Stop Doing “Yoga”

Meditating Patrick.

I think we can all feel there’s something anxious about the Western appeal to yoga. That half of the cargo was somehow lost on the boat-trip from India, inadvertently leaving us with all of the gymnastics and none of the spirit. But many of us keep practicing yoga as if it were just another fitness routine, another stress-relief technique, another form of relaxation after a long day at work – another way to improve. (Hello, mindfulness!) The average yoga class is packed with athletes of productivity, mid-life crises, digital nomads, single men, gurus of optimisation, and retired women… In need for a break from neurosis. Or from the contradictions of consumer society. In search for a peace of mind, for happiness, for meaning.

I feel you. I’m searching, too – because we have grown up thinking these things are to be found outside of our minds. In the next job, relationship, hobby, purchase. That we are on the cusp of finally and fully relaxing – we just need to get this done, to get this sorted, and then we’ll be fine! Yet the root teachings of yoga are crystal-clear. Here are the opening lines of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

(Sutra 1.1) Now, the teachings of yoga begin.
(Sutra 1.2) Yoga is the cessation [mastery] of the fluctuations of the mind.

Now, who among us will honestly claim that our goal in practicing yoga – or in living – is to free ourselves from the yoke of compulsive thought? We are usually more concerned with decreasing stress in the short-term; with looking better in the mirror; with getting stronger to hold a flying-pigeon for longer. (Daft Punk said it best: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.) Can you feel the lexical anxiety? You are choking the pigeon…

Still. Some of these paltry goals hide worthy attempts to improve our human condition. To become more flexible (in the mind, too.) To find repose. There is nothing wrong with trying to become healthier, stronger, looser. And even a highly superficial form of yoga comes with many measurable benefits. (Hello, mindfulness!). So feel free to keep stretching, to keep breathing, to keep saluting the sun with the sweat of your brow.

But it might be worth “spending” your precious time on earth understanding what yoga really is about. Of figuring out whether it is ultimately satisfying to gesticulate for a couple hours every week, if you are absorbed by stress & distraction & self-centredness for the remaining 166 hours. Can you expect to find a lasting peace of mind if your attraction to “spirituality” is limited to a little meditating here (with earpods, on the way to work) and a little stretching there (with colleagues, on the way back)? Is your way of life compatible with the calm you are desperately searching for in yoga?

Mine isn’t, either. We are beings of contradiction. But if you honestly wish to practice yoga, ask yourself: what for? If it’s for a good workout, or a good stretch: go ahead. Although perhaps call it “yoga” [place your index & middle fingers into inverted commas while pronouncing the word], instead of yoga. In which case it is just a functional desire, with a specific utility, like going to the gym: it will not liberate you from the jaws of your mind.

But if you wish to find fulfilment, well-being, contentment, serenity, eudaimonia – call it what you will; if you wish to bloom, go back to the sutras. You will find that there need be no separation between yoga and the rest of your life. (The same could be said of your mindfulness practice, your art, your relationships, your work. In the words of Sam Harris, « Your life is not a stage rehearsal. This is the show. ») And the word yoga is particularly evocative in this sense: it is a lexical cognate of the English word yoke – to unite, to bond together.

Ask yourself the question, and place a first stone on the path you would like to walk – if not the one you are walking.

Thank-yous. Thank you Mum, for sharing with me a little book named Living the Sutras. It comes with the usual self-centred proclivity, but skillfully lays the foundations of a bridge between our Western minds and the ancient Eastern practice.

Post-scriptum for the curious. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. But why is that the goal? Isn’t conceptual thought a powerful tool, that we ought to train and cherish? Of course, it is – when wielded as a tool. The point is not to eliminate thoughts and feelings, but to alter our relationship to them. To be capable of beholding them as the sky beholds the cloud, the bird and the rain. To rest in a more primary space of awareness, of plain consciousness, and to witness experience with a gentle inner smile – rather than being bowled over in every moment by the hamster wheel of grasping and aversion, of pain and pleasure. Thus lands the third sutra:

(Sutra 1.3) Then the seer [witness] dwells in his own nature.

When you can simply see, listen, taste, smell, feel, think, without becoming identified with these fluctuations of the mind, without judging, without condemning, without choosing – when you can simply look and the mind flows, then you become a witness. Then you are not a doer, or a thinker (a noun). You are just being (a verb). Then you may dwell in your true nature: in consciousness.