written by Celina Granato
Nearly 20 years ago when I became interested in learning Yoga, I didn’t notice much beyond stretching and was mostly focused on its benefits to my body.
I imagine that’s how it is initially for many yogis. It’s difficult not to be focused out on the outer world, especially when the mainstream makes it so easy with advertisements of what the masses look like. Yogis sporting trendy outfits and sleek mats. Images of dripping wet vinyasa practitioners or contortionist postures that seemingly defy gravity. That might be a product of the physical practice, but the dedicated student will come to see in time what lies beyond the pose. It’s not about hard workouts or a good sweat—and there’s no such thing as “Nama’slay”.
Yoga as Spiritual Discipline
I can assure you I am NOT a guru. I claim no specialty in Yoga style or limb, but what I am is a keen observer of experience. If there is one thing I can profess, it’s the role Yoga has played in fortifying me as a spiritual activist.
My spiritual life deepened as Yoga provided me application for self-study. I liken this self-study process to observing “layers of an onion”, which are analogous to mental constructs we hold about who we think we are in the world; ideas that make up our experience.
The layers are symbolic of our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and emotions. Upon closer examination, you’ll see that these layers can take on a variety of forms—all functions of ego: personal identification, expectations, preconceived notions, physical limitations, analysis, organization, labeling, judgement, etc. Using an onion as metaphor makes it easier to visualize multiple layers that make up the human mind; moreover, layers can be peeled away.
All these “layers” of mind reinforce a separated and limited identity. Resistance to letting go process does not make peeling easy, but it can be done and having a good thought system is worth its weight in gold. If we’re holding onto mental layers, they’ll obstruct us from having a more fulfilling experience.
Any clarity, increased connection and meaning I have garnered in my life has always been the result of spiritual discipline. The following are themes that have revisited me time and again through Yoga practice and may be helpful to offer here:
- Breath is Paramount. Breathing is the first and last thing we’ll ever do. Isn’t it interesting how we can’t live without the breath, we rarely give a thought about it and almost always do it unconsciously? Being mindful of the breath can teach us about presence and lead to stilling the mind. Notice that when you watch your breath, you are here and now.
- Resistance – Yes, Pain – No. In the Yoga Sūtra-s, Patañjali addressed āsana practice, for which he said Yoga postures should be “steady and comfortable”. While you practice non-harm and avoid pain, it is possible to experience mental discomfort as resistance. This type of resistance is challenging and used for growth; physical practice should not produce pain.
- Nothing in the world stays the same. All things change over time, including relationships. If you hold Utthita Parsva Konasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) for 90 seconds, and I promise you your relationship with the posture will have changed from where it was 2 minutes before! Are you the same person today as you were five minutes, 10 months and 20 years ago? My relationship with my boyfriend today is not the same as it was two years ago. Remaining curious about change allows ease and lessening of control and opening to a greater understanding and acceptance to the transitory nature of the world.
- Awareness is Key. Increased awareness happens over time through meditation and mindfulness practice. More awareness naturally leads to better choices in thinking, which is the way you perceive your experience, and opens you to deeper aspects of self.
The peeling of layers isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s felt like burning at times. But Yoga has assisted me in this disidentification of what the world has us believe and it helps me better understand that there is only Spirit. For me, Spirit represents perfect love and unwavering peace, an experience we’re all walking towards.
Sometimes I like to think of Yoga as an agent for Spirit, and that has been out to get me. Over the years it’s become an old friend. Not only is it a path, but it is also walking the journey with me. Assisting me as I let go of old ideas that no longer serve, which in return has created space for an upgraded system of thought to start looking in a way that is beyond how the world sees.
In some ways, Yoga appears to be this thing that people do. Something for personal development, like it’s a road to get us to a place, somewhere we are not. But instead, Yoga facilitates a process of Undoing, not a doing. The Yoga practice takes the student inward because the student really has “no-thing” to do with the outside world. Our experience in the world is that we’re bodies, but that’s not what we really are.
What does it mean when all the mental layers are peeled and cast away? The linear mind sees it as there is nothing left. And that’s just it, a paradox. You learn that all those layers really are not a thing! And as layers of the onion begin peeling away, the student recognizes they are also not their thoughts. Going all the way means giving up nothing for everything in return. It is both a welcoming home and realizing that you never even left Home in the first place.