From the moment we are born we are in some way defined. We are a daughter or a son, brother or sister, healthy or unhealthy, with a certain ethnic heritage and/or possibly a certain religion. The yoga quest started in earnest for me some twenty-five years ago in great part as a search for answers about life and what all these definitions mean to us.
This past January, the young man (well, younger than me!) who I have studied Ashtanga Yoga with since 1999 was interviewed on The Martha Stewart Show, someone recently sent me the clip. Eddie, too, said that since the age of nine he had been looking for answers to these same questions. The Meysore style of Ashtanga Yoga that we practice at his studio is silent self-practice so, unlike other forms like Kundalini or Hatha where the teacher instructs and sometimes speaks a bit about their own experiences, this was the first time I heard that Eddie also found Yoga to be a good place to look at these questions and definitions life had handed us. Eddie is clearly someone who explores Yoga as much more than a physical practice, the point being that Yoga can be an exploration of life and what it means to live beyond the definitions we may know. Through yoga, we may detach ourselves from identities that we thought defined us.
In the changing times that we live in, yoga can be a powerful tool for introspection and answers, or at least a place to look for them. People change jobs, relationships and where they live, much more now than in past generations (even changing their sex!). We are bombarded by messages from society, more now with the digital age. The principles of yoga, among which are contentment and truthfulness, can be very useful. We live in a time and country where we have the luxury and freedom to question our definitions of ourselves.
The huge upsurge in yoga teacher training programs attests to the fact that people are changing their definitions of themselves, some giving up jobs in corporate America or elsewhere to pursue a new identity as a yoga teacher. Even ten years ago, this was not a popular or viable occupation for these changing people. Living life authentically, free from the bonds of how family or peers may have wanted us to define ourselves, can bring a peace that is for many an ultimate goal—one of practicing yoga's inner peace. Other times we do not choose what we identify with to change; our roles in our family or our job, but these do change and sometimes quickly. Principles put into practice, such as contentment, help people live through the ups and downs in life, especially the disappointments.
Throughout the Yoga Sutras, considered by many to be the Bible of Yoga, there are references to the True Self, which could also be translated as meaning the True Identity. This identity which yoga connects us to is deep, inner and eternal. It is not dictated by job, sex, looks or anything else superficial or defined. It is an identity that we all share, the common link of humanity.
There are tools in yoga, one being meditation in various forms, that take us into parts of the mind where our normal mental workings and identities disappear for the moment. Some call it connection to the divine, bliss or, in yoga language, samadhi. Meditation can be on, and with, a sound current or on, and with, the breath. Students have reported an experience of melting into the sound or breath, merging with it in a way that allows their normal experience of thinking and being to be momentarily suspended. In that moment they are pure consciousness, devoid of definition but uniting with all, or the Infinite. Some get frustrated when they cannot repeat the experience on demand. The mind, even though it is a computer of sorts, cannot be programed to save or replay something. This is when the conscious yoga work comes in, constantly reminding us that we are not the external identity we so often associate ourselves with, and continuing the practice.
If we let go of the things we think define us – bills, education, relationships, religion, and careers – we may find internal freedom, security and peace for at least a suspended moment. If we search in our heart, mind and soul through meditation we might even discover a new definition externally that fits us better.
Today I taught a yoga class where a woman showed up whom I had not seen in a long time. Happy to see her, but not remembering her name, I said, “Oh, you are the woman who accomplished this and this and now are doing that.” Later, when I asked her name, I explained that it had not been my intention to identify her just by what she had done but more importantly for who she is.
Yogi Bhajan’s words for that day, which I read to the class, were this:
“I have set a standard. That is the human consciousness.
I am not a woman. I am not a man. I am not a person. I am not myself.”
These words are also, a suggested affirmation for Kundalini Yoga teachers, that they may separate themselves from any identity that might block them from being a channel of sharing yoga tools for "upliftment" and happiness.
In the same class, I recounted how the Kundalini Yoga gatherings at Solstice time that attracted practitioners from all parts of the world and walks of life were special because people came together, all wearing white, all doing Kundalini Yoga and were not identified with external identities, but were there for the common purpose of relating to the Soul through yoga.
Yes it is true, that of the 15 million Americans doing yoga, they are not all doing it for this reason. Yet as more and more embark on their journey more and more also embrace the yoga teachings as a whole. The idea of living without definition makes a lot of sense. This is not to say that it makes it easy. It is not easy to avoid thinking that our age, our looks, our health, our jobs, our friends and family or our finances are part of who we are. Yet, if for at least a moment, we suspend our definitions of others and ourselves, we may discover more freedom to live authentically, accepting others and ourselves as all part of that family that shares the bond of an inner identity (humanity) beyond the bonds of the external.
To Go Within:
There are many techniques in yoga, but in this one will attempt to sound like a bee.
Eyes are closed; spine is straight (either sitting on a chair or cross-legged)
Inhale deeply, close off your ears with any finger and create a sound like a bee until the breath is all expired.
Do up to three times and see what you hear/find inside. Do not search for results, simply feel what it brings and does to take you deep within.
Donna Amrita Davidge and her husband Kent Bonham own and operate Sewall House Yoga Retreat in Island Falls, Maine. Small and personalized, the retreat center was established in 1997, built in 1860. Donna and Kent have watched their vision unfold with all its rewards and challenges. Sewall House operates May through October, Italy yoga trip scheduled October 27th – November 2nd, off-season retreats by special arrangement for parties of 3 or more. www.sewallhouse.com 888-235-2395. Inquire about teacher training beginning October 10th for three 9 day retreats/February/May.