by Peta Keaney
The light that yoga sheds on life is something special. It is transformative. It does not just change the way we see things; it transforms the person who sees. It brings knowledge and elevates it to wisdom. - BKS Iyengar: ‘Light on Life’ pxxi.
‘Yoga has the power to change us’. We hear this a lot. But how does yoga change us? I know yoga makes me feel good and that when I do it I feel ‘happy’ - but how does this translate into longer term change in the way I live my life?
Recently my husband and I walked the Milford track in New Zealand. Fiordland is directly in line of Antarctic winds and this summer was very cold and wet. We were warned to be prepared for any weather as it is always variable. We were lucky. Day One was fine. We walked 16 kilometres along the banks of a crystal clear mountain-fed river with spec-tacular mountain glimpses in the background. Day Two was cool. Perfect for climbing. We climbed to the top of the McKinnon pass ascending 700 metres in the morning and descending 900 metres in the afternoon. The ascent was awesome and majestic. We climbed above the tree line into the alpine heights, amongst alpine lilies, alpine daisies, kias (alpine parrots) soaring overhead, freezing clouds sweeping up the mountain side. The views were stunning. Rugged snow-capped mountains rose out of avalanche scarred glacial valleys deep below. It was wild and wonderful. We knew we were alive. The effort was effortless – here were instant rewards. My senses were alert and outward. There was so much to see, hear, smell and feel.
Day Three though was a different matter - 21 kilometres along the valley floor to Milford Sound along monotonous rainforest track. It was raining solidly throughout the morning. My rain jacket had seen better days and I was soon cold and wet. The back pack was heavy on my aching shoulders. My feet hurt. It was an endless trudge. And to make it worse, a sand-fly bite on my wrist was itching like crazy under my rain jacket, sending currents of itch up and down my arm. I was full of grumpy self-talk and self-pity as my aversion to this wretched walk mounted. There was no stunning scenery to capture my attention and take my mind off the effort now. Now I had to manage the effort using my inner resources.
Luckily, that’s exactly what yoga builds in us – inner resources. When we go to the mat we practice mental focus and observation. We practice quietening the senses (the lips, the tongue, the eyes, the jaw, the skin on the face, the breath). As we do this mind (manas) quietens. The busy mental/emotional chatter stills and mind steps into its role as ‘the sixth sense’ – taking on its perceptive function. We move from ‘thinking, classifying, analysing’ to ‘feeling and perceiving’. We pay attention. We start to see more clearly what’s happening in this moment and the next. With the senses soft, and the breath and the mind calm and quiet, we find we can be present with intensity without being tense; we can experience ‘ef-fortless effort’. We practice keeping mind soft and clear when faced with demanding or intense situa-tions (eg when we first attempt a handstand, or push up into a backbend or hold long timings) – so we can act and respond calmly and clearly rather than ‘reacting’ under the influence of tension and mental/emotional confusion. And the more we practice this on the mat the more this way of behaving becomes second nature to us and spills over into our day to day lives off the mat.
Early in our yoga journey we learn to notice what’s happening in the body, what’s hap-pening in the breath and the quality of our mental/emotional state. And over time, as we come back again and again to our practice, we notice our broader behavioural tenden-cies, our likes and dislikes and the way our mental/emotional state impacts our experi-ence. We start to ‘see’ ourselves better.
Having a regular yoga practice also builds self-discipline. The repeated exercise of will-power in going to the mat builds inner fortitude and self-belief. We become more confi-dent in our ability to stick with what’s not always easy, to take on demanding tasks and face fearful situations. This makes us more able to cope with the discomforts and chal-lenges of day to day life because we’ve practiced dealing with them on the mat.
So here I was on Day 3 of the Milford Track and I had a choice to make. I could give full rein to the rising tide of mental/emotional stress - ‘my shoulder can’t take much more of this’, ‘ I’m so uncomfortable in these wet clothes’, ‘I’ll never make the 21 kilometres’, ‘I’m exhausted’, ‘if I don’t scratch that itch I’ll go crazy’, ‘why did we do this stupid walk!’. Or I could exercise self-discipline, release the mental tension and step back into a quieter, calmer place.
I decided to treat the walk like it was a yoga pose. Once I’d made that decision the rest came easily. As I quietened the senses, softening my face and coming gently into my breath, the mental/emotional clamour stopped and the intensity of the discomforts receded. A deeper level of calm and clarity took over. Each step became doable. This moment was okay, and the next moment was okay. I was able to be in the present even with its discomforts. The itch from the sand fly bite dissolved away because my mind was soft and broad, rather than caught up in the sensation. My energy level improved as I stopped worrying about how I was going to cope with the remaining kilometres. As I moved into my breath and broadened my awareness I was able to connect with the rhythm of my steps. Instead of each step being an effort each step seemed to generate more energy for the next. With the help of a little lunch I powered home over the last 10 kilometres with rhythm, almost enjoyment!
Of course Milford was hardly a life threatening situation – it was just a long walk! But for me it was a good example of the impact of my yoga practice on how I am in life. Be-cause I practice yoga I am gradually changing. I am getting better at noticing my behav-iours and tendencies, I get that my mental emotional state influences what I experience, I am more able to quieten ‘manas’ and move into a state of mental quiet and greater clarity. I am getting better at ‘responding’ rather than ‘reacting’ to difficult situations. Small steps on a long journey!
Peta teaches at The Yoga Centre in Redfern.