By Ally Ford
With over 20 million Americans practicing yoga today, there is no doubt it´s here to stay. People from all walks of life, regardless of age, size, sex, religious beliefs, race, color or creed are receiving benefits from this age old practice, dating back at least 3500 years. As a yoga teacher I hear firsthand a myriad of different reasons why people are drawn to yoga, including healing existing injuries (such as a lower back or knee sensitivity), increased strength and flexibility, improved cardiovascular health, weight loss and a toned physique, improved confidence, relief from headaches and insomnia, support while grieving, and stress relief. The list is endless. And while all of these benefits are wonderful and can be life-changing in and of themselves, they are all the ancillary to the principal goal of the practice, which is a focused mind. Learning to direct the activities of our mind leads to an ability to overcome suffering. It is for this reason classical, or Raja yoga is known as the science of the mind.
The Yoga Sutras, the foundational text of yoga compiled in the 3rd Century BC by Patanjali, states the goal of yoga as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” The philosophy of yoga was created on this underlying principal: life is suffering, and regardless of how much we as human beings try to avoid difficult times in life we will inevitably at some point face them. Yoga teaches that it is not our circumstances that cause suffering but rather how we react to them, view them, or process these experiences in our mind. In fact, yoga goes one step further and says that all suffering is actually caused by the activities of our mind, that there is nothing wrong with the outside world; we choose to make it a heaven or a hell all based on our perspective. It is for this reason yoga philosophers theorized that if we can gain mastery over our minds, we can overcome suffering.
What is our mind? Does it determine our reality or do we direct its activity? And what does it mean to focus our mind? Very broadly stated, focusing our mind means living in and being completely aware of the present moment. Have you ever been engaged in a conversation with a friend or loved one where you could see their lips moving, but you couldn´t hear what they were saying? Suddenly, you realize they´re looking at you waiting for a comment, at which point you apologize for not paying attention. Similarly, perhaps you´ve read an entire page of a book and realize that you must go back and re-read it. Or, maybe you´ve slumped into a fit of self-consciousness after witnessing two people laughing while looking your direction, thinking they were laughing at you, when in reality they weren´t talking about you at all. Why?
The reason is because our minds were somewhere else or consumed by racing thoughts of anything other than what it was on which we should be focused. Perhaps you were thinking of an argument you had with someone, or an exciting trip you have coming up and all the things you have to do to plan for it. Whatever the distraction, yoga teaches that it is these mental fluctuations or racing thoughts that often cause emotions like anxiety, anger, and fear. And so when we learn to direct our mind´s activity and avoid allowing our thoughts to race about things that are in the past or which have yet to occur in the future we can lead a less stressful and more peaceful life.
Through the practice of yoga we learn to concentrate on the activity at hand. Notice how engaged your mind is the next time you practice asana, or physical postures: how are you placing your hands and feet, are you directing your gaze at a certain point, is your core engaged and spine elongated, what are the qualities of your breath? At the moment our mind wants to run away to the exciting dinner we have planned after class or to the looming bills we have to pay, the practice gives us several things on which to concentrate and brings our minds back into the present moment, away from the stress caused by attachment to past activities or to the anticipation of future outcomes.
Ultimately, this is the practice we can take with us off the yoga mat into daily life. It is the artful skill of focusing our minds on the very activity in which we are engaged at this moment. Whether a teacher, doctor, lawyer, student, man, woman, or child one thing all yoga practitioners agree upon is that yoga simply makes them feel better. And it is because for a bit of time during yoga practice their minds aren´t racing. Instead they´re focused on their breath and body and simply feeling alive, all the while improving their overall health. And more importantly, fostering a better state of mind.