Saturday, March 31, 2012

Freedom in a Pretzel Pose

I went to yoga class today for the first time in 5 or 6 weeks. Vertigo has been a near-constant companion of late, and my last attempt at a class full of bending and twisting left me ducking out early while trying not to pass out. I’ve felt better the last few days, though, so on goes the spandex: downward dog, here I come. But 5 or 6 weeks of a more-or-less yoga-free existence, you might be surprised to learn, do not do wonders for balance or flexibility. “Graceful” and “fluid” really don’t capture my practice today; “awkward” and “straining” might be more apt. But no matter: the important thing was simply being there. It’s a little lesson I learned from the Bhagavad Gita.

Gotta love Hindu sacred texts like the Gita. They often have this epic, sometimes cosmic, scale and yet somehow manage to boil down serious spiritual truths into the tiniest possible package, like this:
Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life.
                                                Bhagavad Gita 3.20
(Easwaran translation)
If you like your spiritual instruction just a little less pithy, then we have the slightly fuller descriptions:
They live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments; theirs minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service…
                                                Bhagavad Gita 4.22-23
                                                (Easwaran translation)

Contentment, freedom, service – okay, maybe these are not the first thoughts that come to your mind when you hear the term “yoga”. Maybe you think more of twisting up like a pipe cleaner than of service, but the truth is that they go together surprisingly well. After all, the physical side of what we Westerners call yoga is actually supposed to be a moving meditation and a pathway to stillness of body and mind so that the spirit within can be perceived. That may not be what you hear when you head to that power class at the gym that leaves you sweaty and breathless, but remember that “yoga” actually means “yoke” – as in joining together in union – and you start getting the picture.

When you are bending and twisting in yoga postures, the goal isn’t to do the pose perfectly, but rather to still the mind. If you can put your hands on the floor in uttanasana (standing forward fold) that’s great, but no better than if your hands only reach your knees; if moving into the pose helps you develop clarity of thinking, then it matters little where your hands and feet are. Oddest of all, while it is so easy to spend your time in a yoga class comparing yourself to others (“she can do tree pose while standing on tiptoe and doing a backbend, while I can barely stay steady if I lift one foot an inch off the floor”), really it’s about letting go of expectations, accepting where you are and working to your fullest within this moment.

So we’ve got contentment and freedom taken care of; what about service? Yeah, that’s there, too. The Bhagavad Gita takes a microscope to the idea of karma yoga, the path of selfless service, where everything we do is done in service to God and to others. Even more, it teaches us that it is God performing the service through us: Brahman, the eternal Reality, “is present in every act of service” (3.16). When we step out of that intense focus on our own wants and likes, we begin to act in the service of others.  When I let go of my own wants and needs and failures, I make room for others in my life and open myself to giving; I recognize that God is working through me. If I find a deeper stillness and greater peace in my yoga class, then I step out into the world with more love to give it.

Contentment, freedom, service - these come from focusing on the process, not the end result. If we spend our time doing the next right thing, then we don’t have to worry about whether it’s all going to come out like we want. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but either way either way we have acted from love and compassion, just as we will act from love and compassion in dealing with those unknown results. I think T.S. Eliot says it beautifully:
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
                                    Choruses from “The Rock”

Focus on sowing properly rather than on reaping what you want, and you will find contentment, freedom and service. And who knows – maybe it will lead you to a yoga class.

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