Ten years ago I was an uptight stress-head waiting to explode at any moment. I thought I was ‘happy’ that way – it was familiar and comfortable, but friends and family were staying away and my home was a hive of stress and negativity. I had to change. But how…?
I found myself in an Ashtanga Vinyasa class, not because of any deep knowledge of the benefits of yoga, but because I was quite bendy and I liked to keep fit. Unbeknown to me I’d stumbled into a practice that would change my life…
One of the first things yoga taught me was that a happy, or unhappy, life was my own creation. I later discovered that this is idea is found throughout Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra – one of yoga’s key teachings.
For years I’d been blaming my bad moods and negativity on other people’s actions, thinking other people were in some way responsible for making me happy. Realising that happiness had to come from within me was a key moment, because after that I started learning how to create my own happiness.
In Satchidananda’s commentary on the Yoga Sutra he says: “A happy or unhappy life is your own creation. Nobody else is responsible.” (Satchidananda 1988:93). Adding: “We attach ourselves to pleasure because we expect happiness from it, forgetting happiness is always in us as the true self.” (Satchidananda 1988: 85).
I was constantly looking outside of myself to pleasurable experiences, exciting adventures or to my partner, family or friends for happiness; without realising the only path to true happiness was to look inside myself.
But finding the stillness needed for self-inquiry is easier said than done, especially if like me you have a very active mind. My mind was constantly busy working at a million miles an hour, to-do lists compiled in my head for a myriad of different activities and commitments. On the odd occasion I’d try to still my mind and meditate I would give up frustrated at not being able to tame my ‘monkey mind’.
So before I could discover the path to my own happiness I first had to create a mental environment that allowed me see the way.
I didn’t realise it was happening at first but a very welcome side-effect of my exploration of Hatha Yoga, specifically my new-found love of Mysore style Ashtanga Vinyasa, was a gradual stilling of my mind. The practice teaches you focus and concentration which inevitably finds its way off your mat and into your daily life.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika explains: “Hatha Yoga is the process of establishing perfect physical, mental, emotional and physic equilibrium by manipulating the energies of the body. It is through Hatha yoga that one prepares for the higher spiritual experience.” (Muktibodhananda 2000:26). In Muktibodhananda’s commentary on the Hatha Yoga Pradapika he adds: [Through the practice of Hatha yoga] “One becomes open to greater experiences even if these are not sought after directly. …The side-effect of creating a harmonious psycho-physiological balance is definitely a worthwhile fruit.” (Muktibodhananda 2000:576).
A practice that was initially about a bit of stretch and keeping active changed the essence of my being. I started to delve into yoga theory and philosophy, how did this mysterious practice work? How could I be so different just by spending and hour and a half on my mat a few times a week? What would happen if I practiced more?
As I studied more and looked harder within myself I realised that the battles I was having on my mat were often the same battles I was having with myself (and sometimes others) in my daily life. My practice was teaching me far more than concentration and focus on a sequence of movements it was forcing me to confront myself, and gradually opening my eyes to a whole new way life. I had a choice and I could choose to be happy.
Yoga is a journey and ten years on my practice is about spiritual and philosophical discoveries, self-study and continued learning. Physically my practice still looks very similar, but now every moment is about stilling my mind because it is the stillness that allows everything else to manifest.
For me the key teaching of yoga is found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1-2: “Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah – The restraint of the modification of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” (Satchidananda 1988:3). It was when I started to realised that I could use my yoga practice to calm and still my frantic mind that my journey of self-discovery and happiness began.