Photo: Sophie Håkansson photography
”Yoga ruins your life” is a catch phrase often used as a joke or an attempt to, as I see it, draw attention to the practice. But it doesn’t really ruin your life – does it? A regular practice will bring change, that’s for sure. And since we in general are scared of or reluctant to change, it may feel as if yoga then ruins things when the results of our practice don’t live up to our expectations that yoga is supposed to make us feel better, happier and more balanced in life. The image that yoga will suddenly make us see life through rose tinted glasses is just as much a cliché as the phrase that yoga ruins your life.
We all come to yoga for different reasons; none is more valid than the other. It is easy though to start blaming yoga when things don’t turn out as we expect or when we start doubting the practice for various reasons. Yoga philosophy therefore talks about the importance of taking action without expectation or attachment to the fruits of ones actions. Also, yoga doesn’t do anything to you, nor does it expect or demand anything from you. The only one doing, demanding or expecting anything in or of your practice is you. Again, according to yoga philosophy any action you take will lead to a reaction (consequence) that will come back to you at some point (in this life or another) – that is the law of karma.
The practice of yoga gives us the tools to begin to see our behavioural and thought patterns that keep us in this karmic wheel of action and reaction. Yoga will sooner or later force us to face the uncomfortable truths we’ve shovelled under the carpet, that can no longer be avoided in order for us to develop and move on. That’s why oftentimes, before something can get better we need to learn to deal with the difficult parts first. Change can therefore be painful to start with and thus we avoid it. Instead we remain caught in the pursuit of finding and reliving what we qualify as pleasurable experiences and avoid those that we experience as painful.
A regular yoga practice has the potential to change things, some immediately for the better and some maybe not as discussed above. When we start practicing, we begin with the third and fourth limbs of Ashtanga yoga: asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing). When we start to move and breathe more consciously it will initiate physical changes. Richard Freeman who made a little video a few years back with the theme “Yoga ruins your life” jokes about how ones feet grow wider and bigger so that all the fancy shoes in ones closet need to be replaced (no more high heels or pointed toes there… what a disaster!!!). Jokes aside, not only will our feet change over time, but with a regular, mindful practice we’re likely to grow stronger, more flexible, have a better posture and be healthier overall.
After a certain amount of time we might also notice how we gradually become more present, aware and focused. Beginning with the body and the breath we come to the now instead of always being in our head day dreaming of the past or future. Through the physical practice we connect with our inner world and learn to observe the twists and turns of our mind. This heightened presence makes more aware of our thought patterns, behaviours and our choices in life. We might start to behave differently towards ourselves and others, hopefully more in a more kind and thoughtful manner as we start to reflect upon and observe the yamas and niyamas (first and second limbs of Ashtanga yoga).
The changes that come with practice may be welcome but sometimes also frightening. Doing physical asana may be scary when we start opening our bodies or go upside down and see the world from a different perspective. As we go deeper into the practice and begin to peel off layers of old conditioning, habits and behavioural/thought patterns, our bodies and minds can react in unexpected ways with pain, tiredness, anger, joy and all kind of emotions. When we let go of things we’ve held on to (consciously or unconsciously) energy is freed within us and we come closer to our true nature beyond all the stories and roles we’ve created and identify us with. But letting go of the identity we’ve created through our storytelling is hard and our nature is to hold on to the known rather than surrendering to the unknown.
Changes may be difficult to handle and letting go is a challenge even if we might be prepared as we have chosen to be on this yoga path. But for people around us – family members, spouses, partners, friends, colleagues etc who have not chosen our path or our change, it may be a surprise that’s not always met with open arms. Suddenly we’re no longer that person they’ve always known us as. Although our lifestyle, behaviour and choices may have taken a turn for the better it may be hard for them to accept. They might think you’re behaving strangely when your priorities change and you start getting up early to do practice (and also going to bed early), maybe changing your diet to include less animal products, drinking less alcohol and thus becoming more focused (all behaviours that may go against the socially accepted ones in society) etc. Because others have not experienced the transformation of the practice themselves they might find it difficult to accept the new you. This can create conflict within in our relationships and within us. We’ll start to question ourselves – Am I doing the right thing? Who am I really? Maybe they are right – the practice isn’t good for me. Maybe I should quit doing these weird shapes on the yoga mat –and so on.
A personal anecdote on this is a story from my second or third trip to Mysore many years ago. There was a group of six or seven girls getting together for a chat ant chai on a roof top one afternoon. We talked about life, yoga of course as one often does in Mysore and relationships. It turned out all of us were single at the time, and more interestingly that we’d all experienced a break up from a long term relationship at about the time we were taught Kapotasana, an intense back bend in the Intermediate series of Ashtanga yoga. Now does that mean that Kapotasana is the “break-up” posture? Of course not – it could all just have been a coincidence. Maybe each of our relationships would have ended anyway as people oftentimes grow apart or develop in different directions. That said, the practice does, as discussed above, further physical and emotional changes within us that may contribute to changes in our overall lives. Kapotasana is a particularly challenging posture that potentially brings up a lot of stored emotions, as does the Intermediate series per se when it stimulates our central nervous system. Furthermore, according to my teacher Sharath Jois, doing too much asana practice (twice a day or too many asanas too quickly) may also cause aggression in an individual (probably because it brings too much yang – that’s my interpretation at least).
Every yoga journey is different and we all face different challenges depending on our background and current circumstances. Some of us are fully supported by our social networks others not. Important is to be aware of potential obstacles on the path, either generated by the games played by our own minds or by external actors. How do we deal with these factors? How do we stay true to ourselves and our path and how can we avoid losing ourselves in the stories created by our mind (and egos) in reaction to others’ opinions or external situations? How can we maintain an inner and outer balance?
Yoga philosophy gives us the tools of yama and niyama, in particular “ahimsa” – the absence of harm and “satya” – truthfulness which apply both to our behaviour towards ourselves and others. Trying to observe these principles is a process of trial and error that we have to go through in order to learn and grow. Practice is built on Kriya yoga – yoga of action; Tapas (discipline and patience of a regular practice), Svadhyaya (study and inquiry) and Isvara Pranidhana (surrender, trust in the unknown and the process). On the path of our practice (our sadhana) we may experience pain (physical, emotional, psychological), resistance, doubt, desire aversion and other feelings. By meeting these sensations but with open eyes, curiosity, humility and patience and ideally under the guidance of an experienced teacher we can learn to see beyond them. Without the support of a teacher who has also walked the walk, it might be confusing and difficult to handle the sensations that may arise along your yoga path. Yoga won’t ruin your life; instead it has the potential to enrich, make you stronger, more present, and balanced and free you from being a slave to your impulses, desires, aversions and delusions. Yoga is a journey of continuous learning where “change is the only constant”. Every day is a new beginning, every practice on the mat is a new start every breath is a new birth.