In the last decades, Yoga has been packaged and sold as a sensationalized, glamorous system of beautifying the body. Images of mostly well-healed looking young women or very buff men on the covers of Yoga magazines have created a market only the elite can pursue. However, the face of this multi-level marketing, quasi-spiritual-oh-so-beautiful-people-thing ostensibly called “Yoga” has been undergoing quite a shift.
In the words of one of my favorite teachers, Yoga has received a “Corona bonus”. Without the studios or the gyms to see and be seen in, the transactional aspect of Yoga is giving way. The world of Yoga is beginning to take a real look at itself. Students seem less interested in impressing others and more concerned with finding peace. Those who have persevered in Zoom classes, or having in-person classes with a mask on, have shown they are over the thrill of “boutique” Yoga. They’ve demonstrated true commitment.
Yoga For Mental Health
Yoga always was and still is one of the most elegant and effective tools for mental health that we have available to us today. From its inception (well over 5,000 years ago!), the many practices and modalities of Yoga from the ancient world were aimed at alleviating human suffering. Yoga was never a system of physical fitness or a religion. From the beginning, Yoga was a response to a world that was going awry. Much like our current culture, the purity of the soul of humanity was becoming drenched in lies and treachery. The Yogis of ancient times recognized that without a practice, the untrained mind is our worst enemy. Without a way to quiet and focus the mind, as a civilization we are worthless. Without reflection and awareness, we drown. Without discernment about how we choose to think, act and speak to one another, we become agents of chaos and do not progress as human beings.
Many profound yogic texts, such as the Vedas and the Upanishads, described the state of Yoga as being one of total absorption. Yoga is both a practice we do and a state we arrive in as a result of this practice. The state of Yoga is called Samadhi, which means, absorption. As described by the seers who put forth these works, the experience of union with the truth of one’s being is achieved through quieting the mind. A guiding force, or teacher, is key because the teacher has the experience of being in the state of Yoga.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the relationship between student and teacher is demonstrated between Krishna (teacher) and Arjuna (student). Krishna teaches Arjuna that Yoga is the ability to live in the world and not be “of” it. Yoga is “skill in action,” he teaches. Yoga gives one the ability to adapt and remain grounded in one’s Self in the midst of all the changes and chaos around us.
An even clearer description of this state of Yoga is outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Today the Yoga Sutras are held as the pinnacle of what is called “The Classical Yoga Period”. These short and precise pearls of wisdom describe the problem of human suffering and the solution for it with an accuracy and simplicity that is loaded with psychological significance pre-dating the science of psychology altogether.
If we look at one section of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, “Sadhana Pada” from book two, the author summarizes our mental health dilemma by putting forth the teachings about the afflictions of the human mind — the Kleshas.
The Afflictions / 5 Kleshas
‘The most powerful form of misery is shoka, sorrow and grief infused with worry, fear and a sense of powerlessness. By the time we reach this state of misery, we have damaged our rational mind. …This state of mind is sustained by our strong identification with worldly objects and relationships. We are convinced…(that) we are incomplete without them; when they prove ephemeral, we are devastated. …Our unwillingness to examine the validity of this conviction is what Yoga calls ‘avidya’, the ground of all afflictions.” (From Sadhana Pada 2:2, pp. 20-21, Pandit Rahmani Tigunait, PhD)
The five afflictions Patanjali calls out in the Sadhana Pada are:
- Ignorance (avidya)
- Ego (asmita)
- Attachment (raga)
- Aversion (devsha), and
- Fear of loss or death (abhinivesha)
The first of these five, ignorance (avidya), lays the foundation for all suffering and feeds the remaining Kleshas (afflictions) in an endless loop.
Patanjali is saying all other forms of affliction stem from this state of ignorance, or avidya. He describes avidya as the over identification with the false self and the overwhelming conviction to remain identified with this false self. The false self can be thought of as the aspect of your being that finds its identity in external realities, such as a job, a relationship, ownership of “things”, roles that one plays (parent, employee, sister, boyfriend), etc. All of these externals, do not define who and what we are, so says Yoga; and yet, as humans we put so much value in these definitions.
We can think of the Kleshas as being the never-ending cycle of suffering; we become attached (raga) to those conditions and objects that seem to fit our false self. We have an aversion (devsha) to the scenarios that contradict this false view. The sense of self is based in the small self (asmita), the solitary ego, that alone is fighting to get the world to adapt to its requirements. In the end, when faced with loss (abhinivesha), there is panic. The fear of losing what we have, or not getting what we want, drives us deeper to keep up the false sense of self. These all stem from an overall ignorance (ayidya) of what our true nature is: in the Yoga tradition it is noted we are a part of the whole, and each one of us plays a part in the picture.
The Practice of Self-Inquiry
Nothing says “we are all connected” like being in a pandemic. In a way, we have to learn to find this reality beyond addiction to the comforts of the world we once knew. We cannot glorify the false self with the same delusional zest we once did. The call of our own mortality is staring us right in the face: whether you are young or not so young, at this point you are probably looking for a way to find serenity that is independent of external influence.
We can use the teaching of the Kleshas to begin the process of self-inquiry. Self-inquiry is probably the very first step towards meditation, and it is definitely one of the most important practices of Yoga. It is through self-inquiry that we start to diminish the hold the Kleshas have on us.
Yoga teaches us that within our own psyche we have the voice of the observer, the one who watches all the thoughts passing through. If you ask yourself which Klesha is causing your thoughts and your actions in any given moment, you are starting the process of waking up. If you are suffering, ask yourself if you are acting from a sense of attachment. Are you reacting to life with aversion by pushing away what is in your experience? Are you driven by a fear of loss? Begin to question the authority of your own thinking process; and in this way, as you develop the “witness”consciousness, you will be more inclined to still and quiet the mind.
Yogic Check Points for Serenity
You can also practice self-inquiry by going a little further. Start by considering some of these questions.
How adaptable am I?
Ask yourself how easy is it for you to adapt to changes in life. The Yoga tradition prizes the quality of stability. Ideally, your practice of Yoga would be giving you a sense of being grounded and stable, both mentally and physically. Yoga should be teaching you to hold your center, just as Krishna taught Arjuna to be in the world but not “of” the world.
Looking at the Kleshas will help. If you are unable to go with the flow of all the changes around you, if you cannot easily adapt, then ask yourself, “What am I attached to?” Or, “What am I adverse to?” From that point, start to get quiet and let go.
How stable am I?
As mentioned, stability is one of the prize qualities the Yoga tradition places above all else. Yoga is not talking about your finances when it defines stability. It’s talking about your ability to see the big picture and remain calm through the traumatic times we are now in. Stability refers to being connected to the part of yourself that is your truth. We can begin to develop our relationship to this part of ourselves by practicing witnessing our thoughts; the witness is this part of you that is always stable, always aware, and cannot be broken by anything external.
Look again at the Kleshas. If you are feeling emotionally unstable, ask yourself if you are identifying with the “false self”. Ask yourself if you have lost the connection to your true self. Stability also refers to your consistency with your practice. Even doing just these simple practices of self-inquiry regularly you will start to develop this stable state.
How easy is it for me to forgive others?
There is a difference between forgiving and forgetting. Forgiveness doesn’t imply you forget. Forgiveness implies you recognize the false self that drives others at times, as much as it can drive you.
Forgiveness can also be related to the Kleshas. Ask yourself what you gain from holding on to resentment; essentially, the question is: What are you afraid of? Where would you be if you sought to understand and forgive? Would you feel weak? It’s a big subject, but recognizing the implications for doing self-inquiry around this one has many gifts.
How honest am I with myself and with others?
This is another huge topic, but very potent in the practices of self-inquiry. It takes courage to get honest; more than we know. So, the first step with this one is to catch yourself in the lies you tell yourself, and ultimately to ask yourself why you need to stretch the truth.
Again, which Klesha is operating here? What fear is governing you? This is usually about fear of loss of some sort. You fear you will lose something you think someone else can give you. At the end of the day, it’s never about what anyone else can give you, but what you are giving to yourself.
From Transactional to Relational Yoga
As we continue to do Yoga in these tough times, we have the opportunity to make our practices deeper by considering what is beyond that transactional, market-driven brand of Yoga we have all been sold. Just the simple practices of developing the witness, looking at the Kleshas and developing a practice of self-inquiry will make all the difference and might even get you meditating! (Fingers crossed.)
All that being said, it is important to have a good teacher in these times. Not a teacher you idolize or depend on, but a teacher who is experienced, knowledgeable and capable of guiding you. How to find a good teacher? Well, you know what they say: When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
Claudia Neuman, MSW, E-RTY 500, YACEP, Certified ParaYoga® & ParaYoga® Nidra Instructor was born in Los Angeles where she studied and trained with todays’ top teachers in the field of Yoga. Claudia started her teaching career in the 80’s and continues to teach in the DC Metro area through various studios and through Zoom classes online. You can learn more about Claudia by visiting her website: www.alignwithgrace.com.