Breaking Free

Published: 6 April, 2011

“Ouuuuchh!” was the cry that came from deep within. My persistently resistant right hip was opposed to the shape I had taken in my yoga practice and it was protesting as strongly as the Egyptians in Tahrir Square. I only hoped that this internal demonstration would end as quickly and peacefully.

As I reminded myself of the words ‘gently, gently’ that permeate the ancient Sanskrit Yoga texts as guides, it seemed that Ahiṃsā (non-violence) was the only noble path to face this situation.  But I often ask myself why does one persist with the practice of Yoga when it often feels like a self-imposed battle?  Surely facing these daily acts of bodily disobedience, and all too often mental disobedience, as well as the stubborn resistance to change, could only lead to exhaustion?!

What is the power of a Yoga practice that has infected me, and so many others, in the modern world that keeps one returning day after day, year after year?

Yesterday, I meet an inspiring fellow known fondly as “The Kid”, at a teacher training conducted by the
Prisons Phoenix Trust (PPT).  The PPT aim to assist prisoners and prison staff in the development of their spiritual welfare through the practice of meditation and yoga. The Kid is an ex-criminal that stumbled across a Yoga book written in Spanish while locked up in an Argentinean prison for 10 years.  This was his second time in the lock up as he’d already endured 10 long years in a UK prison for similar deeds. The fact that he couldn’t read Spanish
didn’t inhibit his interest.  He simply spent the first 6 months, with a dictionary in hand, translating it into English.  With plenty of time and the strong urge to reform his life, he practiced alone in his cell, teaching himself from pictures and progressing laboriously through book after book on Yoga, absorbing it’s teachings like a parched dessert thirsty for water.

“Arrrrgh, that’s the easy way!” I thought enviously…. consider your prison cell your Ashram, a small isolated hut without distractions, no need to gather food, no struggle for survival, no engaging in relationships or worldly events, the job is half done!  All temptations have been removed and it is only self-discipline that is required to fight the battle.  Could I really think the grass looks greener inside an Argentinean prison cell?

The Kid’s remarkable story of renewal and transformation would leave any disbeliever in awe of the power of Yoga.  He practiced steadily and consistently for 10 years with the Sūtras as his teacher, reshaping himself from hardened drug smuggler to inspirational self-healed Yoga teacher.  His tale is nothing short of miraculous.  But what did Yoga do?  Why did it work?  Why is The Kid’s path so similar (in many respects) to all others who practice Yoga with consistency and determination?

Considering this more closely, it appears that the most alluring qualities of Yoga are in its ability to renew and empower.  The practitioner, when faced with looking directly at themselves, is not restricted by circumstances, upbringing, wealth nor even health.  One quickly realises that it is actions that take immediate affect on the body, breath and mind, and that these actions also shape life experiences.  The practice of Yoga generously offers an opportunity to break free of any confinements (physical, mental, emotional, situational) and provides the tools to dig a pathway out!  Proficiency comes when one is no longer cast from side-to-side by the daily throws of life and quietly confronts whatever arises.    

But does the practice of Yoga really help us choose our actions more wisely?

The sage Patañjali (4th C) talks of the shift in perspective that results in a world eternal and the allure of Siddhis (powers).  In modern times, the allure of power and enlightenment certainly attracts some, but for most practitioners, it is the joy of profound changes in life experiences that encourages further enquiry and growth.  In fact, it is common, for those dedicated to Yoga, to marvel at how their practice cultivates the feelings of Friendliness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity (known as Bhāvanā) in all other aspects of their lives.  So whether faced with times of great happiness or suffering, success or failure, there appears to be an empowered shift towards a Life in which Bhāvanā are prevalent. Patañjali concisely describes this as the rise of Citta Prasādanam - the rise of clarity, brilliance, tranquility and serenity!  

Perhaps it is Citta Prasādanam that has us all eagerly returning to practice?