Recently I talked with a student who asked the question, “How do we know we are on the right path?” He avidly meditates and his question was leading to specific experiences while meditating, but I answered in a different direction. The practice is a good one if we are responding differently to the world. If we are noticing less cravings (attachments) and aversions (avoiding), or appropriately reacting in relationships, then you know your compass is pointing north. So, we can judge our practice by the fruits of our practice.
This answer came to me from an unlikely source soon after I began yoga. I asked my pastor about my practice and if it was conflicting with my faith (this was 18 years ago and there were articles being published about the evils of yoga…). She replied that the best litmus test of any spiritual practice is to consider the fruits. If the practice is cultivating patience, kindness, self-control, courage, confidence or any number of positive qualities, then you can rest assured you are on the right path.
In yoga how do we bear these precious fruits? While the answer is a simple one, getting there is not easy. The definition of yoga is the ability to calm the mind. There are different schools of thought. Where some are in the camp of calming the mind, by directly working with the mind (meditation), other camps support stilling the breath (pranayama) as the means to calm the mind. While the means maybe different, the goal is still the same - a still mind.
The downside of mainstream yoga in the west is the dilution of the very practices which define it. Yoga, which is only physical, cannot be called yoga, simply by the definition of it. If the practice does not have as its intention calming the mind, maybe it should be called something different, like sophisticated gymnastics or stretch and flex. But don’t call it yoga.
There are many valid reasons to begin a yoga practice. When I began practicing two decades ago, my goal was to feel better. I think the goals of feeling better (less stress, more energy, less pain, or more connection) are very common reasons to begin rolling out a mat. While personally I felt better right away, it was several years into my practice that I realized for long-term health or the absence of dis-ease, it was going to take more than just the physical postures. Vibrant health is a tricky balance and for those of us lucky enough to practice, yoga is the best health insurance ever invented. I get why students “preference” a practice which is athletic, fun, and energetic - because it matches our world. One doesn’t need to look far to see how our culture is attached to adrenaline. A world, which is spinning faster, higher, more bold, and overstated, is our new norm.
The problem with this new norm, however, lays in its inability to mitigate our stress levels, health, or ease of living. The antidote to stress according to yoga is a practice that is slower, quieter, lower (grounding), and subtle. The speed is actually super-duper important. A fast practice could lead to momentum taking over, losing the core muscle engagement or becoming mechanical and just another place to check out. If a slower, quieter yoga practice sounds boring or unappealing, then perhaps the central nervous system is overstimulated. Baby stepping towards stillness maybe a remedial step, as long as the student is clear about their intention and keeps their compass pointed in the direction of calming the mind. If students continue to practice in a way that is exciting for the nervous system, they may never come to know the promises of yoga.
Yoga practiced in its entirety (philosophy, asana, pranayama, withdrawal from senses, concentration, and mediation), will not mean perfection, actualization, or enlightenment. Yoga will allow the student to become more conscious of their patterns or unskillful ways of being. It is the awareness of these patterns, which is the breeding ground for transformation. Some may feel initially like this is the “un-fun” part of yoga, but eventually self-awareness can be stimulating and inspire us to stay on the path.
While we may use our practice to hone skill in action, we can also use our practice to make space for living in the brutal truth of our humanity. No matter how dedicated or long term our yoga is, we will still be human. One of the best fruits we can nurture is the acceptance of our imperfections. It sounds counter-intuitive, but yoga can both make us better people and allow ourselves the grace to fall short. As we become more accepting of ourselves, we become more accepting of others and their imperfections.
As students become savvy consumers of yoga and demanding more depth than McYoga (fast food yoga, not to be confused with the rapper…), my hope is they ask questions. “Do I feel energetic but calm?” “Am I moving more skillfully in the world?”, “Do I feel more connected to myself, others, and the world?”, “Do I entrust myself?”, “Do I feel comfortable with silence and stillness?”, “Can I accept and even delight in my imperfections which make me unique?”
If the answer is yes, then you have a keeper.