Upon learning that I teach yoga, people often tell me that they first tried yoga because Madonna does it, or Sting and Trudie do it, and that their motivation was to shape their bodies into sleek and sinewy silhouettes, like the rock stars have.
While I try to acknowledge such comments instead of dismissing them, they reiterate our susceptibility to these images of physical perfection that pervade our visual landscape.
They may even motivate many of us, in this instance, yoga, in hope of experiencing its mythic, physical benefits, and that toned body. And, with the plethora of yoga DVDs boasting titles such as “Fat Free Yoga” and “Yoga Booty Ballet,” it also becomes evident that yoga entrepreneurs have been quick to profit from our culture’s striving for the physical ideal, stripping Yoga down to callisthenics and feeding our insecurities along the way.
Which begs, the question, has Yoga simply been eclipsed by our material-focused culture? Can this ancient practice maintain deeper philosophical roots in our contemporary landscape of want and desire? In fact, can we experience something like happiness through yoga?
Eoin Finn, one of Canada’s most well-known yoga instructors, calls himself a Blissologist. “More than just physical yoga, I’m interested in what makes us happy,” he says.
“Even the students who come to a Yoga class at first because they are excited to wear a pair of flattering Yoga pants, eventually open up to the deeper spiritual aspects of the practice. Yoga transforms people without them expecting to be transformed.”
It may well be that insidious aspect of yoga that makes it so powerful. Whatever your initial motivations may have been to get to a yoga class, once you start practicing yoga, you cannot help but become more aware of how you live, what you eat, where your clothing comes from and how you treat the people in your life. And with this growing self-awareness also comes a sense of self-acceptance, and a movement toward balancing our innate competitive drive that so often drives us to a point of exhaustion.
Finn emphasizes this idea of balance.
“There is a time and place for competition,” he says, “after all, if humans hadn’t had that drive, we might still be one-celled beings. However, in the Hatha or physical Yoga practice, you need to learn to temper competition with contentment i.e. a physical and mental state of peace and ease the world. In fact there are only two possibly outcomes when you override contentment with a competitive attitude in your yoga practice. Either you get hurt, or you get frustrated and quit.”
Though it seems particularly relevant today in a time when we are learning that our era of eighty-hour workweeks and expansionism at any cost is unsustainable, this idea of finding balance through physical yoga is ancient. In fact, yoga texts have noted that the qualities essential for a good yoga practice are, “sthira and sukha.”
TKV Desikachar, in the book “The Heart of Yoga” explains “sthira and sukha” as the interplay between “steady alertness and lightness and comfort of being.” Which means that in order to experience the true benefits of yoga we must find that elusive balance between our competitive, outwardly focused nature and an inward looking contentment.
Tilak Pyle, Yoga teacher and founder of the online community I Hanuman, agrees.
“The fundamental purpose of yoga is to realize and experience the truth of who we are” he says, “ and yoga teaches that happiness is an inherent component of our true identity.”
In Sanskrit, the words used to describe our essential nature are Sat-Cit-Ananda; translated as Truth-Knowledge-Bliss, implying that happiness is indeed an intrinsic part of our nature.
The challenge lies in recognizing and accessing the bliss and happiness within us.
Pyle continues, “We don’t always feel comfortable in our bodies. We don’t always feel content in our minds. And we often don’t feel connected and at home in the world around us. The different yoga practices (of which the physical or Asana practice is just one aspect), are all meant to reveal our “stuck spots”, the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal blockages that prevent us from experiencing our inner peace.”
Though a disciplined practice of yoga may allow our body to become stronger and supple, it is through the transformation of our mind and the opening of our heart that we can access happiness. As we become more patient and self-accepting, our attitude towards our yoga practice begins to evolve. We start to listen to our body’s feedback, and practice Yoga with a sense of compassion, kindness and love towards our self.
As Finn notes, “When we take the pressure off our self to keep up with others and let go of self-critical commentary, our yoga practice becomes a powerful way to condition our outlook to life in a way that will lead toward profound happiness.”
Strategies for aspiring towards happiness through your yoga practice:
- Balance your competitive drive with the idea of contentment and ease
- Listen to your body’s authentic feedback and act upon it. If you need to rest, do so, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the class is doing.
- Become aware of the more intangible benefits that yoga offers you and try to access them on and off the mat. Ask yourself, are you more patient in your relationships now that you practice yoga?
- Spend time in nature and so you can feel that sense of awe at watching a flower blossom, the sun set or rise (without taking a photograph, or sending an email about it).
- Connect to a community of like-minded individuals.
- Realize that we are bound to every being and to our larger environment around us.
- Breathe deeply.
- Find stillness.
The author recently attended Finn’s Yoga for Happiness Retreat at Hollyhock Retreat Centre on Cortes Island.
To learn more about yogi / blissologist Eoin Finn visit: www.eoinfinnyoga.com
To learn more about Tilak Pyle and his ihanuman, global yoga community, visit: www.ihanuman.com
For information on TKV Desikachar's teachings visit: http://www.kym.org/