Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad

Yoga as Self-Transformation (Page 7)

Joel Kramer Yoga Journal May/June 1980

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"Bad habits" can be looked upon as a way of resisting change by hooking you to immediate gratification, which is a powerful source of conditioning. The taste of food, for example, can give immediate pleasure. The power of taste makes it difficult not to let it rule you, which puts you out of touch with using food for energy and nourishment. The feeling of being out of control, unable to resist temptation, is usually a sign of physical or psychological addiction, and has mechanical aspects that keep you on automatic. Though you "know" the pleasure is not worth the pain it will cause, it is still often surprisingly difficult to resist it. Self-destructiveness involves, among other things, going for an immediate pleasure, even though the end result is pain. Part of the resistance to doing yoga stems from a deep reluctance to let go of the pleasures within the addictions. Doing yoga awarely can unhook you from those habits and addictions.

When you recognize what an important role mind plays in yoga, you can see why exploring the mind is essential. As conditioning in the body narrows the body's movements, so do habits in the mind tend to make you more "narrow-minded." A narrow mind involves more than just being attached to a particular set of beliefs. It narrows the whole field of perception and also cuts off emotional responsiveness and empathy. Rigidity in the mind constricts mental movement and consequently limits the field of what is possible for you in life. The beliefs, values, headsets, and even the wants that live in thought create self-images that determine what you think, imagine, and therefore what you do. In physical yoga, the process of confronting and nudging the body's limits, blocks, and conditionings opens and transforms you. So, too, as you get to know your mind, how it works and where your psychological limits are, the process opens the mind and literally expands consciousness.

How much do memory, expectation, and immediate gratification affect the way you do yoga? What thoughts come up during your yoga practice? Are there postures you look forward to doing, while you avoid others? Do you hurry the ones you don't like to get them over with? Does your mind wander? Do you contemplate what posture to do next, how long you have left to go, or what you're going to do after yoga? These types of thoughts may cross your mind while doing yoga. Naturally, they greatly influence how you do the pose and the quality of energy generated.

Most of us involved in yoga tell ourselves we want to grow. If we look honestly at this, what we generally mean by "growth" is keeping everything about ourselves and our lives that we like, getting rid of what we don't like, and getting more of what we think we're going to like. Real growth and transformation move you not only from things you don't like, but also from pleasures and habits you're attached to. You cannot be certain how you would be if you were different or in what direction growth will take you. Real growth has aspects of unpredictability in it that can not only alter your habits, but even the very likes and dislikes, or preferences, that underlie them.

People often ask this kind of question: "To do yoga, will I have to give up wine and steak?" It's important to understand that the fear of giving up or losing certain pleasures (whatever they may be) can bring the reaction of holding on more tightly, which limits your yoga and growth. There are so many pleasures and habits that define your life - your very personality. The old, by its nature, has a comfort. Even your problems and "hang ups" are a form of security against change. Some habits and pleasures are appropriate only during certain periods of life. Others can remain fitting, if modified, while still others might meaningfully stay with you over your lifespan. Whether what you are doing is in fact "right" for your life is a basic question that cannot be answered through formulas. One of the real gifts yoga gives you is more sensitivity to life, which moves you toward what is appropriate for you.

In the process of yoga, habits and ways of being can leave or modify on their own. This is not to say there is no resistance to letting go of old pleasures, or that you do not have to use intelligence to free yourself from aspects of your life that are no longer appropriate. Rather, the energy of yoga, and the awareness it brings, make more obvious what is and is not conducive to your well-being. The day-to-day practice of yoga gives you messages that are very difficult to ignore.

There is an edge that each of us must confront between growing, which is an adventure, and holding on to security. Some security is necessary as a base to move from, while too much dampens growth and dulls life by keeping newness out. One of the remarkable things about yoga is that it generates energy that opens you, while building both the physical and psychological strength to assimilate change into your life. This gives an entirely different kind of security - the security of knowing that you can respond to whatever challenges life may bring.

Competition & Comparison
Have you ever noticed how much of your day-to-day life you spend thinking? Thought can be very mechanical and repetitive. In different situations you have certain thought patterns which are so much like tapes that I call them "mental cassettes." They serve many purposes. For example, some mental tapes reduce tension, others channel anger to hurt or hurt to anger (depending on which you're used to and more comfortable with). Many of these tapes also evaluate and judge. How much of your life do you spend feeling either "better than" or "worse than?" What thoughts bring these feelings? We use our minds to control how we feel as best we can. Often controlling how we feel gives immediate relief or gratification, but causes more severe long-term problems. For example, if I am envious of you and also think envy is bad, or a sign of how unevolved I am, I suppress it with thought. I talk myself out of feeling it consciously, or pretend I don't feel it at all,and hide it from myself by burying it deep within the body's tissues. This is the stuff of tension.

Yoga is usually presented as being noncompetitive. At its heart, this is true, but that doesn't mean yoga is free from competition at all times. As you get more deeply into yoga, the competitive aspect of mind must be looked at, for if you don't explore it, competition can occur automatically, and take you over unawarely. Either you channel yourself toward accomplishment, ultimately resulting in injuries, or you try to suppress competitiveness, which closes you to the learning that can only come through comparison. If you subscribe to a value system that judges competition to be bad, it makes it harder to see it should it arise in you. This impedes self-knowledge, and closes and tightens you.

If you look very carefully at competition,you will find that its roots lie in comparison, which is a basic mode of thought. The very notion of "progress" implies comparison. You may say that you can be competitive with yourself without comparing yourself to others. This is partially true, but it is important to see that being competitive with yourself has aspects of competitiveness with others in it. Standards of excellence or progress do not exist in a vacuum, but arise in the context of what other people are doing.

The mind that compares is a useful and necessary tool, for day-to-day comparison is a basis for feedback. Doing yoga daily is a very direct way of tuning in on how you have been treating yourself on the previous day, as well as seeing long-range trends. Diet, emotions, conflict, stress, and relationships affect you and your yoga. These aspects of life can be used as feedback that can help you learn how things affect each other. Reading feedback of this sort is based on comparison.

Wanting to progress has a self-competitive aspect - wanting to be as good as or better than yesterday, or last year. Also, comparing yourself with others, whether you like it or not, is inevitable. Comparison, and its extension competition, cannot be eliminated through effort, no matter how much you might want to. Trying to be non-competitive is competing with yourself or others on how non-competitive you are. If you think you are succeeding, (and the mind can convince itself of anything), this can feed feelings of superiority, which is competition. The meditative state of mind that is essential for the necessary attention in yoga transcends competition, not by fighting it, but rather by seeing its place as feedback, and also seeing its limits and dangers.

Comparison is an integral part of perceiving change, but I can subtly begin to compete - with myself or others - in how much or how fast I am changing and transforming. In this way, even the idea of transformation can become yet another goal to be achieved. Transformation is an endless process to be lived, that cannot be captured or possessed - you can only participate in it.

Yoga, at its core, is looking within to understand the timeless question, "Who am I?" As you delve into the deep regions of your being, the knowledge that comes is not merely about you, the individual, but includes the understanding of yourself as part of the total fabric of life. When the parts of the whole open up to each other, breaking the boundaries of separateness, real communication, which is communion, occurs.

Movement is at the core of energy, relationship, growth - it is at the heart of life itself. Evolution is the way movement expresses itself throughout the universe. Evolution can be looked upon as the movement of forms toward greater complexity and adaptability. This is, however, only the external form, the skin, of evolution, which makes possible the most basic movement: the evolution of awareness. Maturation and evolution come when the spectrum of awareness broadens, becoming more inclusive.

Yoga brings opening and movement deep within the very fiber of your being, and expands consciousness, enlarging your capacity for depth of communication. This self-transformation opens you to a more profound relationship with life, and also to an aware participation in the evolutionary process. In the last analysis, these two things are one.

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