Yoga is mostly associated with the physical practice of postures. And when people think about yoga here in the West they think about India. They often connect yoga to spiritual practices and consider it to be flavored with Hinduism. All of those notions are true to a degree.
As another example, if you think about tai chi you probably think about fluid movements and the Chinese people. And you wouldn’t be wrong.
Both of those systems have ancient origins. Do we have anything similar here in the modern Western world?
We have gyms, we have SoulCycle, we have Barry’s Bootcamp, we have pharmacies, medical institutions, we have astrophysicists, we have modern day philosophers, we have a government, and we have consumerism.
These are some of the things that we have been following in the modern world since the time that we were children. So these other practices like yoga and tai chi seem interesting from a distance, but they don’t necessarily fit into our way of life.
I want to introduce you to these things from a different perspective. I want you to think about yoga as if it were an all-encompassing lifestyle. Think of it as beginning with concern not just for the physical exercises and the physical practices but also for our mental well-being.
Yoga in its entirety is a complete system to help a person recover from poor mental and physical health. It is a system with a suggested lifestyle plan for addressing our biggest problems: Our diet, how we care for the environment, our overall lifestyle practices such as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, our disciplines regarding how we sleep, and our overall personal bodily sanitation practices. The system took hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years to develop.
Many ancient people that lived throughout the world from the beginning of humanity lived their group lifestyles in ways that were similar to yoga practices. They didn’t necessarily do the same postures that you would see today in a yoga school. But they lived a lifestyle that adhered to living in accordance with nature.
Throughout history many bands of people lived this way. Some broke off from these groups and formed their own societies that followed the paths of greed, fulfillment of the senses, and violence.
Any practice of yoga that’s just about getting into difficult postures and tightening up the abs is really incomplete. But yoga is not a religious practice necessarily. True yoga practice is absent of any religious deities. Yoga is a medicine of sorts for the person who is broken. It is also a maintenance program to aid one in staying firmly planted on a peaceful path.
It bears mention that it’s not the only such thing available to humanity. Throughout the ages many other societies created systems that were fully complete from A to Z on how to live life, how to treat others, and how to look at the nature of reality.
Ancients who lived in Australia (oftentimes seen as aboriginals) practiced yoga by walking in nature miles and miles every day. They lived in accordance with the land and they didn’t have the same types of distractions that we do until their land was invaded.
Not being distracted was very important to them. They made concerted efforts to ensure that their consciousness remained framed in the present moment. That is something that we in the West have difficulty grasping.
The worldview that these people held encompassed absolute reverence of nature. Were we to look at them and learn from them, we would have to ask ourselves whether all of our technological advances have represented progress or decline.
For us to return to the lifestyle of the hunter gatherers that lived on this land before it was robbed from them would be next to impossible. So what is the western woman or man living in a city like New York to do in this day and age?
You first have to recognize whether or not your mind is filled with problems that are difficult to solve. If that’s the case then the solution is to borrow from all of the great teachings from all of the great tribes from all of the great continents. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to the teachings of one group of people.
We can follow in the footsteps that were laid down in the past without ignoring the realities of our present situation. No matter what, you’re still likely going to have a job and a cell phone, and you’re probably going to enjoy TV.
The shift for you might be in taking those things and not allowing them to become the center of your philosophy. They could become the peripherals of a philosophy that entailed living your life in harmony with your body, your community, all the animals, the earth itself, and the universe itself.
Take a deep breath and realize that you were created from the atomic elements of the universe. And if it wasn’t for this planet and our breath (the only thing differentiating us from inanimate objects) we would become dust and rock once again. And we can avoid many of the pitfalls of the Western way of life and show respect for our planet by living our lives more organically.
I’m suggesting a program that centers around non-violence and non-harm. That is very hard for us to grasp as human beings. That’s likely the case because a long time ago we didn’t have the same options. And it takes time, generation after generation, for us to evolve based on a collective awareness that’s embedded into the fabric of our genes. Collective knowledge is inside you and me. We can become aware of it by living in accordance with a certain lifestyle. One of the things that the lifestyle I’m speaking of requires is that we learn how to identify the sources of our anxiety. Our anxieties lead us to act out and to try to stuff negative feelings down because they’re painful.
What yoga can do for you is remarkable. If your body and your mind are open and your natural pathways to recovery are free, then yoga can help heal you. The beginning part of yoga might just be the physical practice of showing up repeatedly to your mat. That two foot by six foot mat is a place where we practice slowing down our mind and moving our body in a way that strengthens it.
All yoga is good if it is compassionate. All yoga is good if you set your intention on healing and thriving when you practice it. Set your intention on learning how to be in the present moment when you’re on the mat. It can be a difficult task for the human mind to stay planted where we are and not drift off into another moment.
Practicing yoga isn’t the only way to do that. You can do that in the boxing class. You can do that while skydiving. You can do that in the gym while lifting weights. You could do it on a run or you could do it while swimming. Every activity is great if you set your mind on that present moment and your intention is to liberate yourself from suffering. Just be sure to be in the here and now when you practice.
Is that enough? Not necessarily. A person has to devote a certain amount of time to learning. We have to learn about how our minds work. It’s certainly valuable to learn from the ancient teachings of yoga about the nature of suffering. And we can read lots of psychology books. Personal writing and having deep conversations with others about the experiences of your life are also crucial to the learning process.
You can incorporate many different practices and sciences at one time to accelerate your liberation at a pace that’s comfortable for you. Remember that a lot of us suffer not just because of the nature of the mind. We also suffer because of our childhood traumas and the things that did not happen perfectly throughout our lives.
One of the beautiful things about yoga is that you get a “two for one” every time. If you work on concentrating in the present moment you train your mind to be focused, which of course is of great benefit to a thinking rational creature. And you also get physical strength, flexibility, and relief from injury, not to mention a beautifully sculpted body over time.
I do not believe that yoga has to be thought of as a spiritual practice. I do not separate the word “spirituality” from living in the material world. Material living in a fashion that is compassionate and in compliance with the rightful laws of nature is spiritual in itself. Everything that we do is spiritual in one way or another. The question really then becomes whether what we’re doing is skillful and spiritual or sloppy and spiritual.
Of course it’s best to be skillful at everything that we do. So lots of practice is necessary. If you stick to the disciplines that yoga can provide you with, find good teachers, and incorporate other practices that you find exciting, alluring, and stimulating, you will live the fullest possible life.