I was at a funeral recently. It was a beautiful service where so many people gathered together to celebrate and honor the life of a remarkable woman. As members of her family and friends got up to speak about her, they all echoed similar sentiments. That she was incredibly kind and selfless. She was always quick to lend a smile, a helping hand or share a meal. That Marilyn was always willing to be of service to others.
They talked about her deep and sincere Christian faith and her passionate but not pushy love of God. How she spent so much of her time devoted to supporting and guiding others. The one thing that came through for me again and again as each person shared their memories - is that they all believed that she truly "walked the walk". She strived in her thoughts, words and actions to emulate the teachings of her compassionate Beloved - which for Marilyn was Jesus.
You see, Marilyn didn't just go through the motions. She actually lived her faith. She didn't just read the Bible - so she could memorize and later quote scripture at people. She didn't just learn all the beautiful hymns of her church to show off her musical ability - she used them like mantras - singing them quietly even as her body was giving out and falling away. She kept God in her thoughts, in her encouraging words and in the good deeds of her hands.
Marilyn didn't keep her spiritual knowledge just on the level of her mind - she let it drop down into her heart - where she could embody her beliefs and live from a place of love. She let Spirit flow through all aspects of her life not just when she was in church. This is what real spiritual practice requires of us: Discipline, Dedication, Determination and Devotion. Marilyn had these qualities in spades. The way she lived her everyday life was her spiritual practice. Her life, like Gandhi, was her message.
This got me to thinking about Yoga. About what it means to "walk the walk" as a yogi and how we choose to show up in our own daily life and practice. These days, it's super easy to get confused about what "Yoga" even is. Now that yoga has become a "billion dollar industry" - people everywhere are trying to get in on the big yoga deal. Even companies like McDonald's are using yoga images to try and sell people their crappy food. It's getting over-the-top ridiculous.
This ancient practice, which is meant to help turn our focus inward - so we can experience spiritual integration - meet our true selves and unite with the Divine - is now being practiced in yoga studios equipped with disco balls and black lights. Is now being taught at yoga festivals packed with thousands of people - that feel more like frat parties than sacred pathways to the Beloved.
With the skewed cultural representation of yoga and the current trend of classes morphing into fad-style hybrids like: Salsa Yoga, Yoga & Wine Tasting & Karaoke Yoga - yes, you read that right - KARAOKE YOGA - (just writing that makes me want to bang my face off my keyboard) - it's easy to understand why people don't get the bigger picture of what Yoga really is. Or why so many people think that "yoga" is just a bunch of stretchy exercises done by skinny, white women in $100 yoga pants (or in the case of "Naked Yoga" - no pants at all.)
So what does it really mean to practice Yoga? What does it mean to "walk the walk" as a yogi? Well, I'm certainly not the authority on all things yoga and there are probably plenty of people that would disagree with me (and I'm OK with that) - but what I can share with you is what I've been telling my students for years:
"You know, if you can do Crow pose or balance on your hands or stick your feet behind your head - that's fine, enjoy that. But just know, when you leave my class - if you go out into the world and you act like an asshole - then you're not practicing Yoga."
Here's the thing, "mastering" fancy poses is not the bottom line. Our practice might start there, but hopefully it doesn't end there. We're not just trying to open up our tight hips, we're also aiming to open our hearts and our minds. If we stop at the level of the physical and only concern ourselves with being an awesome "yoga poser" - we're kind of missing the point. Trust me, I've met more than my fair share of super flexible and super mean "yogis".
We also can't stop at the level of the mind. Which means that memorizing a few sanskrit chants or zen-like quotes that you can regurgitate at will, doesn't cut it either. When life happens and a friend is suffering - they don't need you to recite some clever bullshit - they need you to be able to sit with them - hold their hand - help them breathe, or laugh or cry until they can cross over to the other side of their pain. People need us to be both willing to be vulnerable and strong enough to hold the compassionate space. We need to be able to face the dark and access the light of our hearts. This is where the real yoga practice comes in.
This is also ultimately one of the reasons why (in my opinion) we even do the yoga asanas in the first place. The postures don't just help us to build our physical muscles, they also strengthen our spiritual muscles. They prepare us for what happens once we step off the mat.
What the poses offer us, is a chance to put ourselves in positions - where we experience (over and over again) some sort of sensation. Maybe a bit of discomfort, a grip of contraction or a feeling of fear. And in that moment - we're given an opportunity to make a conscious choice. We get to decide - "Am I going to use my breath to meet this discomfort in the pose (or in my relationship or in my life) with an expanded awareness, with openness and with love or am I going to meet it with my habitual conditioned response?"
Am I going to run, bury my head in the sand and ignore what I'm currently feeling or am I willing to stay and breathe and see what's beyond this un-comfy pose or this awkward moment? What if instead of doing what we always do, we were to meet each pose, or person with curiosity, non-judgment or friendliness? How might things be different if we learned to quiet our frantic mind and could approach life with steadiness and ease?
For these are the magical moments when we can start to transform. When amidst the fear, the death, the betrayal, the diagnosis, the divorce - we find the courage to face our stuff and each other with a sense of calm and a sense of humor. When we learn to navigate the frailty of our Humanity with the power of our Divinity - miracles can happen.
My meditation teacher Easwaran puts it simply like this: "The Bhagavad Gita, says that 'Yoga is evenness of mind'. When you can keep your mind on an even keel in good fortune and bad, in pleasure and pain, when you can be kind to those who like you and to those who do not, then you have reached the state of yoga: You Are Free."
Trust me, this is not always easy to do - but this is what the practice prepares us for - how to live! Sure, we'll screw up again and again but by the grace of God, with enough fortitude, forgiveness and faith - we get better at aligning ourselves not just physically but also spiritually - so that we can access the place within us where God and Goodness already dwells. So that our thoughts, words and actions start to reflect the truth of who we really are. So that we can respond to both yoga postures and our life from a compassionate place of Love - instead of a reactionary place of Fear.
Yoga asks us to move beyond the poses and tap into the entire spectrum of this ancient art, philosophy and science. Yes, we still encounter the physical (through postures & breathing, etc.) but we also work with the mind (by withdrawing the senses away from the external world, cultivating one pointed concentration & stilling the mind through meditation) - so that we can gradually transcend the ego-self and realize a profound connection with the Divine.
The whole foundation of Yoga is built upon sound ethical standards and spiritual observances that help us to make mindful choices on how we conduct ourselves in our daily life. Suggestions from the wise beings that have come before us, the Yamas & Niyamas of Yoga are rooted in beliefs like: non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, moderation and non-greed. They guide us to practice cleanliness and contentment, to study spiritual texts and ourselves, to surrender to the God (of your own understanding). When we "walk the walk" of Yoga - hopefully we're moving in the direction of selfless service and inner peace. If you're current practice is not helping you to become more authentic and loving - it's not working. Perhaps it's time to try a new approach?
So let's set an intention for 2014 to work on our own Discipline, Dedication, Determination and Devotion. Let's commit with joy and enthusiasm to diving into the full depth and breadth of this amazing practice. Let's move beyond the limited body and awaken to living with an unlimited Spirit. Let's explore what it means to live our Yoga and discover what being a yogi really means to you!
(*Photo credit - Thanks to Recovering Yogi for the super funny picture!)