I often say it. We hear about it and read about it. Yoga can transform your life! But how can a bunch of odd looking poses, breathing and relaxation techniques have such an impact?
Two key points to recognize here before I say more:
- We are each born with a certain genetic disposition that affects our health – nothing we can do about that.
- We have no control over other people, their actions and reactions, nor any other external factor or past event.
These seem obvious but if you think about it for a moment you might be surprised how often you ‘suffer’ and complain that your life is not what you want because of these!
So if we can’t change or control these aspects, then all that remains is ourselves. Very important caveat at this point:
Transforming your life ≠ changing you!!
I would like to suggest that transforming your life is a process by which you take control and power over your own life and move toward your joy and optimum wellness.
We do have full control over what we do, say and think and how we interact with others and with life in general. The challenge, however, is that our way of being, thinking and doing is influenced by our ‘conditioning’. Yogic wisdom refers to this as ‘samskāra’.
Unconscious patterns of behaviour
When we are born we function instinctively, with no judgement or barriers. Quickly though our actions and reactions start to get programmed into the body and brain. Based on our experiences and what we are taught or learn from watching and imitating, our actions, reactions and interpretations of the world start to become more reflexive and engrained. We start to walk, talk and act like our parents!! As we move through life we continue to be conditioned by neuromuscular organization (i.e. repetitive movement programmed into brain and body) and socialization (i.e. what is considered the norm in our community or society). When we experience emotions or pain the support we receive to deal with these at the time will affect how we deal with them in the future.
The characteristic of this conditioning or samskāra is that it is unconscious or reflexive. Our ways of doing, being and seeing the world become our own norms and we don’t even realize that they are not necessarily the same for someone else, perhaps not serving us best and that we have the choice! There may be other ways or perspectives.
If this conditioning is not optimal for our well-being but is unconscious, we may be confused as to why we are ‘suffering’ and cannot bring about the changes we desire in our lives. Perhaps you have the reflexive reaction to watch tv to numb out thoughts and feelings when things get difficult. Maybe you find yourself again and again in relationships that are abusive, thinking nobody likes you when you get rejected, or constantly pushing yourself to exhaustion (hmmm, that one is familiar to me!)
How to break the conditioning?
This is where I can come back to the role of Yoga!
There is nothing static in life. Change is constant. If we become aware of our conditioning we can choose to break the habits or patterns that no longer serve us and replace them with patterns that bring us joy and wellness. As Gary Kraftsow, one of America’s foremost yoga therapists and author of Yoga for Wellness, says “this liberation for the effects of conditioning, on all levels, is the purpose of Yoga”.
In our daily lives most of our attention is turned outward. So only when we start to look inward and develop our self-awareness can we notice the patterns. This is key to transforming your life!
It is not enough to simply think about our conditioning. Since so much is programmed and engrained in our neuromuscular structure, there is a need to embody the transformation.
Again in Gary’s words, “Āsana practice was developed as a means of purifying and restructuring the body, bringing to it the qualities of stability, strength, flexibility, stillness and a sense of clarity and well-being. It does this by introducing some non-mechanical elements into our daily life, through which we free ourselves from conditioning and effect positive change”.
So the process of transformation starts here, and the practice of yoga can only be truly transformational, I believe, if there is a primary focus on interiorizing our attention and exploring the body with a sense of curiosity.
In future posts and in my yoga classes I will continue to explore this topic and ways to practice to become more aware. In the meantime, I’d love to hear in what ways yoga has transformed your life.