Wellness isn’t something that happens on its own. Wellness is something that takes practice. It must be cultivated and nurtured. How many of us have planted a bean seed, or tried to grow a flower only to realize that we were unable to create the circumstances for it to thrive and survive?
At a time when I was just trying to survive in law school, living on my own for the first time, studying amongst a hoard of A-type personalities, deadlines, and unlimited pressure to succeed, I started to become unwell. I started to feel depressed, anxious, and uncertain about my future, and this started impacting me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. A relationship that I cherished dearly with my first love was ending, and I was smack dab in the middle of a law school education that was not serving me psychologically. I was living far away from my family, and feeling totally alone.
So what did I do? First, I freaked out. I cried a lot. I disengaged from things I used to love to do. I didn’t want to hang out with friends when they called me to go shopping, or dancing, or out for dinner. I stared at my law school books instead of studying, feeling a deep sense of regret and frustration. I pulled out of activities that I had committed to. This went on for several months, almost for a year. It was scary because there were times when I thought I might really lose my mind.
And then I was sauntering down Yonge Street one evening, feeling melancholic and distraught, and what caught my eye was a sign on College Street that said “The Yoga Sanctuary”. The first thing that I noticed about the sign was not the term “yoga”, but “sanctuary”. It immediately it occurred to me was that I was searching for some “sanctuary”, a safe place, a break from things, to be anywhere but where I was at this point in my life. I wanted to find some peace, and feel like myself again. And I thought, alright then, let’s try this.
I don’t remember my first yoga class (and by yoga class I mean asana class, which involves hatha yoga, the physical side of the practice). Although I vaguely remember the room and the space and set up, I don’t remember who the teacher was. I don’t remember which asanas (postures) I was doing or how challenging it may have been. All I remember is that from that time on, yoga was a part of my life in some shape or form. At first, yoga was an attempt to find a sanctuary in something, and to connect to something again, and then eventually, became an actual way of life. Now, yoga is something I wish to share with others, because it forms the foundation for my very being, not only as a yoga instructor, but as a life path.
The term yoga has been so misconstrued and badly interpreted by the West. As a South Asian woman with strong roots in India it makes me cringe at times when I see yet another “yoga” studio popping up on a street corner. Because, yoga is really a serious business, literally and figuratively. Yoga is transcendental wisdom that originated in India and has been passed down for thousands of years, and to learn yoga involves a sincere commitment from an eager student and a deep trust in a teacher who is self-aware. It is really not so simple to share yoga in a studio. But, the West has adapted yoga to encompass mainly hatha yoga, the physical side of it. It’s the fitness angle, the weight loss remedy, the stress-buster, the new age philosophy, the exotic acrobatics of the East, the capitalist’s jackpot.
But regardless of all of this alleged co-opting of yoga by the West, the thing is that yoga is really too special and too universal to be co-opted by anything or anybody. Yoga is ancient spiritual knowledge that aims to diminish suffering in people’s lives. The whole philosophy of yoga is that because of our distracted, flawed minds, we suffer indefinitely. The mind causes us to crave things that pleasures us, to run away from painful experiences, to feel negative emotions of jealousy, hate, anger and greed, and to constantly want to change things from the way they actually are. This causes an endless cycle of suffering, and we can either forget about this reality and distract ourselves until the day we die, or we can work on changing these patterns, or samskaras, so that we can actually be physically, mentally and spiritually well. This type of transformation doesn’t just happen when we go to a yoga class. It’s a lifelong commitment to learn break our negative patterns and create new ones.
And for those of us living in the West who are struggling with our mental health and well-being, longing to connect with other people, trying to find careers that we enjoy, to find relationships that fulfill us, and to make some type of contribution to the world in our short lives, I have to say that I think we need yoga. Our society is in the midst of a mental health crisis, and yoga is one of the solutions we should consider to move towards wellness again.
When I heard about what happened in Orlando on June 12, 2016, or whenever I hear about these incidents of violence and destruction, I feel deep sadness not only for the many lost lives, but also for the mind of the person who has acted out. The violent mind is chaotic, in pain, suffering, with no apparent way out. Of course there are so many interconnecting societal factors that result in an act of violence, but when we are looking at the level of the individual, there is a lot of pain inside of a lot of people. And so young people living in the West really need an outlet for their minds and for their pain that is not connected to Facebook or video games. Yoga can be that outlet, if people are willing to explore a long path.
So, let’s actually define yoga and what it really means. Sage Patanjali, who codified the Yoga Sutra, the most popular yoga text, in or around 300 B.C. specifically defined yoga in this way:
Yoga is the ability to focus the mind on an object for a set period of time
Brilliant! Yes, yoga means union, and the coming together of body, breath and mind, which is what we hear from yoga teachers in their classes on a daily basis. But, really, yoga is a practice for life, not just on a yoga mat. If we are focusing the mind on an object for a set period of time without distraction, then we are doing yoga. Yoga is having a meditative mind. Yoga is connecting with the object of our attention with our full, whole self.
I could be doing yoga when I’m doing the dishes.
If I am doing the dishes, the feeling of the warm water on my hands, listening to the clanging of the pots and pans, noticing the smell of the dish washing soap, accepting the coolness in the air, feeling the ground beneath my feet, and not thinking of anything else but what I am doing in that moment, then I am doing yoga! The next time you are doing any activity, see if you can do it like a yogi/ni. I assure you it is not an easy task!
It is inherently difficult (and at times impossible) for a human being’s mind to focus on anything at all for a set period of time. We are constantly distracted beings. When I am doing the dishes I am more likely to be planning my activities for the evening, worrying about the argument I had with a colleague in the morning, feeling upset about having to scratch the mosquito bite on my leg etc. etc. Our mind is a real beast, and we suffer because of it.
And so, India has birthed yoga to come to the rescue of humanity. They say that in ancient times the people were suffering so much they turned to the heavens, put their hands together and begged the divine presence to help them out of desperation. What happened was that the universe created Patanjali, literally the “one who fell into folded hands”. Well, it is clear that even now the world is suffering. Violence, wars, chaos, depression, mental health crises that are happening with young people around the world. How can yoga help us?
Yoga helps us to find wellness for our minds, not just for our bodies. It reminds us that we can be connected to ourselves, our true selves. And when we are connected to our true self, we are well. Even if we are not physically feeling perfect, if we are emotionally and mentally aware and focused, we can be well.
Our bodies and minds are like plants to be nurtured. We can’t guarantee how they will grow and develop to survive, but we can cultivate an environment, internally and externally, that supports them and nurtures them. We can remove the obstacles in the path of their growth, and yoga helps us to do this.
In upcoming articles I’m going to start sharing specific aspects of yoga that contribute to wellness, whether asanas, breathing, meditation, or dietary practices. I’m hoping you’ll join me on this journey. Let’s try to do the dishes like a yogi/ni, and strive to be well.