clutching for something to make things right and bring fulfillment, that narrow vision of who we are can only serve to close the heart. When we nourish ourselves with moments of peace, our hearts overflow and we can truly serve others, wanting them to be nourished as well. Thus, we find deeper and lasting happiness that comes from giving to ourselves and to others.