Most people approach spiritual practices the same way they do everything else in their lives; they wait and hope that one day it will all turn out. "If I can just hold a headstand for three minutes then…” or, “If I am really consistent then…” or, “If I just lose 5 pounds, then…” Rarely do we stop to recognize that on the other side of accomplishment and of doing that we often find ourselves in the same place. We might be a little stronger, more disciplined, or thinner, but who we are hasn’t fundamentally shifted. And yet we’ve all been told that spiritual practices like yoga can offer a transformative shift in our experience of our relationship to others, our worlds, and ourselves. What’s the missing ingredient that can create that metamorphosis?
We won’t find that extra bit in a different practice, a better teacher, or the more so-called ‘traditional’ approach. All of these are the trappings of form. What we are after is something that is beyond form. We are after a shift in our being that creates certain qualities, like openness, wisdom, loving kindness, authenticity. These are ways of being in the world, but access to them seems mysterious and elusive. And yet, to one degree or another, this is what draws us to spiritual practice.
We do it in the hopes that ‘one-day’ it will all turn out. Consider that it already has turned out. You are sitting down reading this. You have a computer, or you have the time to ponder such things. You even have time for spiritual practice, for contemplating what it is to be a human. You are in the top 99.99999% of the population in terms of survival. At this very moment, most people in the world are struggling to get their very survival needs met, while you read this. And if you stop to consider that, indeed, it has turned out, you may wonder why you still feel that fundamental angst, that uncomfortable feeling that propels you toward the ‘things’-- like the new car, the latest hairstyle, or even the spiritual practice--that hopefully will remove the discomfort that something isn’t quite right in our world, the feeling that something is missing.
Doing It Correctly Doesn't Necessarily Make You Happier
The missing ingredient is that we have thrown the cart before the horse. In other words we hope that if we do a particular spiritual practice, that it will result in a shift in consciousness. However, the doing of spiritual practice, does not result in a shift in consciousness. We also hope that having certain things will result in a sense of satisfaction. Doing and having, however, do not beget being. Being is a choice we make that informs what we do. In other words: be first, do second.
We’ve all been sold the line that if we do a particular job for a certain amount of time, and earn a certain income, that at the end of the day, we get to be happy. We all know, however, that that isn’t necessarily the case. Hard work and having money do not necessarily result in peace, happiness, or wholeness. I am not suggesting that they take away these qualities. They simply do not create these qualities. Human happiness does not increase a whole lot as wealth increases. In other words, wealth and happiness are not a corollary.
Spiritual practice is all about having a say about our lives. But you and I do not have a whole lot of say about what we do or have in our lives. We have some say, but not a lot. We can try to get that job or earn that income, but there are a myriad of factors that can get in the way. While we may not have a lot of say about what we do or what we have, we are always at choice—whether we wish to acknowledge it or not-- about who we are being. I am not suggesting that we have a say about our moods, which are also the circumstances of our lives. Moods are not an aspect of being. They are what we notice when we will be. Being is almost like a perspective or an ever-shifting set of perspectives that either give us power or undermine us. And here is where we are at choice in the matter.
Choosing What Empowers
We can choose ways of being each moment. We don’t need to perform outlandish postures or learn spiritual practices from a guru in India in order to choose being. I am not suggesting that we do away with spiritual practice or great teachers. Both are useful ingredients in the meal of transformation, but they aren’t the secret ingredients. The secret ingredient is being, and it is the recognition that we are at choice with who we are being on a moment-to-moment basis.
So, instead of starting our spiritual practice from the perspective that we hope to get something out of it, why not start it from a particular way of being or perspective, one that empowers us in our relationship with ourselves, our community, and our world? Most importantly, why not start practice from ways of being that give us a sense of resourcefulness, authenticity, wholeness, ways like aliveness, wisdom, compassion, love, power, etc.?
That way our spiritual practice becomes an expression of that way(s) of being, like a dance that expresses grace. The grace is already there within the dancer. Otherwise the dancer wouldn’t know how to express it. It isn’t as if she hopes to experience it after she has done the dance. And her years of practice, development, and technique that the dancer brings to the expression of grace adds depth and nuance to the expression of grace.
So when we start practice from the place that we are this quality or this way of being, the various aspects of spiritual practice—like the breath, the posture, and the attention--naturally coalesce together in order to express it. Spiritual practice then transforms from a game of waiting and hoping that one day if I practice for many, may years or many, many lifetimes, I will do it in just the right manner. And when I do, I will find my happiness, my peace, and my completion.
The transformation occurs in the recognition that we have access to our wholeness all the time, including, now. Spiritual practice then becomes the time and space where we consciously honor, reside in, and express that knowing. We don’t do it in order to squeeze wholeness from it. Unfortunately, that is not what practice provides. It is simply choreographed dance without emotion or expression. And it is up to us to fill it in so that it can become an expression of what is already and always present, true, and accessible.
The Practice You Can't See on the Outside
What I am describing is truly the inner practice within the practice. This is something that cannot be seen by the teacher or by an audience. In yoga, in particular, it is what is at the heart of the practice. Often times teachers will say, “Yoga is what you cannot see from the outside.” And then they will point to things like the breath and bandhas. But the being part of yoga predicates how we breathe, how we engage the bandhas. Too often, we all get caught in the act of wanting to do it right, to look good on the outside, to impress either our teacher or those around us.
Admittedly, I believe I spent maybe more than half of my life in the practice of yoga, hoping to impress others. I knew deep down inside that this was a no-no, but I couldn’t help it because I didn’t really understand where else to put my attention. I’d spent years studying with well-known teachers and life-long practitioners who imparted a certain “way” to practice yoga. Some emphasized the breath. Others emphasized alignment. Often I experienced an amalgamation of both with the addition of some other techniques. At some point, I started to recognize that all I knew about yoga was what my teachers wanted for me. I had to make the pose look a particular way if I was going to do it ‘traditionally’ or ‘correctly.’ At some point, I began to experiment outside the boundaries my teachers described.
What I came to realize was that, indeed, the boundaries my teachers created were artificial. It’s my sense that yoga postures, like the ones we practice in yoga studios throughout the world, are not timeless or eternal. In all likelihood, they are an amalgamation of a variety of movements designed to support health and spiritual insight. The postures themselves are like empty vessels. The attitude we bring to these postures is what gives them their mythical, eternal quality. If we were to perform these postures at a circus, they’d have no more affect on the psyche than jumping rope or a run through the park. No doubt, they’d increase endorphins and work out some of the kinks in the body. The mythical quality is the attitude or the being that we bring to it.
What I began to notice a few years ago was that a lot of the attitude that I brought to my practice was the attitude of ‘doing it right.’ That attitude left me practicing from the outside in. I was always noticing whether my limbs where aligned, whether the movement was graceful or not, whether my breath appeared smooth and fluid. The result is that I had a practice that might have impressed a few people but left me wondering why I got more good from a sitting meditation than I did from yogic postures. I always appreciated the feeling of ease that yoga practice left in my body and being, but I couldn’t get at the meditative aspects of yoga.
So I started setting an intention before I practiced each day. I would set intentions, like “harmony,” “gratitude,” “ease,” “intensity,” and “power.” What I came to discover was that the techniques I’d spent so many years hoping to master, like the bandhas, were my tools. I could use them in service to the intention. I started to use the various tools we learn in yoga practice--including alignment, ujayi pranayama, mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, hasta bandha, pada bandha, etc—in service to the intention and not the other way around. What I found, for example was that the breath altered significantly when my intention was “grace” versus when my intention was “sass.”
Yes, I do sometimes practice with sass. It is my sense, now, that the practice is an opportunity for me to express the infinite possibility that I am as a human being. I liken it to a painting. If I want to paint a blue mood or a tone, I am going to use one particular set of paints versus a tone that is dynamic will use a different set of paints. Each of the tools we learn can be used in service to the expression of the painting. However, if we get stuck thinking that there is only one ‘correct’ way of painting, one proper, one traditional way, we miss the opportunity that yoga has to offer us. And often, we will get stuck trying to fit ourselves into a box that doesn’t fit us. And we will often get stuck practicing from the outside in.
Practice as Art
While I am describing the inner expressing the outer, I am not denigrating the importance of learning technique. We all need to learn technique. If you’re a piano player, it’s critical to learn the scales. And if you want to be a great piano player, you need to continue to play the scales. But if you want to be a virtuoso, you don’t play the scales exclusively. And you don’t just play the music on the score the way you’d play the scales. You play with your heart and soul. The same is true of yoga practice. Breath, bandhas, drishti, alignment are all forms of the scales we play. A master doesn’t just repeat the technique over and over in hopes that he will get to the heart of the matter. A master moves from his or her heart or soul.
The problem with thinking of practice from the perspective of a pianist or a dancer is that these art forms are external expressions. They are designed to please an audience. In the practice of yoga, we often turn our teacher or other practitioners in the yoga room into our audience. However, if the practice will have transformative affects on our being, we must become the audience. We must learn how to direct our awareness inward toward our intention, toward the expression of the intention, and to continue to shift and adjust technique so that the intention is expressed to ourselves, not anyone else. I recognize that this is a very different experience of yoga because we are all so used to receiving correction and attention from a teacher. In the beginning such correction and attention is critical to learning the basics. Eventually, it becomes a hindrance because it directs our minds outside of ourselves.
I speak about the intention or the being that we bring to each practice. However, intention can have much more far reaching affects. We can set intentions for our year, for a relationship, for the work we do, and really for our lives. Our practice can be used as an opportunity to develop those intentions. It can become a sort of laboratory in which we explore them, tease them out a little further, and develop some muscle of awareness around those intentions. Most importantly, a yoga practice can be the place in which we learn to embody those intentions. This is what is unique about yoga postures. They are an embodied expression of our being. They ground out the experience of an idea or a notion into form. They help us to actualize what is simply an idea or an intention in physical form. Once embodied, we have a much clearer, intuitive sense of how to actualize them in our relationships, our work life, our health, our home life, etc.
Exercise for Setting Intentions
Peak moments can be very instructive. Often in moments when we experience the fullness of life, we're connected to a way of being in the world, one that is authentic, present, and resonant. If we can start our practice focused on a particular being that evokes one or more of these qualities, our practices will start to sing. So in this exercise, I am going to ask you to draw your mind back to a peak moment in which you felt authentic, present, and/or resonantly alive.
- Conjure up a memory or two where you feel one of these three qualities: a)authentic/honest/real b) present/conscious/awake c)alive/connected/expressed
- See if you can see what was going on at that moment that makes that moment so significant. Notice who was present; what was happening; and how were you feeling in that moment.
- If you feel authentic, present, and/or alive, notice who were being in that moment. What perspective were you in? What did you see, believe, or think about the situation you were in in that moment?
- Note with pen and paper who you were BEING in that moment? Possible ways of being, include: joyful, centered, clear, playful, sexy, alive, connected, loving, passionate, driven, focused, detail oriented, peaceful. In fact, there are a myriad of ways of being.
- When you go on the mat tomorrow, connect with that way of being before each Sun Salutation. Notice how it affects the way you move and what you focus on as you go through your A's and B's.
- It may also be helpful to have your teacher or a friend give you some outside feedback about the way your movement appears, both connected to an intention and without an intention. You'll find that to an outside observer the distinction is often subtle but clear, nevertheless.