I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, celebrating my 7th birthday and coming into the age of reason during the summer of the Detroit riots. There was this unspoken fear and concern in most adults’ eyes, but little was said about what was happening. Given this tension, my first career attempt, which didn’t pan out so well, was to be a comedian for my family. I would repeat over and over again to anyone who would listen and laugh: “Who wants to head downtown? It’s an absolute riot!”
But the lingering impact of what had happened in Detroit during those turbulent years wouldn’t really sink in until I was old enough to understand what had actually played out on the streets of this industrial city. I was too young to understand what the anger was all about, but I did understand that people weren’t getting along.
For many years, when I thought of violence, I envisioned what I had seen on TV: physical acts of harm to others as a result of a conflict between two or more people. We had very little physical violence in our household, so the concept of violence usually seemed abstract to me: It happened to others and it happened on TV. But it had never occurred to me that violence begins within, and it can occur to anyone at anytime. Through the steady practice of yoga, I slowly awakened to the realization that internal violence can actually damage and limit our lives.
When I first started practicing yoga I had no idea how much my mind had been wired to be “good” at things no matter what the cost—even if, in the process of getting good at something, I was miserable, angry, competitive, and aggressive. In fact, I had learned that this was simply the price to pay for success. It has been quite a journey in my personal yoga practice to turn my mind around from being restrictive, competitive, and even mentally aggressive or violent, to allowing for a more neutral and gentle mind as I flow through the postures with enjoyment.
The goal of yoga is to have a steady, comfortable practice. During a physical yoga practice, we are often reminded to ask ourselves if we are pushing too hard. Over time we learn to safely explore our “edge,” finding those places in our bodies and minds where we are tight and closed off, and we seek to open those areas to allow for more circulation and well-being.
Yet a steady, comfortable practice is a delicate balance, and we must explore our edge carefully. If we don’t try to expand our practice, then our practice becomes dull and we miss the opportunity for growth. If we focus only on the outer form of the posture and push ourselves beyond our limits, then it can be construed as an act of violence, especially if we injure ourselves.
Yoga requires us to be fully aware of our bodies and our minds (intentions) as we move through each posture. This is where the yogic suggestion of ahimisa, or non-violence, comes in. Ahimsa is one of the five niyamas—essentially a code of behavior suggested to help alleviate suffering. I am not a big fan of suffering, so I slowly began to apply this idea of non-violence to my personal practice, and it radically transformed not only my practice, but my entire life.
What I realized in this journey was that the more entrenched I was in my ego—that of being externally focused and worrying about how I might be perceived by others in my practice—the more likely I was to leave class frustrated and irritated, rather than fulfilled and with a sense of lightness. Also, if I tried to “push” myself beyond my limits to get the postures “right,” I found that I often put myself in danger physically. Yoga is not for wimps, but just approaching it with raw aggression spoiled the whole experience for me.
With gratitude for my many remarkable teachers, over the years yoga has taught me how to listen. I have learned to listen deeply not only to the obvious signals of sharp pains or feelings of fear (think: attempting handstands away from a wall for the first time), but also to discern whether my practice was simply about grasping at being externally “good” at the form. As I have developed this capacity to just be, and be okay with my practice at whatever stage it is, I have found such remarkable freedom—a freedom found not only in class, but in my entire life as well.
In the book Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness, author Donna Farhi reveals this important realization on her own journey:
My early obsession with perfecting the forms of yoga brought with it a greater and greater sense of unease and inner dissatisfaction…Through the generosity and willingness of my students to join me in this inquiry, I have slowly uncovered a more natural way of discovering the essence of the practice through the form. The forms then become vehicles for experiencing one’s essential nature rather than goals in and of themselves. Then whether you attain any particular posture becomes irrelevant. The shift from dominating, controlling, or ignoring nature to listening and working with nature’s wisdom marks the beginning of…yoga as a life path rather than a form of sophisticated calisthenics.
As we begin to focus less on the outer form of getting a posture “perfect,” we allow ourselves the freedom to be fully present in the moment and experience the posture from the inside, which is one of yoga’s great gifts. We learn this on the mat, then translate it to our relationships, our careers, and our personal health and well-being.
It has been an epic journey for me in yoga, taking my mind from a traditional western perspective of “getting it right” and winning the game to that of simply being aware of my practice and how each posture, and each class, makes me feel. It has been a journey of finding ahimsa—no longer beating myself up for not attaining some false outer goal. I have learned to apply non-judgment—the opposite of that which I had been giving myself. Interestingly, it is this newly developed perspective that has allowed me to expand my practice even more.
I encourage you to listen to your practice, and to your life. If there are areas where you are being unkind to yourself, or impatient, or angry, or aggressive, then simply begin to listen to those thoughts and emotions. Begin the process of allowing your body, and your life, to be the form through which you experience your essential nature so that you can foster a healthy and free life.