What has Yoga ever done for us?

… Monty Python might ask boldly. Well, a lot, we may reply equally boldly. It is of course an incredibly efficient set of physical and mental disciplines. But above all, we’ve come to appreciate it as a firsthand instrument to explore the constructed self.

By Romana and Sascha Delberg

What has Yoga ever done for us? Well, for one it changed our lives considerably. Sascha used to work as a manager in his father’s firm, and I was a senior in a major advertising and PR company. We’ve run our own studio in Vienna, Yogawerkstatt, for eight years now, and we’ve never regretted quitting our former jobs – in fact, we never even thought about it.

But we can humbly say that we’ve not only set up a studio but gathered a little fervent and devoted Yoga community around us, and this is a heartwarming experience indeed. We came to know hundreds of people and became friends with many of them. We’ve known them in their own search, in their hopes and joy, in their ambitions and frustrations, in their states of concentration and confusion – in brief: as they are, and not as they present themselves to the world.

We’ve also seen people slowly, slowly being transformed by their Yoga practice, not in the sense of becoming someone else but of becoming themselves in a deeper way, of somehow “emerging“ to become who they really are.

All this to the extent that one might think, well, Yoga is simply and plainly a miracle. It is, in a way. Yes, it is a wonderful set of physical exercices. Yes, it’s a great experience to master some of the pranayama techniques. And yes, meditation may indeed make us calmer and more focused. We might even gain control over our own body.

All this is true and important, but to us, Yoga is above all a set of instruments to explore the constructed Self – all these transient aspects we call the Self. And what’s more, the focus is about experiencing it – not just thinking, talking, hearing, reading about it.

How do we really function? Do we delude ourselves? Why does our mind construct images of ourselves? What are projections of ourselves and reality, what is real?

One might say that every era is a good era for practicing yoga. Certainly true. But interestingly, our time can use it particularly well – probably needing it most.

Why? To name just a few reasons: The performance-oriented society we live in puts an enormous pressure on everyone of us. Competition forces us to think of ourselves first, turning us into super-egos. But of course we are also supposed to be good, caring parents, kids, partners, colleagues, to be well- behaved and function well. (If we don’t, it’s ourselves that we blame, offering us a good reason to go into therapy.)

The media give us sensory overload and unlimited distraction. We are always online, present and available for everyone, and even feed the media with our own … what? Laughter, fun, good time, interesting life. What a gloriously fantastic life we are having.

The economy loves us to be good consumers and good producers, often in alienating ways. Useful members of society are supposed to produce and consume a lot (and make a lot of noise about it).

We consume things and media in this similar way of having it, owning it, and moving on – endlessly, faster faster, one after the other after the other. This has actually turned us into addicts. Consumption and distraction are addictions which take away our time and wear us off. (The poet Charles Baudelaire once said a similar thing about hashish smokers: They think they smoke the pipe, but after a while it turns out it’s the pipe that smokes them.)

It’s a time of I, Me, Mine, of Self-forgotten consumerist super-ego. – Phew, this begs for relief! Well, in Yoga, we don’t consume.

Okay, we bought a mat, and better get dressed appropriately. But basically we don’t consume, and we don’t produce anything either. Instead, we have the chance to get in touch with our Selves. Not with our loud and shouting and pos(t)ing public persona but with ourselves. Not just intellectually, but also physically and emotionally. We experience ourselves.

And gradually we find out that all we like to identify as ourselves – our body, our emotions, our mind, or rather our intellectual constructs – is not so solid and immovable but is changing. This is a liberating experience.

But it’s not easy at all, and it brings plenty of obstacles in the form of an awkward, inflexible body and, more importantly, a self-constructed ego, tons of ego projections (ambition! performance! Anger over a weak, unmoving body!), and a mind completely of its own.

Interestingly, these problems aren’t exclusively our own: The ancient Yogis and sages knew of them already, and they knew how to deal with them. “Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah“ (litterally something like, Yoga means to calm the mind): This sentence in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – probably the most famous stanza of the book – addresses the permanently wandering mind with its endless chains of thoughts and associations. This restlessness is annoying, and what’s more, the mind suggests it is our real Self and that it produces the “truth“. Instead, it prevents us to see reality and ourselves as they appear.

According to the Yogic philosophy, the blame is on the samskaras and on ahamkara. The former meaning our habitual patterns, the latter being the „I- maker“, all those fictions and images we construct in order to become the ones we identify with. Ahamkara is the big “story-teller“ of ourselves.

The samskaras and ahamkara join forces to delude ourselves. The patterns of thought (samskara) constantly surface, ahamkara grasps at them like a dog would catch for a ball, and identifies with them. Thus, we are imprisoned in our own mind.

How to become aware of all that? In one of the next Sutras, Patanjali offers the solution: “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah.“ Meaning, they (the citta vrtti) are kept at bay by two things: practice and non-attachment (to the outcome of what we do).

First point, practice: When we practice asanas, our focus is on three levels: the level of the posture; the level of breath/bandhas; and the respective drishti.

We learn to know and to feel and to listen to our body. We realise that it isn’t an appendix of our mind but that we actually live in it.

Sometimes, more accidentally than by sheer will, we “fall“ into tristana, a state of mind in which these levels merge into one.

At the same time, the practice of asanas goes a long way through the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga: asana, pranayama (deep unlocking of prana with the breath) and pratyahara (sense withdrawal) unfold in order to form a single movement which might be identified as dharana (concentration) and later as dhyana (movement meditation).

This “package“ keeps us focused. By practicing over and over, we learn to concentrate our awareness in a certain field of meditation, thereby learning to return from endless excursions into thought patterns to the here and now again and again.

The practice itself helps a lot, subliminally. All those of us who practice regularly will have made the experience that after the asana practice, our worries have all but disappeared. Which is not to say that they are gone. But we’ve gained some distance towards them, the’ve lost their grip on us. Which in turn gives us the chance to confront them in a productive way.

What is gone, though, is the automatic thinking, the repetititive, completely unproductive spinning of our worried mind.

Thinking should increase our awareness, it should confront us with ourselves and reality rather than deluding us. When we think, we should do it in a mindful, focused way, just as this beautiful Zen saying advises us: “When you walk, walk; when you run, run; above all, don’t wobble.“

Apart from asana, another tool to control our mind (citta) is Pranayama, as the two are interrelated. In the words of our teacher Richard Freeman: “It is said that the mind and the inner breath (prana) move together like two fish swimming in tandem; when the mind moves in a particular pattern, the fish of the inner breath moves along with it through the core of the body, hitting deep sensations and feelings as it moves. Likewise, if that inner fish of the breath moves in a certain way, it stimulates or wakes up associated patterns of thought or imagination within the mind (…) If we are able to become aware of the vibrations of either Prana or Citta, or better yet if we can control one of them, then we have a handle on the other one. “

Pranayama is a wonderful instrument to bring our mind back, to contain our emotions and to cope with difficult situations. Remember the sentence in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: “Once the breath is mastered, once the mind is steady and firm, once the gaze is on the Ajna Chakra – then why would anyone be afraid of death?“

There is yet another yogic technique to contain citta vrtti, meditation: In meditation, we watch waves of thoughts and emotions and allow them to dissolve. The trick is not to grasp at them, not to decode or to identify with them but simply to notice them. They can be pleasant or unpleasant and even painful – it doesn’t matter.

Just witnessing our mental states without interfering can be an enormous relief. We might suspend for a while our permanent tendency to divide the world into attractive (raga)/repulsive (dvesa), like/dislike, good/bad, etc.

We might let go our whole set of preconceived opinions, convictions, and judgments about ourselves and reality which exactly prevent us from perceiving – and accepting – them in their fullness.

The third Zen-Patriarch said it somewhat more elegantly:

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences

To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind

Do not search for the truth
only cease to cherish opinions

Which brings us to Patanjali’s other point, non-attachment. It is an integral part of the practice, be it the pratice of asana, pranayama, meditation, or of all the other limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.

So let’s surrender to the practice with devotion, trust and good faith (shraddha). Let’s surrender to it without expectations, without that our ego “gets“ something out of it. Let’s make our ego small and have an unbiased look at reality. In Paul Dallaghans words: “Practice – focus – surrender.“

It’s of equal importance. The funny thing about practicing without surrendering is that the ego might come back through the back door – and much bigger: People who practice a lot can feel so tremendously well, look so enormously good, can have such an immense presence and charisma, be so confident and attractive that, well, they only end up feeding their ego. Nothing a good portion of Karma Yoga could not fix …eventually.