WHAT YOGA CAN ACTUALLY DO FOR YOU
No, I’m not gonna talk about your hamstrings, or your stress levels, or your flexibility or physical accomplishments in “challenging” poses. I’m not even really gonna talk about healing heartbreak, or grief, or trauma, or learning to balance, or looking younger longer. This conglomeration of words is about why for some people yoga works, and for some people yoga doesn’t. It’s about the real causes of your happiness, whatever form they may come in, and why it’s important to understand that in order to take full advantage of what yoga has to offer - that is, if you are gonna spend $20 something dollars and 2.5 hours to make it to a class, take the class, and get on with your day - it shouldn't be a waste of all that time and energy. You may as well get it while the getting is good! So listen up!
The most important experience you can have in your life is to see yourself in another. According to the yoga tradition, if one has this experience directly, it is impossible to ever take an imperfect action ever again. A perfect action is defined as an action that leads to a result that we actually want, and most of the time we are not necessarily engaged in these kinds of actions. Most of our actions are somewhat “imperfect,” meaning we do things, and expect certain results, but don’t seem to get them and then get confused about our direction in life and what we need to do to achieve our goals.
What we do in the practice of yoga is get clear about the potency of every action. In meditation, we watch our thinking process and become clear on the root of where our outer actions stem from. In asana practice, we develop physical awareness from paying attention to the grounding of our baby toe to the length of the occipital ridge to the elongation of our tailbone, to the reach of our inner knee, and so on.
Once we understand the potency of the variety of forms of actions - and bear with me here - we are talking about what you are up to in every moment of life, and how you can direct it towards a future you actually want to experience - we can make conscious choices to choose actions that will plant imprints in our mind streams that will eventually result in future perceptions of the world around us and ourselves that we actually want.
There is a verse in the yoga sutras, “heyam dukham anagatam,” which means “future pain is avoidable.” What this verse tells us is that whatever we are experiencing now, we may not be able to change in the immediate present, but we can respond to it in a way that radically changes what we experience in the future. This works through seeing ourselves in others because this is the very formula that protects us from taking any actions that would cause another suffering and therefore that could cause suffering to us in the future.
When we see ourselves in another - and please I am just speaking hypothetically as I cannot say that I have had such a direct experience of that in the way that I am really able to do anything but hypothesize on it - but when we do, supposedly, what happens is: we never can do anyone harm ever again. It’s not just that we love someone and want them to be happy, or even love our kids and would do anything for them, even if it caused harm to ourselves - I am speaking about a very profound experience that changes ones interaction with all living beings forever.
I am speaking on the direct realization needed to make every single one of our actions from the moment we have the realization onwards, perfect. Let me give some examples of perfect actions. You couldn't even step on a bug because you would feel the pain in your own body as if you were the bug. You couldn't speak harshly to a customer service agent ever again because as soon as the sound came out of your mouth, you would feel like someone was yelling at you or berating you. You couldn't gossip about someone else ever again because it would immediately feel like someone was speaking poorly of you or sharing your secrets. You couldn’t blame someone else again because you would immediately feel as if someone was placing the heaviness of a situation on you. You couldn’t ever lie to someone because you would immediately understand that feeling of being lied to or feeling like you know something is off but you just can’t quite put your finger on it.
With the understanding that I am describing above guiding us, we would know how to act moment to moment, without any slips ups, in such a way that all our actions would only lead to future experiences that we would want. We would never be spoken to harshly, or find ourselves in physical danger, we would never be blamed for circumstances, or gossiped about, or lied to - not by our presidents, our parents, our lovers, our friends, our teachers, no one. The description for this in the great books on yoga is “to be fully established in” a certain kind of ethical life, that all our actions would be steeped in an understanding of their result, and we would just never do anything that could harm us in the future. Therefore, wiping out “all future pain.”
Look, this sounds nice and all. I get it. It seems really fanatical and utopian and basically far off. But how do we know if we never try it? And what would the world look like if we did indeed just try it? If you decided to play around with being extra kind with your words, extra honest, even if in the immediate moment it didn't seem to completely serve you?
Let’s be practical here too. You can’t expect yourself to act 100% of the time “perfectly” if you haven’t had the complete and direct realization, so all you can do is use this formula as much as you can remember to, and one day, that effort is thought to topple over into the so-called “direct realization.”
It’s true, bad things happen to good people. But they say, the reason that is so is because there is a time lapse between the actions we take and the results they reap. And that time-lapse is unknowable - somethings happen quickly and some things take lifetimes.
All we need to be concerned about again and again, is being loving and kind as much as we possibly can with where we are at over and over - until we have a profound realization of seeing ourselves in others. This is the shield against ever doing anything again that actually doesn’t serve our future happiness at all. We have heard this before and we know we need to be kind. But understanding the underlying reason why kindness works will boost our efforts in the right direction.
Sometimes we think being greedy or harming others doesn’t appear to harm us, it just appears to harm them. But the entire yoga tradition goes against this. It is a formula that cannot be changed around - you simply cannot practice being greedy without in the future perceiving a world of lack around you. This future perception may take time, but it is guaranteed.
This is the kind of impact that a yoga and meditation practice can have on our lives over time. The more familiar we get with the minutia of each and every action, the more imprints we will be planting in our minds that will lead to the future experiences we want. The impact of yoga and meditation is never just - “oh I will stretch and feel better for a few hours.” It is never just “let’s stay healthy for a couple of decades and then die.” The impact of yoga could actually even uproot the experience of death itself. This is not some rant Heather Lilleston made up. Look in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Study the great books.
Even if we don’t get anywhere like that, at least everyone practicing yoga will have a better understanding of the potency of actions and their results - especially the really small every day ones we do all the time - and what a difference that would make on the world.
I challenge all yoga teachers around the world to make sure that with every alignment cue and emphasis on your students “paying attention to the breath” and doing this or that with this or that body part, that you would also remember, even if it’s just a knowing inside your being while you call out instructions, that all of this is geared towards having that profound realization of seeing yourself in others, and therefore finally getting it all right!
For anyone interested in learning more about this, or understanding more specifically how to “lessen the blow” - as they say - on results of actions you have taken and regret - or to delve further into understanding how to refine your actions so they are steering your ship into the future you would prefer to experience - check out Yoga For Bad People's online course, ROOTS & CAUSES, this January.
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