Guest post by Jennifer McCarron
You may already know the word Yoga (योग) comes from the Sanskrit word yuja (युज), which means “connector. ” A yoga asana practice (yoga posture practice) connects our minds and bodies, healing rifts within us, strengthening us as individuals.
Your yoga practice off the mat goes beyond individual connection and healing; it mends the suffering caused by disconnection from others.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, a person who practices this kind of yoga perfectly ...
...sees all beings as equal
In suffering or in joy
because they are like himself (6.32)
Viewing yourself as a sticky gumball
I visualize myself as a piece of gum rolling around out in the world. During the day I pick up bits of lint and dog hair and sometimes other pieces of gum. By the time I get home I am connected or stuck to many things. Some of those things I didn’t consciously pick up - I simply went about my day and picked up bits of my environment as I went along. The Yoga Sutras calls these vrittis, or disturbances in the clarity of my heart and mind.
According to the Yoga Sutras, the purpose of yoga is the utter clarification of the heart and mind. That means your yoga practice off the mat should address those vrittis, those bits of dirt and grit and gravel that I’ve picked up by rolling around in my environment.
Oftentimes we connect or stick to the same kinds of dust - I roll around in my little area picking up similar lint as my gumball neighbors. You and your gumball neighbors do the same.
Little tribes, clubs and clusters are validating
Sharing connections creates groups. When we share these environmental connections we may start to unconsciously identify as a group. For example, in my neighborhood, lots of people have dogs and like to walk them. Without consciously considering it, I connect to them without ever talking to them. I assume we all love dogs. This connection happens just by living in my neighborhood and having a dog.
Connections to a group help us feel safe. The idea that we share beliefs, like we all love our dogs, makes us feel connected. Membership in a group boosts our self-esteem and helps satisfy our human need to belong. On a more grand scale, our connection to groups helps us answer the existential question, “Who am I?”
An innocuous belief shared within my yoga community is that the mind affects the body. For example, we tend to agree that: “when I meditate, I feel better.” It’s natural for members of a community to validate a belief they share. Unfortunately, a problem may occur when this belief is unconsciously shared.
Where beliefs can cause misconception
When we repeat and validate a belief between one other it may become amplified and create problems and divisions that the original belief did not. For example, “when I meditate, I feel better,” can become “if I meditated more, I’d feel better.” If I experience clinical depression I might consider myself a failure at meditation. What if I meet someone with MS or cancer? Confirmation bias might lead me to believe they haven’t meditated enough.
That’s the kind of harmful amplification that can happen to beliefs a group shares.
This is called viparyaya, or misconception, by the Yoga Sutras. Utter clarity is the goal of yoga but misconceptions cloud our hearts and minds. They are obstacles to our yoga practice, particularly our yoga practice off the mat.
Amplification of beliefs and values can distort the reality of who I am, or how I view others. This is a sad manifestation of viparyaya, or misconception. I experience bipolar II disorder - does this mean I’ve failed at meditation? It’s important for me to examine my own values and hold them up against the connections I make and beliefs I share with others.
Groups and shared beliefs help improve our self-esteem. However, in times of ambiguity or stress, we may cling to the viewpoints of our own group in order to feel safe. We may start to divide ourselves from people and groups that don’t hold matching viewpoints. In my yoga community, perhaps will we begin to disapprove of western medicine, when in many cases western medicine can help a person enjoy a fuller, longer life. Again, this is a dangerous manifestation of viparyaya.
Bringing it back to the practice
I can use yoga asana (posture) practice, meditation practice, and other mindful practices to dust off or clarify my gumball at the end of the day. I can clean off the little pebbles and gravel I’ve unconsciously stuck or connected to. I can begin to smooth out the vrittis, or disturbances in the utter clarity of my heart and mind. (The easiest way to do this, in my opinion, is to connect to breath or physical sensation in some way) I can begin to connect to a neutral and unclouded sense of my Self.
That makes it easier for me to examine my own values. I can consciously decide if the connections I’m making, if the groups I’m joining, truly “serve me” (that is, do they amplify the qualities and attitudes that I find truly uplifting and important). I can examine my perspective. Is stress or fear eroding my sense of self and causing me to cling to my group? Am I unconsciously connecting to amplified beliefs, that distort the reality of who I am, or who others are? I can make an honest assessment, without the lense of viparyaya (misconceptions).
Cleaning off your gumball
Maybe you’d like to examine the environment you’re rolling about in. Picking up lint and dust bunnies is probably inevitable, and not inherently harmful. However, if you find yourself picking up things that make you really sick at the end of the day (the particularly harmful vrittis), you can use yoga’s healing practices to “dust off” your sticky gumball.
We can use individual yoga practice to refine the connection between our own hearts and minds. Asana practice (posture practice) on the mat, can help us clear our minds so we can find and refine our own personal beliefs. We can cultivate the opposite of viparyaya, which is pramana - correct perception. Pramana is a boost, rather than an obstacle, to yoga practice. It leads us to a clearer heart and mind.
Conscious selection and refinement of our own beliefs and values makes it easier for us to examine the groups and beliefs we stick to. We can see if they are truly good for us. We can become aware of those times of stress when beliefs are amplified to a point that they become harmful vrittis.
Conscious selection of the beliefs we encounter and absorb makes our yoga practice off the mat more potent; we go beyond individual and internal connection and healing. We begin to heal our connections with others. We can recognize harmful, divisive beliefs. We can begin to practice yoga more perfectly.
That is, we begin...
... [to see] all beings as equal
In suffering or in joy
because they are like [ourselves]