When students begin a yoga practice, they often notice they feel a deeper sense of peace. We often think about peace in terms of what it is not: stress, conflict, anxiety, violence. The word peace actually means freedom from disturbance.
The state of Yoga is the restraint of the modifications (disturbances) of the mind-stuff.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says there are five mental modifications: right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep, and memory. These things are not necessarily bad or good, but they disturb our peace when we confuse them for ultimate reality. When we practice yoga, we are learning to control these mental modifications, and, therefore, be at peace.
Yoga teaches us the habits of peace. As we move through the asanas, we develop physical strength and stamina with grace and flexibility. When we meditate we are cultivating our ability to be still, focus, and listen. To practice yoga is to practice peace.
Growing pains on the yogic path.
As we deepen our yoga practice, our consciousness begins to shift. This is an exciting, albeit uncomfortable, process at times. We may even find ourselves resisting it. We begin to see things in ourselves and in the world around us differently. Unhealthy or even unethical activities that we once participated in without a second thought begin to trouble us. At times we may even consider giving up our yoga practice. Life seemed so much easier without it! To abandon our yogic path would be the worst thing for us. Our practice may have been the catalyst for these changes, but it is also the healing balm that will ease our pain.
Practicing yoga is like turning on a lightbulb. All of the things that stand between us and our ability to be at peace can now be seen. Sometimes we don’t like what we see. We see the vices, addictions, and personality defects in ourselves. We also see our suffering reflected by the suffering of other people, animals, and the earth herself. In the light it becomes obvious that they way we have been living, individually and collectively, is not serving us. At this point we can either run back into the darkness or surrender to transformation.
Staying on the path when the going gets tough.
Some people do give up practicing yoga! They may think it is because their hamstrings are too tight or that it just doesn’t fit into their schedule. They want their feel-good practice back. The one they had when they could keep yoga in its proper place with other happy, fuzzy things. And that is completely okay. Practicing yoga is not the only path to peace, truth, and liberation. It just happens to be a very effective one.
Others do the exact opposite. Practicing yoga becomes a way to buffer and distract themselves from both their internal and external reality. They approach the world as something toxic and something to separate themselves from. In a sense, they cloister themselves in their practice as if it was a cave they could go hide in. This, too, is okay. It is part of their process.
And yet others see the suffering within and without, and they cannot turn away. They choose to embrace their practice- all of it! Even the parts that feel messy until they realize that those condemned parts are perfect. Their practice permeates their cells and alchemically changes them until they no longer practice peace, they are peace. They are peace itself walking among us as living saints, completely anonymous, totally understated.
Or so I hear.
Most of us set our feet to a two-step-forward-one-step-back sort of path. Our practice is exhalating one day, dull the next. We love our practice, we despise our practice. There is an ebb and flow to how we feel about practicing yoga. The point is, we do it anyways.
The gift of yoga is not found at the end of some journey, but in the process of getting there. We sometimes soar sometimes stumble along, but we do so among our fellow humans. Sometimes others carry us, sometimes we carry them. Yoga and peace is in our realization of union with all sentient beings that moves us to compassion. This is the heart of our practice. This is why our practice matters.