An Examined Life Worth Living: My Exploration of The Living Gita & The Yoga Sutras
My venture into the study of yoga has yielded many insights and opportunities for self-examination. Firstly, my original impression of yoga (as highly exacerbated by movies and social media) was that of a physical feat of acrobatics and flexibility; secondly, upon discovering that "real yoga" isn't just a physical session, but primarily a lifestyle practice that encompasses philosophy, self-examination and spiritual surrender - then I began to wonder if I had mistakenly embarked on a religious quest, obviously the wrong religion, because religion was the last thing I was looking for.
As life would have it, this is exactly what I needed, except it wouldn't arrive exactly the way I had predicted. The seeds for my yoga journey were planted, however my personal expectations meant that this path took many unexpected turns, getting lost a number of times, and taking a few scenic routes to read the signs along the way. I continued to sample various modes of wellness and exercise, but life continually redirected me back to yoga.
Yoga resonates with my need to be mentally engaged with whatever task is at hand, so my physical movements became thoughtful and deliberate, not something to be rushed and over with. Requiring such mindfulness meant that yoga would inevitably confront my personal deterrence to self-examination and spiritual practice. Examining my personal short-comings and surrendering myself were never part of my plan, but yoga continued to ask that I do so.
My first challenge occurred during my study of the Yamas & Niyamas. Learning about the social disciplines, the Yamas, of non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, nonexcess, and non-possessiveness were already widely socially accepted guidelines that were easy to digest. The self-restraints of the Niyamas, however, proved to be more difficult. I understood the need for purity and contentment for living an honourable and fulfilled life as a yogi; however, being the non-religious practitioner that I am, I greatly struggled with these concepts of self-examination and surrender. I interpreted these as examining my flaws (sins) and relinquishing my will and control (surrender to religion). I had convinced myself that I wasn't prepared for this, and that I shouldn't have to be. However, the group of yogis that I was studying the Yamas & Niyamas with all seemingly embraced these principles as common knowledge and were eager to share their insights and experiences - so apparently I had some research to do.
I delved into my self-study, svadhyaya, via meditating (trying many times over and with great frustration) and journaling. Through meditation I encountered my ego in its finest form: doubts, instilling ideas of "specialness", negotiating with myself, comparisons with others. These base illusions were a distraction from clarity and attaining my higher purpose, my Higher Self. The well-trained mind of a Yogi, concentrating on the Self, is as steady as a flame in a windless place (Gita 6:19). From this practice all the obstacles disappear and simultaneously dawns knowledge of the inner Self (Sutra 1:29). Gradually, one's mastery in concentration extends from the primal atom to the greatest magnitude (Sutra 1:40). I began to realize that these distractions/illusions only serve to convince us that we are individually "more special" than others, than nature and our greater universe.
Meditation presented the opportunity to quiet my surroundings by removing/reducing distracting stimuli, to quiet my busy external-seeking mind, to look inward by openly and honestly observing what my thoughts presented, why these thoughts and feelings arise, to examine the "why and how" of these sensations, and beginning the exploration of addressing these. Like a shadow, the ego is diminished once we shine awareness onto it: Just as the naturally pure crystal assumes shapes and colours of objects near it, so the Yogi's mind, with its totally weakened modifications, becomes clear and balanced and attains the state devoid of differentiation between knower, knowable and knowledge. This culmination of meditation is samadhi (balanced state)(Sutra 1:41). Resetting the ego in its proper perspective, I was able to begin the work of self-study, being able to meditate without attachment or judgment, experiencing content, and finally some degree of Samadhi: Disciplined by Yoga practices, the mind becomes calm and tranquil. Then the individual self (jiva) beholds the true Self and is completely satisfied (Gita 6:20).
As my self-study and awareness intensified, my ego slowly diminished, my willingness to surrender control slowly gained precedence. I gradually came to the realization that I could make or break my own santosha (contentment) based on my choice to either engage or resist the process; an experience that we all encounter in our own time and in our own way. We each experience some degree of "human obstacles" (ego, ignorance, attachment, etc.), and will determine our own method of addressing these. There is no one-size-fits-all road map for this life experience, so we would logically presume that there is no universal cure. However, my experience of reading the Gitas and Sutras outline some very basic principles regarding the Yogic path and how the act of rediscovering and knowing oneself is the key to self-reflection, realization and contentment with oneself and life all around. This path of self-discovery is varied for each person, yet the overlaying principle is quite Universal.
Through self-study/svadhyaya, I have realized a very significant and ironic life lesson: by turning my thoughts inward via meditation and contemplation - I can see better beyond these trivial attachments of the ego (material possessions, competition and the need to control) and see beyond my personal scope to view of the larger interplay of life that I am a part of. As your mind becomes harmonized through Yoga practices, you begin to see the Atman in all beings and all beings in your Self; you see the same Self everywhere and in everything (Gita 6:29). There is a grander working of life, people, events - a whole universe - out there that does not revolve around my opinions, problems and attachments, and will continue to exist and operate in the absence of these concerns. Samprajnata samadhi (discerning contemplation) is accompanied by reasoning, reflecting, rejoicing and pure I am-ness (Sutra 1:17). This particular svadhyaya inevitably led to my experience of Isvara Pranidhana, surrender, that was once a formidable obstacle due to my attachments and refusal to surrender my need to control.
Once I could look inward, I could look outward with openness, tolerance, curiosity and awe. When you have your mind well trained so it rests solely in Atman (the Self), without wanting anything, then you are established in Yoga (union with God) (Gita 6:18). In finding my Self, and surrendering, I found my true essence of yoga: union with God - exactly what yoga had intended for me.
Written by: Elizabeth Fox, YogaFit 200hr Alumni