If you have ever taken a yoga class then you know that yoga makes you feel better. It eases some of your suffering! And chances are, if you’re reading this, you decided to go back for more. And if you’re a regular, like me, you’ve noticed that your life outside the yoga class has also changed for the better. So what gives?
There are a hundred reasons I can give for what happens within your layers to make you feel better. Your body releases toxins. It becomes leaner and stronger. Your hormones balance. Your breath becomes deeper and fuller. Your chronic pain and inflammation is strangely relieved. You sleep better. You have better sex.
These reasons have mostly to do with the effects yoga has on our physical condition, which is great – since we suffer so much from states of physical dis-ease. However, we can surya namaskar until we’re sore, trikonasana until we’re tired and still, when we step off our mats and back into our lives, we’re the same flawed unglamorous, mistake making, suffering creatures. We’re just a little more flexible. So, how do we bring our practice off the mat to change the rest of our lives? The first step is to understand what we are, why we suffer and what we can do to change it. We can look to the Yoga Sutras for answers.
In a recent blog on Why We are Here, I described the ancient philosophical tradition of Samkhya, on which the yoga we practice is based. This tradition tells us that we are all essentially the same. That is, we have come from one source. We carry around a drop of that source and when we die, we return to source.
Think of that drop inside of each of us as being a bright pure light inside of each of us. While we are in identification with that light (with that source) we feel whole. We are a brightly shining light surrounded by an ocean of more brightly shining light. But as soon as we identify ourselves with something other than source, we separate. It is as if a lampshade has been dropped over our heads and we cannot see as clearly, or burn as brightly.
The shade is called a Klesha. There are 5 of them and they act like filters through which we see the world. As long as the kleshas exist within us, we cannot fully realize or actualize the SELF.
The first veil that darkens our lights is called Avidya. The Yoga Sutras state that avidya is to mistake the non-eternal for the eternal, the impure for the pure, the self for the SELF. Swami Satyananda Saraswati states, “Avidya is the source of . . .(the other kleshas). Just as the seed is the cause of the whole tree, so avidya is the source of the other four kleshas.” In order to remove the original suffering, we must burn the seed of avidya to ash. We can only do that by chopping down the rest of the tree that has grown out of avidya, ie, the 4 remaining kleshas.
Asmita is the next klesha to take hold of us. Asmita is “I am-ness”. Swami Satyananda Saraswati states, “it is as if a prince in the garb of a beggar is identifying with the role he is playing.” The identification of self is not supremely fulfilling like identification with SELF. So we set off down the road toward validation and away from that which makes us uncomfortable. These tendencies make up the next two kleshas.
Raga is our attraction to things. Underlying this condition is the misperception that we are incomplete and that something outside us is going to make us complete. It’s great when we actually GET the thing that makes us happy, the lover, the chocolate, the paycheck. . . But what happens when it is taken away, or used up, or if we fail to achieve it? Suffering! According to the tradition of yoga, raga is to be avoided as much as it’s sister, dwesha.
Dwesha is the opposite side of that coin: aversion. Dwesha is the suffering that occurs when the world shows up in a way that we don’t like. Think of the things you avoid in your life: Feeling cold. The exhausting neighbor. Spinach souffle. Swami Satyananda Saraswati states that it is important to remove dwesha (the aversion to the object, not the object!) first since it is the more powerfully binding of the two and then raga will follow.
Abhinivesha is fear of death through attachment to the body. This death does not have to be a physical death, as we experience death on different levels throughout our lives. Death of relationships, habits, attachment to objects. It is a fear of death on some level that also leads us back down that same road toward raga and dwesha. We avoid certain circumstances and run toward others for fear of death on some level.
Yoga is a spiritual path toward self actualization – it’s a roadmap for finding our way back through the layers of self until we can re-identify with SELF. But the process is one of absolute destruction. We must destroy the tree from blossom to leaf to limb to trunk to seed in order to transcend our human predicament. So how are we to do this? What is a practical prescription to suffering that doesn’t require disappearing into the himalayas for 300 lifetimes? We look again to the Yoga Sutras for advice.
The first thing to do is universal advice, best quoted from an inscription on the ancient oracle in Delphi, Greece: ”Know Thyself”. When you feel suffering, stop what you’re doing and examine it. What is the klesha you are experiencing? Are you suffering because the world isn’t showing up as you think it should be (dwesha)? Are you suffering because you fear something will be taken away from you (abhinivesha)? Allow yourself to follow the feeling of the suffering from it’s blossom to it’s root. Allow it to teach you what you need to know in order to transcend it rather than spend your energy avoiding it. Avoidance just gives it more power over you. This examination of self is referred to as Svadyaya. It is one of the two cornerstone yamas and niyamas of the Yoga Sutras.
When the state of the klesha has been reduced, the Yoga Sutras advise you to perform some opposite action to keep your energies moving toward transcendence of the obstacle. If you are a very spiritual person, you might perform some Bhakti yoga such as prayer, mantra or kirtan (song). This practice of directing your energies toward the divine source is another cornerstone of the yamas and niyamas called Bramacharya (literally, “chewing on the divine”).
The final Rx is to remove your suffering by immersing yourself in service to others. This action is called Seva. It is the act of service toward others for the sake of removing their suffering. Acts of seva burn Karma and inevitably remove some your own suffering.
My teacher, Kaoverii Weber, calls seva “an effective mental health strategy”. You can do seva without having to donate all of your money or volunteer hours at soup kitchens (though this is highly recommended!) Tomorrow when you wake up, before you even get out of bed, remind yourself that every single person you meet this day is also a manifestation of divine consciousness. Make a vow to yourself that you will in some way make efforts to ease the suffering of another individual without expectation of reward. You can direct this selfless service toward members of your own family or toward anyone or everyone you meet during your day. When the day is done, take 30 minutes to quietly reflect on how much your suffering has been relieved and how much brighter your light shines.
Please check back for more blogging on Yoga Rx, Yamas, Niyamas, Karma, Kirtan and Seva.