If eyes can see, they can see yoga represented in online snapshots, in videos, in classes, in magazines. The eyes see bodies not our own doing yoga, and the mind may inspire the heart toward yoga. See the yoga, go to the yoga, sign up for the class, arrive. The rumor of yoga has been a blessing in many ways.
But the mind may also pressure the heart to do yoga so that a drive toward doing leads to a kind of physical or mental being. The pressure may push the heart out of the dynamic present and into a series of stills of the imagined body, a picture of a self. And, in so doing, we lose the inner sight of the yoga.
It’s a challenge to be among others in a room where yoga is being guided and not to be distracted outside of our insides. The job of the teacher is to gently help the body and the mind to find space, but the mind is busy. Very busy. It wants to know when this body will be able to do what that body does; it may also want other bodies to see what it does so beautifully. The mind may wonder what’s for dinner, or when this practice will be over so that other tasks can get done and be over. The mind yanks us out of the attention to the breath and the quivering presence of a posture, and we reach with the brain toward what we hope we will become, or to what we imagine or worry is next. Or to what we fear we will never become. Or, with pride, toward what we have become.
“Now,the teachings of yoga.”
The first of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the guiding texts of yoga practice, is this: atha yoganuaasanam. “Now, the teachings of yoga.” I emphasize here in this quotation the word “now”; this first sutra anchors the attention to the present moment. The present moment—the now—is where we begin our practice, and it is where we aim to remain in our practice as we softly attend to the breath-led movement of asana. However, we know that the reaching back, around, and forward with a goal-oriented awareness takes us out of the now, out of the body, into an ethereal space that is disconnected from the process. In those long, distracted stretches of time we are not in the now. So, what to do?
Compassionate understanding: being out of the now is where the mind wants to be. It is essentially human to engage in surveillance of the environment, to future-think, to dwell on the past as experiential teaching and use it as a lens to perceive the present and future. It is fundamentally self-protective to respond to struggle with anxiety, to practice a vigilant comparison of ourselves to others. Indeed, negativity bias is what has helped us to survive in the wild for thousands of years.
And yet, can we ask ourselves whether surveillance is always necessary, and whether it may be causing unnecessary pain? There is suffering in the tension between what we expect and what reality is presenting to us; do we have to subject ourselves to such suffering? Can we believe that when we allow ourselves to bring the mind to the present moment—to the breath, to the nose, to the feet on the floor, to the bottom in the seat—we can actually let go of that struggle?
That inquiry is at the heart of yoga—are we willing to sit in that heartspace for a while or longer? Are we willing to come back to it again, and again, and again?
Because we are accustomed to mind-noise and mind-wandering and self-comparison, we bring those tendencies to yoga. Of course, we do. But the yoga becomes the mirror that shows us we are doing it. The teacher reminds us. And, in our developing self-practice, the Witness in our own minds reminds us. Sometimes it takes long stretches of postures before we realize that we have mentally wandered far from the now. And then we come back to the moment. We wander away, and we come back.
That is the essence: we come back. Release from goals, let go of being on the look-out for the past and future. Hear the breath, be steeped in the process of the practice. In turn, we are processed by the practice: wrung out, relieved, relocated in time to the only moment we can know. This one.
Rebecca Ingalls, Ph.D., MSN, CNM, WHNP-BC, is a certified nurse-midwife, women’s health nurse practitioner, and yogi. She is a mother of two, and she has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for 11 years. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.