Yoga Should Make Us Nicer, Right?
When I first started yoga, I did it to relieve pain from running injuries. It worked.
Then I did a little exploring I found the style of yoga that was perfect for me at the time. I fell in love with the movement and I continued it because I realized it really physically relaxed me, I slept better and I just felt better in my own body. It worked again.
More time passed and I began noticing that I was less reactive to small things. I remember there were a few things in particular that had been pet peeves of mine at the time in my workplace. I had more than one really funny moment when these things happened and, after the fact, I realized I wasn’t even ruffled.
In the best of ways I began wondering what was happening to me. With my professional background I already understood how closely tied our emotions and responses are to our body chemistry. It took me a little bit to make the connection that doing these yoga movements combined with specific breathing patterns was beginning to shift my nervous system and body chemistry and, therefore, my emotional experience. It was pretty exciting to witness these biochemical factoids I had been learning about for so long actually shifting in my own system Yoga was still working.
This is where it gets really interesting. It made sense to me that that if I continued in this way, I might be able to smooth out some of my overly emotional moments and I could maybe even stop my reactive comments to others altogether over time. Maybe yoga could make me a nicer person.
So that was over 20 years ago. Fast forward to last night when I was having dinner with two of my very good friends, Beth and Kate. We all do yoga and we all are currently having some fairly challenging things passing through our lives as are a lot of others we know. We were commenting on how we’ve also been less even keeled and having some down and dirty, good old fashioned emotional flares and reactions rolling through and, yes, even seeping out of us toward others. Wait a minute… yoga doesn’t work!
Kate pulled out a Facebook post that said ‘I do yoga so I don’t punch people in the throat.’ Definitely overstated and not socially appropriate for a yogini to say but that’s what made it funny. Sometimes it’s the irreverent statements that help us realize our underlying beliefs are not quite on target.
The reality is that no matter how much yoga practice we do or how many relaxation techniques we employ or what spiritual path we follow, we are still going to have our personalities. And yay for that!
It is often an unspoken thought or assumption that these sorts of practices and ways of looking at the world are going to change our personalities so that we will become better or nicer people. I’ve realized that’s not the case nor the purpose. Yoga does work, it’s just not the way I expected.
These practices do not change our personalities but they do free us from our entanglement with them. THAT’s the liberation. We learn we have choice, we learn to be kinder to ourselves when we realize we have personality based knee jerk reactions and we learn to leave ourselves alone.
With skillful teachers showing us how to relax our muscles, shift our body chemistry and therefore change our view of the world, we begin to have firsthand palpable sensory experience of our own essence which is limitless, timeless and our source of Life in this body.
We’ve known all of that talk for a very long time but it becomes far more than words. We develop skill in bringing ourselves into that verbally inexpressible FELT state. And with continued experience, we come to realize that state is always right here, right now, always floating and flowing through us. And over time we simply will learn how to see with more than just our eyes. We come to KNOW the nonphysical half of ourselves as it simultaneously walks hand-in-hand through our lives WITH our perfectly imperfect reactive personalities.
Then, over time, it’s true we may start slowly notice outer change occurring in us but it is not because of our active efforts to fix ourselves. We finally stop beating ourselves up and leave our personalities alone for having likes and dislikes which create opinions and reaction. That’s just what a personality does and always will. We understand our personality is our uniqueness in the world, our strength and simultaneously our challenge and our driving force to move and connect in the world. That’s huge.
So what’s our job if it’s not to fix ourselves? It’s to foster more quiet and space through our practices so that we can become aware of when we are lost in reaction and have the space to not act on that reaction. The major point is that we do not deny we are having the reaction or down ourselves for it but we do choose, whenever we can, to not act on it. If we have already acted on it, we make amends where necessary. Our choice in life is to choose a) to put our energy and focus on the stories that our personality generates with every occurrence or b) to put our energy and focus on the nonverbal sensory part of ourselves every moment Period. That’s all.
The predictable magic is that as more of our attention is naturally drawn to our non-physical selves, there is less focus and energy cycling around in our ever spinning minds. Like a wheel rolling downhill, our repetitive thought patterns and reactions to not getting what we like and having to deal with what we don’t like will lose momentum over time if we don’t struggle with them.
We take our hands off the wheel, stop trying to force ourselves to change and dedicate our attention whenever we remember to shifting focus to the rich sensory moment that is always right here. Less and less often, you’ll feel like punching people in the throat. Kidding.
That’s it. That’s the deepest practice, what every tradition points to and, yes, it will change EVERYTHING.