I remember attending a yoga intensive a few months after I began meditating regularly. It was a grey, rainy morning. I woke up late and I was in a really terrible mood. Rushing to get to the program, I waited for the bus in the rain, feeling angry at the bus driver. I was ready, even waiting, for the chance to lash out at anyone and everyone. I walked into the meditation hall still seething with anger and frustration. As I took my seat, inwardly, I heard a man’s voice clearly say,
‘This is not who you are. I will show you who you really are.”
I looked up at my teacher’s picture at the front of the hall and his glance penetrated my being. It cut right through all the negativity I was experiencing. Instinctively, I was able to see myself kicking and screaming with rage as if I was watching my inner tantrum from outside. Inwardly, I bowed and surrendered to him. Waves of emotion arose, tears came. I felt an intense longing to know who I was beneath my anger and frustration and negativity, to know who I really was. It was the beginning of a journey toward understanding and experiencing who I was beyond what my mind and my emotions told me.
Yoga practice has both a constructive and a destructive aspect. Yoga practice gives us ways both to recognize the state of yoga as our own, AND to get rid of whatever obscures that experience. It fortifies our recognition of our fundamental interconnection to the whole and also gradually chips away at the thought-patterns that veil this experience (such as my irrational anger and impatience). Over time, it leads us toward remembering this truth more and embodying it in our lives.
This is why ‘transformation’ in yoga is not so much about attaining anything or becoming anything new. It’s actually more about getting rid of whatever is getting in the way of the experience of our true essence. This is a crucial understanding about transformation in yoga practice. Our effort in yoga is never about becoming anything other than what we truly are. And this process is largely about working with the mind.
An important part of how yoga works us is in giving us ways to identify and release limiting habitual, ingrained thought patterns called samskaras. Yoga helps us become self-aware, so we can examine and deconstruct the usual, ordinary ways we define ourselves as separate and limited beings. Therefore, the intensity of confronting our limiting patterns and experiencing our resistances is a real and important part of shift in yoga.
A big part of the process of shift in yoga involves recognizing and examining the ego. In yoga, the term for ego is Ahamkara (lit. “I-maker”). Unlike in Western psychology, in yoga ‘ego’ refers to the faculty of cognition that encompasses how we identify ourselves as individuals, including our roles, our personality, our preferences, our likes and dislikes. While all this is needed and necessary for life in the world, ego is also recognized as that which can limit and hold us separate when we forget that the ego has its source and is in fact powered by the greater energy of consciousness, the unadorned Self, where individual differences dissolve into the space unity.
Asana as a Tool to Go Beyond the Mind
Over the years I’ve had students from all walks of life - artists, doctors, lawyers, musicians, politicians and more. They all come into class with their yoga clothes on, put their mats down. As the class starts to move and breathe together, the outer differences dissolve. No matter how significant we might be in our outer lives, yoga is a great equalizer - our hamstrings all need stretching, our shoulders all need opening, and we all need a break from the business of the day. There can be great freedom in just realizing this opportunity to pause from the roles we play in the world for a time to simply move and breathe with awareness. For a little while, the ego softens, and we are free to be exactly, only and all of who we are in that moment.
That experience is can certainly be enjoyable and freeing. And yet, something more profound is also happening when we practice asana with the awareness of this larger context for practice as a reunion with our truest sense of Self. When we breathe, move, and open the body mindfully, we bring awareness to previously closed off spaces, literally awakening new pathways for breath and consciousness to move through. By bringing ourselves into greater physical and energetic alignment, we harmonize our individual selves with our universal source, moving us into greater resonance with our most essential Self. By awakening consciousness in the body through asana practice, we fuel the subtle energetic shifts that help to process emotions and eventually let go of old stories that no longer serve and make space for something more expanded to take hold.