The Yoga of Change
Change is profoundly challenging. How many times in your life have you seen change rolling toward you, and deemed it unacceptable, not your plan? Found yourself working wildly to prevent or ignore it? Of course, it happened anyway. And how many times have you felt the urge, the deep internal pull, to change some lifestyle pattern—to lose 10 pounds, to incorporate more yoga into your day, to get more aerobic exercise—and found yourself floundering, struggling, despite your commitment to yourself?
As a mindfulness coach at Kripalu, I regularly work with people who struggle with and against change. Steeped for 30 years in the Kripalu approach to transformation, I believe there are simple yet profound elements from the practice of yoga on the mat that can assist us in relaxing into accepting and initiating change—that can help us surrender more into the natural flow and rhythm of our life’s path.
Consider the essence of a hatha yoga practice—the cultivation of presence in the moment, of mindfulness. From a self-discovery perspective, yoga poses (asanas) provide us with training and practice in learning how to work with change—by staying mindful. When we enter a pose such as Triangle, we begin to seek out the physical edge of sensation. What should we do? We don’t want to push past it into a realm of willful effort, a path to injury and frustration, and we don’t want to pull away from it, a path to stagnancy. We want to rest right on that developmental edge of sensation. We hold the pose as the limits of our physical selves are stretched. We breathe and stay present. And what happens? The body relaxes and opens, naturally and in its own perfect timing.
The same thing happens in our minds when we’re in a pose. We get into Warrior I, and the mind begins to produce an earful of limiting beliefs. Perhaps they sound something like: This hurts. I’m bored. This teacher is talking too much. I can’t do this right. That guy is doing it better. The mind rambles, complains, and thinks about anything else except for what’s actually happening. So what do we do? We let the thoughts go, without further engaging them, without believing them. As we become aware of our minds and let them relax, as we stay aware of the moment, of our breath, and of sensations, purification just happens. The mind releases.
This is how transformation happens—through conscious presence in the moment. Through awareness and acceptance of exactly what is happening, the bodymind adjusts itself and opens up with perfection and grace.
This same 6,000-year-old model of transformation can be applied to off-the-mat changes— whether we are presented with them by life circumstances or they are changes that we want to initiate. We simply need to be present with "where we are" and what is happening in order to get to where we want to be! It’s a strange and wonderful irony that remarkably weds together the action-oriented modality of life coaching and the mindfulness teachings of yoga.
As I work with guests in The Kripalu Approach to Diet: An Integrative Weight-Loss Program, for example, I see such suffering. People work so hard to lose weight—there is a lot of effort made toward the goal, a lot of forcing, controlling—and denying. The Western diet industry is based in deprivation, on some inherent morality code about good and bad food, good and bad behavior. But it doesn’t work in the long term. Behavior might be changed and pounds might be lost, but this level of willful change that does not draw on natural forces cannot be sustained over time. Using our will to change our behavior reminds me of Einstein’s wonderful concept that the mind that creates the problem cannot be the force that solves it. Yoga offers us something else, transformation at the core—change that is rooted deeply in our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.
We need to be where we are. We need to cultivate mindfulness right here, right now, in this perfect moment, and from this moment, take incremental steps in the direction we are heading. We need to enjoy our lives. We get so addicted to our destination, we forget that the energy of life, the prana of possibility, can be accessed only in the moment. As on the yoga mat, positive life energy will move us forward. As on the yoga mat, the evolutionary force within us will fully contribute to the process of transition. We just forget—we think we are the masters, the architects of change. We literally block out the healing energy of life that inevitably will take us toward our dharma. And by trying to do it all by ourselves, we often make ourselves miserable.
In my work, I also see a lot of successes, which is one of the things that inspires me in my own life and teaching. I witness brave people using the tools of yoga to move forward in their lives and to access positive change. One of my clients worked for many years in a toxic corporate environment that was endangering her physical and emotional wellness. She was deeply plugged into the lifestyle and the salary, yet the stress and the culture of the job were robbing her of her life. Against all odds, she was able to extricate herself from it. She is now vibrantly alive, physically well, and following her lifelong dream—training to be a kindergarten teacher. She is one of my heroes.
So how can you work with the yoga of change? Practice mindfulness. Develop conscious awareness through yoga, meditation, any contemplative practice or activity that quiets your mind, restores the connection to your body, and opens your heart. And make a plan, with simple, incremental steps, heading in the direction you want to go, perhaps working with a supportive friend or mentor, someone to mirror you back to yourself. Let your actions be specific, measurable, time-bound, and wondrously delicious. Don’t simply take away behavior—give to yourself that which you are really longing for.
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