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Yoga, Life, and Purpose

by Grace Welker

Stepping through the doorway of ancient yogic wisdom to uncover its profound implications for our contemporary Western lives.

Grace I’m curious about why people start yoga, but I’m more interested in why they stay. Do you think that when people get on a yoga mat, they have a qualitatively different experience that makes them want more?

Stephen Absolutely. They may not know it, and it’s not usually explicitly taught, but when the teacher directs their attention over and over again to their bodies, they can have a momentary experience of the mind actually getting focused and gathered and present—and that has some very interesting side effects. Physiologically, for example, the heart rate goes down, brain waves lengthen, cortisol levels go down, and all these great neurotransmitters flood the brain. When the mind actually settles in the moment, even for just a few seconds, these side effects kick in, and we have an experience of well-being that can be profound. We see this with the kids in our yoga-in-the-schools programs.

Grace The Institute for Extraordinary Living, which you direct, is running yoga programs in schools in the Berkshires and in Boston. How are the kids responding?

Stephen Imagine all these 16- and 17-year-olds, lying on the floor, stretched out and relaxed in Corpse Pose after 35 minutes of postures and breathing practices. It’s a wonderful sight. At first it’s difficult for them to relax, they’re throwing spit balls and goofing on the experience. But within a couple of weeks, they’re experiencing this deep state of relaxation that many of them have never had before. And all of the defensive mechanisms that adolescents ordinarily have start to collapse. They’re in the room together with the entire social spectrum of their peers—there are the dweebs and the jocks and the smart kids—and all the “siding” that usually happens within those communities breaks down. They actually see each other as human beings.

Grace What exactly are you studying?

Stephen Right now we’re looking at how yoga practices affect the kids’ stress levels, their moods, their attitudes toward school, their fatigue levels, and a number of psychological variables, including the development of awareness of the body, and the development of something we call observing the ego, that is, the capacity to be nonreactive. We’re looking at mindfulness, as a whole.

Grace Have you found anything surprising?

Stephen Something that surprised me was just how quickly—within a 10-week curriculum—we saw profound shifts in their stress levels. We know that stress is cumulative, it builds up over time, and as kids get increasingly stressed, their anger levels get higher and their mood, their attitude toward school, and their energy levels all deteriorate. In our study, the kids are randomly assigned to either gym class or yoga class. With the control group, the gym class, their mood deteriorated profoundly over the course of a semester. But with the kids in our program, they either got considerably better or at least stayed the same. That’s a finding about resilience; the kids doing yoga didn’t succumb to the vicissitudes of stress in the same way.

Grace Are you looking at how yoga affects kids’ academic performance?

Stephen Yes, we’ll be looking at academic numbers for the first time this coming year. Anecdotally, in terms of the qualitative research, what the kids say is that if they do their practice before a test, they get a better grade on the test, or if they do their breathing practices before a band rehearsal or a football game, it improves their performance.

Grace Is the idea with this to have the studies lead to bringing yoga programs into schools on a mass scale?

Stephen Definitely. Because of the enormous social pressures on kids these days, there are epidemics of bullying, of cheating, of drug use. The schools are extremely interested in anything that helps their kids regulate their moods and their stress and their affect, so that they can learn. Because without that, no matter how good a curriculum is, they can’t learn. In order to learn, you have to be able to focus.

Grace How did you get involved in all of this? Have you always had a secret dream of working in research?

Stephen Not at all. I’m a total humanities guy. I got involved in yoga in graduate school, precisely to help self-regulate. I was completely stressed out—everybody’s stressed in grad school. My first introduction was through a friend; we practiced regularly in his living room with videotapes of senior Kripalu teachers. I had been meditating for a number of years and what I discovered was that yoga got me into the same “altered” states of well-being, only faster. That’s when I decided to come to Kripalu on a three-month sabbatical from my psychotherapy practice. I’ve been here ever since.

Grace You are one of the few people who talk about the uncomfortable aspects of life, the stresses, the doubts, the unruly emotions, the entrenched habits; your books really explore these challenges, and how yoga can help. Do you think that’s one of the main reasons people come to yoga, to find peace of some kind?

Stephen On the first night of every program I teach, I ask people why they are there, what’s the deepest reason for them to be there, and 75 percent of the answers are “to come home to myself, to find my true self, to find out who I really am.” We have a culture of people who don’t know who they are, don’t know what their essence is, what their role is on the earth.

Grace Do you think someone needs to read yoga philosophy in order to find these answers? Or do we come to that naturally by getting on the mat and practicing postures and working through some of the challenges there?

Stephen The mat is a laboratory for life. You use yoga practice for two reasons, really The first is to find that home where you discover a state of well-being. The second is for training our attention to get very focused. Even though we think of it as a physical practice, essentially what’s happening on the mat is the body becomes the focus for attention training. “Oh, I’m in a beautiful Triangle and I feel that line of energy down through the legs and out through the arms,” and suddenly the mind gets very focused and lands in the present and in the sensation. It is actually that landing that enhances our capacity to become concentrated and absorbed in the present, in the moment. Suddenly the body becomes this wonderful anchor for the mind, allowing it to settle in.

Grace I had a teacher who used to say “the body cannot lie.”

Stephen And that’s the whole reframe in thinking that yoga brings: In order to know things, you have to know your own experience. And it all begins in your body. Through yoga, you learn to tune in to the reality of your body and what it’s teaching you moment to moment. It’s all there.

Grace And through listening to our own experience, through the body, we can discover what we’re here for?

Stephen We can. There are two phases. The first phase, which we talked about, is the experience of well-being, allowing consciousness, awareness, to settle, and to be still and present. But the second phase of yoga training is to systematically investigate the way that thoughts, feelings, sensations arise in the stream of consciousness of who we are. It’s through this systematic inquiry that you begin to understand how it all works. You begin to see how you perceive the world, where that’s distorted, where’s it’s accurate, how you make choices about the next step in your life, how you discern what’s true so you can make wise choices. That all exists right here, in the body. The guidance mechanism is within.

Grace This question of guidance is at the heart of the Bhagavad Gita, yes?

Stephen Absolutely. The Bhagavad Gita was written around the third century BCE and it is one of the most important yoga texts. It is essentially a story about doubt and its resolution. I really relate to Arjuna, the protagonist; he’s skeptical, he’s doubting, he asks the hard questions … and he’s got really difficult decisions to make. He wonders, like we all do, how do I make these decisions?

Arjuna is an archetype of all of us coming to a major crossroad in life. He faces a really profound ethical question Do I engage in this battle or not? If I do, I’m going to be killing my kinsmen, and if I don’t, then I’m not fulfilling my dharma and that will have consequences as well.

Grace I know that you are currently working on a book on dharma, which is often translated as “duty.” How would you define the word “dharma”?

Stephen Dharma is your own idiosyncratic path and truth. It’s your particular genius, your vocation, what you’re most deeply called to. And it’s only through your realizing your dharma, the absolute unique essence of you, that you connect to the universal. That’s the core of the Bhagavad Gita it’s the discovery that through the doorway of your own particular dharma, you walk into the universal wisdom.

Grace Oprah Winfrey recently wrote about finding your “life’s purpose,” your one and only unique gift to the world. It sounds like she was talking about dharma.

Stephen I haven’t read it, but it does sound like she’s talking about dharma because gifts are one of the ways of knowing what your dharma is. They are not the only way, though. For example, I’m a good pianist, even a gifted pianist, but it didn’t turn out to be my dharma. There are other litmus tests for identifying your dharma. In the book, the discernment of gifts is Chapter One, and there are 12 chapters. There are a lot of other doorways.

Grace It strikes me as an important and timely book—and I’m sure I’m not the only one looking forward to reading it. What is your hope for what people take away from it?

Stephen Just that they get closer to finding out who they really are.

Stephen Cope, MSW, LICSW, is a psychotherapist, yogi, and the author of two classic books, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and The Wisdom of Yoga. He currently directs the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, working with leading Harvard researchers on groundbreaking studies on the effects of yoga. Read more about Stephen and his upcoming programs at Kripalu.

Grace Welker is a writer, editor, and yogini living in New York’s Hudson Valley.

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