Beyond Self-Care: Yoga for a Better World
Mark Whitwell| Heart of Yoga
Our lives today are defined by two demands: an urgent need for social change and a need for patient long-term commitment. As sincere and clear-sighted people we are completely aware of just how messed up a state the world is in (or rather, that humanity is in). Everywhere we look there are raging fires to be put out NOW: social, environmental, political, and personal.
At the same time, our work to transform human culture requires a long-term psychology. Anyone who has tried to make a difference knows that nothing happens without people sticking at it: often through years of difficulty and apparent failure. The reality of our lives is urgent effort that needs to be sustained over a long period of time.
How do we stay engaged, perhaps even without seeing results?
Yoga is concerned with this crucial question of how and where we direct our energy in life and the quality of our action. The second sutra of the Yoga Sutras attributed to Patanjali famously defines Yoga: ‘yogah citta vritti nirodha’.
This is often translated as something like, “Yoga is to still the whirlings or fluctuations of mind.” Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (the father of modern Yoga) offered a more nuanced definition, one that incorporated the great Tantric revelation that the whirlings of mind subside naturally when consciousness is directed toward a single point. He insisted that ‘nirodha’ implied a positive movement of choice, not just one of restraint, as it is commonly translated.
My teacher TKV Desikachar explains the importance of this linguistic accuracy:
In this process [of speaking to you] my mind has only one interest. It is almost as if my mind is completely enveloped by it. Nothing else bothers me and all my understandings with regard to this concept of nirodha come before me and I am full of it. It follows, therefore, at this moment that nothing other than this subject is before me. This is what the word nirodha means. Rudh represents the envelopment of a particular interest, ni represents the intensity of that envelopment. This is a moment the mind functions with no division of activity. The whole mind functions in one area and nothing else can interfere. The word nirodha also means “restraint.” It is not by restraining the mind that it will move and become involved in a particular direction of choice. It is the other way round; that is, so strongly and intensely the mind has moved toward one area and has become absorbed in one area that there is no “infiltration.” Therefore, nirodha, meaning “restraint,” is just an effect of nirodha meaning “complete absorption.” “Citta vritti nirodha” is how yoga is defined in the Yoga Sutra. It means that the mind has one and only one activity in all its totality and that the other activities which would distract the mind are absent.
Religiousness in Yoga — TKV Desikachar
In other words, Yoga is the practice of choosing a direction and going in that direction without being scattered by mental intrusions. This one-pointed positive direction is what we require in our commitment to caring. Yoga is a practice of absorbing ourselves in our directions with a steady, sustainable intensity.
Body, Breath, and Relationship…in that order
It goes without saying that the Yoga that I am describing here is not my own — it is not some ‘Mark Whitwell TM’ Yoga brand that I made up in L.A. Nor is it the shoddy goods that are being sold in studios around the world; those popular gymnastic brands and styles which are devoid of the principles that Krishnamacharya actually taught.
Your actual Yoga practice is the unitary movement of body, breath, and mind. We make a choice to link our mind to our body and breath. We move and breathe and feel the intelligence, power, beauty, and harmony of the whole body. We let the mind follow the breath and become absorbed in its source.
The quality of our asana is defined in the Yoga Sutra by the twin-phrases sthiram and sukham. Sthiram refers to the quality of strength, firmness, steadiness, stability, and effort that is required in our practice and our lives. Sukham refers to a softness, ease, comfort, serenity, and lightness. As we practice, we make sure that these qualities are coupled together like dance partners. These are qualities that are the keys to success in life. We want these qualities to be there, then there will be no stress in or from our actions.
If you introduce this into our lives in a non-obsessive way, I promise that you will find that your ability to go in your directions of choice in the wider world will be empowered. Your Yoga practice cultivates your ability to become absorbed in the directions that you want to go in. It will seep into your life in a sublime way. And instead of being blown about by cultural winds and mental intrusions, you are able to set sail and maintain a direct course to where you want to go.
We cultivate this natural, fulfilling ability SO THAT we are able to act intelligently and spontaneously, not in some kind of hoarding of accomplishments. Our Yoga is for the purpose of our lives, not our lives for the purpose of yoga. It is remedial activity in service to our commitment to showing up in the world, that enables us to act with discernment and compassion.
We are all such sincere people who want to see a society and culture that serves Life rather than degrades and destroys. Our intimacy with ourselves will likely raise difficult emotions in us. We do not shy away from feeling, but keep moving through the sequence of emotions to get to grief. We grieve for the entire hideous catastrophe served up on our watch, for the unnecessary suffering and blank cruelty around us. In grief, the gifts of compassion arise for ourselves and for everyone. Our capacity to feel is absolutely essential to our lives of caring.
Therefore, our Yoga is so much more than a bandaid or a self-care practice. It is the ancient practice of whole-body prayer to life, the first act of ecology, caring for ourselves so that we may continue to care for others. It is so simple and yet so powerful.
We must share it. People are in a dreadful state, and you will find yourself organically moved to share. We don’t need more Yoga studios, but we do need more friends sharing the technology of how to participate in and embrace one’s own life. Not as an identity, a job, a role, or a boss — just letting ourselves function as the force of nurturing in local community, speaking on behalf of our own heart’s flow, and therefore speaking on behalf of everyone’s.
*This article is an edited excerpt from the by-donation online course Yoga for a Better World.
- For a summary of the five key principles of Yoga that Krishnamacharya taught visit www.heartofyoga.com.
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