There comes a moment on the yogic path when the thirst for depth becomes insatiable and the poses we take on the mat are no longer enough. Instead, the desire to carry the “yoga high” off the mat and into all of life’s varied experiences becomes the primary motive for practice.
How do we access and sustain that “yoga high” off the mat? There are no shortcuts to embodying all that yoga can offer. However, there is a simple, clear path that does not require the mastery of Sanskrit or of any particular pose. A desire to move one’s yoga practice beyond asana, the third of the eight limbs of yoga, may signal a significant shift on your yogic path. This journey is filled with subtle practices that have the power to reprogram every cell in the body and grant us largely invisible benefits to call upon during tough times. These subtle practices are more internal, cognitive shifts than the external actions experienced through asana, and therefore do not require that we even roll out our yoga mats. Instead, such subtle practices ask that we pay attention to the details all around us, transforming the way we view ourselves, others, the world, and the Divine. A unique detail about these subtleties is that you can practice them anywhere and everywhere: in the line at the market, while making dinner, working on a project, or even when stuck in traffic.
Such methods are numerous, and often overlooked during the mat-based practices of modern yoga. Here are a few tried and true steps to guide you along a clear and direct path to peace:
1. Practice Self-Study (Svadhyaya)
Observe your life. Study thyself. This is where we can tenaciously and lovingly watch our choices, get really curious, and ask ourselves two simple questions: “Where does this habit or pattern show up in my life?” and “How is that working for me?” The practice of svadhyaya, self-study, helps us notice unconscious patterns and make subtle shifts—often with very little effort—to help align our outward actions and our inner desires. When we do this, we naturally experience more power and peace with all things, exactly as they are. Our desire to change the outside world may diminish once we have adjusted our inner perceptions. Studying oneself helps us recognize our less desirable patterns and pitfalls, gently redirecting us back to our best and highest intentions in life. For example, you may notice that you always rest into your left hip and foot while you talk on the phone, do dishes, or stand and chat with coworkers. Perhaps you notice a weakness in that left hip when you practice asana. It’s the practice of self-study or svadhyaya that can help bring this to your attention, and then you can make the choice to proactively address this.
2. Nourish Your Purposeful Mind (Buddhi)
There are book smarts and there are heart smarts. And to take it a little further, there are even the kind of “smarts” that penetrate into and through all things, at all times, and in all ways. This is the kind of intelligence and purpose that can be nurtured here and now and will last through every stage of life, whether young or old, walking, or in a wheelchair. The buddhi is the part of your intelligence that seeks the higher things in life—the part that seeks yoga in all of life, seeing everything as interconnected and part of something grand and great. It is your “wisdom self,” and it comes from light and exists in light. You can nourish your buddhi by filling your life with practices that uplift you, revealing your best self to yourself and others. Maybe you nourish your buddhi by going straight to meditation when you roll out of bed or by setting heartfelt intention. Maybe you listen to an inspiring lecture or uplifting music on your way to work instead of talk radio. In doing so, you will notice that where you place your attention is where your heart and mind will go. The result will be seeing in your own life how that which doesn’t serve you begins to effortlessly fall away.
Another way to nourish your buddhi is to bookend your day with light. You may do this in a number of ways. For instance, take five minutes of meditation and daily intention-setting first thing in the morning before anything distracts you. Similarly, allow five minutes of gratitude and ritual such as abhyangha (self-massage with warm sesame oil) after a warm shower. Or try sitting up in bed and taking five breaths where each inhale focuses on something specific for which you are grateful, and each exhale releases something that is out of your control. In these ways, you can let go of the day before turning in for the evening.
Bringing more light into one’s life naturally aligns with the buddhi, for the buddhi is light itself. According to Advaita Vedanta (a school of Indian philosophy), the buddhi is the place within each of us where the light of Atman (true self) is reflected. When we nourish the buddhi, the intelligent aspect within, we set ourselves up to attract goodness, meaning, and purpose.
3. Cultivate Sacred Community (Kula)
As soon as the word “sacred” is mentioned, thousands of years of rights and wrongs, dos and don’ts, and a whole bunch of rules we never liked and don’t want to follow may come to mind. But this sort of sacred is not about dogma, religion, or lineage. It is simply about realizing that there is a good and holy core at the center of all things, and that creating time and space in one’s life to cultivate an awareness of this benefits all. When you tend to community (known in Sanskrit as kula) with others who are practicing self-study and who long to nourish the highest aspects of their lives, everyone whose life you touch reaps the rewards.
You can cultivate sacred community by inviting fellow “truth seekers” and coming together to ponder a text or sutra, or by working through real-life struggles using yoga as a trustworthy guide. Although many of us shy away from being too assertive, you might consider identifying someone in your community or yoga class with whom you feel a kindred spirit. Reach out, and with meaningful intention, invite them to learn a mantra or watch an inspiring film with you. There are no set rules for cultivating sacred community—just surround yourself with light: i.e., goodness, love, compassion, or anything else that relaxes your heart and taps you into peace and kindness. (See? There’s that light again.)
Many of us go to the mat for our daily practice, and we no doubt receive benefit. But if your asana practice does not provide you with peacefulness and personal power when you are away from your mat, you may want to rethink your daily practice and consider how you can spend more time living your yoga with every breath (even when you aren’t in a yoga pose).
The take-home message is this: Life happens. And in the challenging moments when your life spins you around or knocks you off balance, despite your best intentions, that fancy handstand you have mastered is not going to catch you when you fall. Nor will the Sanskrit word you memorized save you from life’s hardship. Your graceful ability to receive life’s surprises and recover from the difficult ones will inevitably come down to this: Have you paid attention to and offered reverence to the details in life? Have you filled your life with the “higher” things? And have you daily doused yourself in light? If you have, then you undoubtedly experienced the benefits of the deeper practices of yoga. And if you haven’t, you can delve into these subtle practices and experience for yourself the bounty of blessings in the oft-overlooked wonders of life, and find answers to the questions that sustain you and bring you peace and beneficent power—even during the tough times.
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