‘Practice: the repetition of an activity with purposeful awareness and intention of accomplishing an intended goal.’
– from ‘The Practicing Mind’, TM Sterner
What is the goal of yoga? Yogic texts describe it as a practice to prepare the body for meditation and to support being able to sit unflinching in meditation posture (usually lotus). It is there, after the physicality of the yoga practice to get to that point, that awareness will have been honed down enough to be directed inwards so as to be able to observe one’s own mind and become aware of one’s own nature.
Sounds interesting but the words ‘esoteric’ and ‘inaccessible’ spring to mind.
There’s a problem with the question: it implies a place to get to, something to achieve. Perhaps a better question is: what role does yoga play in your life? Or simply – why do yoga? I think about this question a lot. And struggle to describe what I come up with for answers in this linear method of writing when my mind usually works in lateral spider diagrams. But if I had to choose one intended ‘goal’ at this point in time, it would be that to me, yoga is the means through which I cultivate healthy self-esteem. It is an operating system – yOS X perhaps – that is an ongoing process rather than a state. One that works for a period and then requires an upgrade, sometimes minor tweaks, sometimes major changes, as it responds to the ever-changing patterns within the body, the mind, and the environment one lives in.
But why talk about healthy self-esteem and not increased flexibility? Increased strength? The ability to do fancy poses that can be instantly Instagrammed? This post was partly inspired by a day I delivered last week on our NEXT Project teaching the basics of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. We finished the day by exploring what we all thought of healthy self-esteem. It’s a word that’s banded about left, right and centre but what does it actually look and feel like? How does it manifest in a person’s everyday life? This is what we came up with:
I was struck by the parallels between the ‘psychological practice’ we teach at Foundation for Change and what I feel I’ve personally learnt and seen in others on the yoga mat. It was clear that everything on that flip chart was applicable to a yoga practice as well as to what we were talking about. And how the words we came up with as a group were the very parts that to me, made up the whole of a feeling I’ve had for several years about yoga being an operating system.
It is these small parts that are collectively practiced, cultivated, nourished, reflected on, refined and practiced again. The yoga poses are an entry point to something far more profound – an experiential practice in which it’s possible to learn how to live life through how you practice. What you carry out into your life is brought back into your practice through a feedback loop, stated beautifully by the C13th Zen Master Dogen: “Practice is enlightenment and enlightenment is practice”.
One of the (many) things I find fascinating about having a practice is where the focus of it is placed – and that it’s usually not where you think it ought to be. In yoga, the fruits of one’s yogic labours are reaped not by simply turning up on the mat and having a 90-minute practice dedicated to building healthy self-esteem. They’re experienced indirectly through being present, paying attention to each breath, to each passing thought. Benefits are felt from experiencing the sheer joys of physicality, feeling the sensations of the breath and the body that are always there but to which we’re often completely oblivious. Experiencing the rising stress response in more challenging poses, learning to regulate your heart, breath and mind, and the small victories felt by getting through them. They’re gained by being aware of the noise of the mind and being gentle with yourself when the critical voices reach ridiculously loud/demanding/profane levels.
Consistency, regularity, and having the discipline of a practice is the important part of this equation as it’s the doing of the small things regularly that lead to changes in neural pathways and ultimately, long-term behavioural change. I truly believe – as has been the experience in my own life – that the increased strength, flexibility, focus, happiness, and so on, are the by-products that fall into place around such a present moment practice.
There is a parallel here with recovery from drug/alcohol addiction. One of the tragic outcomes of living in a time of actual outcome reporting is that the focal point is misplaced. Treatment services are often paid-by-results, a prime example being the result of employment. Cue lots of pushing to fast-track people into zero-hour-contract employment and getting them off benefits in an effort to tick boxes, when the majority of people haven’t yet laid the foundations of self-esteem and resilience needed to be able to sustain employment and remain off benefits. Cue stress, ineffective coping responses, intense boredom from meaningless jobs, dysfunctional behaviours and often relapse.
Our work at Foundation for Change focuses on building healthy self-esteem: individuals are taught psychological and philosophical frameworks through which they understand their pasts, their present lives (including a strong focus on understanding their physiology and (re)connecting with the wisdom of the body). They get to explore meaning (and meaninglessness) through existential philosophy and begin to develop a sense of their futures. Again, focused isn’t placed on the obvious: our work isn’t fixated on sobriety, recovery, abstinence, getting people jobs. We don’t actually even talk about those things. It’s focused on people building a sense of self, of kick-starting the process of building healthy self-esteem. With that in place as a foundation, recovery, employment, meaning, improved relationships and happiness fall into place around it. Or on top of it. And not dissimilar to yoga, it is an ongoing practice that requires dedication and an attentiveness to each moment to stop falling back into old traps and set new patterns. And an ability to be kind and gentle to ourselves when we inevitably make mistakes. It’s all part of the process after all.