All of us experience pain or trauma at various points in life; it simply depends on when, how much and for how long. I am no different. Suffering is a choice but pain is an unavoidable part of being human. I am grateful to have found Yoga practice and the tenancity necessary to follow through on the work necessary to create change. Examining yogic philosophy to better understand the obstacles I face in my practice has provided me with invaluable learning. How we choose to think about the challenges we face can be just as important if not even more important than an asana or pranayama practice. I was unaware when I started practicing yoga regularly that trauma could be stored in the bodily tissues and subsequently accessed and released through the process of practice. I assumed at the time that I would be stuck forever and little could be done to change the patterns that did not serve me. Let’s just say that my assumption could not have been more wrong.
I have studied primarily one translation of the Yoga Sutras since 2012 (Raja Yoga, translated by Swami Vivekananda) – it comes highly regarded by the expert teachers I am currently studying with in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences (Yogacharya Venkatesha and Acharye Hema) as well as highly recommended by my teacher back in Canada (Michelle Rubin). I have read these sutras or philosophical aphorisms repeatedly, seeking to understand the tendencies of the mind in order to better control its fluctuations. It is easy to identify with the fluctuations of our minds, rather than to see that we are the observer of the fluctuation. Yoga philosophy has taught me that nothing lasts forever, whether it be pain or pleasure – all of these phenomenological experiences are fleeting. I think of pleasure and pain as two extreme ends of a spectrum of human mental fluctuation – either due to the patterns of one’s mind alone or driven by an external stimulus, experience or even memory thereof.
It has taken about 11 years to really come to terms with the past and its impact on me. I frequently avoid speaking about my childhood on a regular basis in order to not verbally dredge up the past. I faced an unpredictable, abusive environment when growing up – unfortunately my father did not have sufficient control over his mind or Chitta. The impressions left on my mind from such events earlier in life used to cause me much struggle, but the more I practice, the easier it is to let the past go and focus on the present. Cultivating indifference to the man who caused so much pain has been no easy task. It took me time to understand that love is a skill; respect and commitment must be practiced in order for love to be present. Cultivating a deep love for yoga and dedication to my practice has been invaluable in my life. I have been dealt a significant lesson in non-attachment (aparigraha) as I work to let go of the collection of memories that do not serve my practice or my present day life.
I choose now to be grateful because his choice to harm me in fact led me to yoga. If he had not demonstrated a significant lack of control over his mind – I might never have chosen to delve into studying my own mind to the extent that I have in this life. The impetus for change is often pain, suffering and whatever occupies the space between the two. The habit of being in a state of suffering, submission, fear and anger is still very familiar and often feels like the path of least resistance. Noticing my tendencies to trigger myself with stimuli that bring up memories of the past is a powerful observation that has had a great deal of utility in my life – and I attribute these observations to my consistent study of my mind. Once I became able to recognize my patterns, it became that much easier to change those habits to better serve both my loved ones and myself. In his explanation of Sutra 1:12, Swami Vivekananda tells us that no human is hopeless, our character or personality is formed through repeated habits, “a bundle of habits, which can be checked by new and better [habits].” In addition, he offers the consolation that we have the power to “make and unmake” our habits at any point in time.
Pain is a powerful catalyst, if you allow it to be a guide, a teacher, rather than a rock that pulls you down into the depths of suffering. I find it necessary to remain vigilant and continuously observe my mind, ready to walk towards the fear with courage, rather than allowing the fear to drown me in memories of the past. Here in Mysore I have deepened my understanding of the mind’s tendencies and its obstacles – along with strategies to avoid those pitfalls when they arise. Although I have consistently developed more courage and will power each year that I have studied yoga – in the last few weeks I have added to that proverbial toolbox more than I thought possible. In particular, I have become keenly aware of my habit of doubting myself without good reason, coupled with a tendency to rush in a careless manner when I feel overstimulated by my environment or my thoughts. There are so many obstacles that arise in the process of cultivating a consistent practice of observing the mind, including all the emotions and thoughts that tie me to that period of my life.
A crucial piece of learning that I have absorbed from philosophy classes with Acharye Hema has given me a method for approaching memories of the past and anyone who may try to harm me in the future: in order to prevent disturbance from outside causing us harm, we must not allow ourselves to be hurt when others try to hurt us. We must not express anger in the face of others choosing to harm us – this does not mean that we stand and take the abuse, rather it means we must not be easily crushed – we must be resilient when we face our dragons. If we can respond to all forms of violence with gentle strength and a calm mind, we can beat anything that we encounter in life, no matter how insurmountable the odds appear in that given moment.
Through study of the Yoga Sutras and Yogic philosophy in other contexts, I have grown more each year in terms of my ability to use the pain and emotion from the past as fuel to get stronger, rather than allowing it to weaken my mind. It has become clear that the more I avoid the unpleasantness of the painful aspects of life (past, present or future), I only do myself a disservice, dulling my mind and creating more obstacles that interfere with my practice. Not only does avoidance always exacerbate the whirlpools of my mind, often it leads to my identification with the mental disturbance I am currently experiencing (Sutra 1:4 tells us that this identification with our mental fluctuations occurs when we lack concentration or focus). For example thinking “I am sad” rather than “I am currently experiencing sadness”.
I have repeatedly come back to one sutra in particular: Chapter 1, Sutra 33. A few years ago, I took the time to memorize it and began to chant the words when I was in a state of struggle – when I was suffering with pain rather than observing the pain. My perception of traumatic experiences is that they leave impressions (residue, samskaras) on our mind that must be titrated over time, until the issues in our tissues have eventually been eliminated. Yoga Sutra 1:33 is the aphorism that has allowed me to find control over the negative fluctuations of my mind and corresponding emotional state in those times of struggle. The sutra encourages us to cultivate friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who are unhappy, delight in those who are virtuous, and indifference towards those who lack virtue (i.e. The wicked, those who cause pain to others). When I struggle and find myself distracted from my purpose, I read sutra 1:33 or I chant the words to myself. More often than not, I am now able to face my pain with courage, rather than running away in fearful avoidance. The residue that is left on the mind only has as much power as we allow – I am learning that it is possible to exert control over the movements of the mind, including those times that our thoughts travel into the past and the pain it once held. The practice continues to show me that it is possible to drain the poison of past trauma such that it no longer causes distraction.
Under the guidance of the teachers at Atmavikasa, I have begun to see even further potential to this expansive practice. Now I know that I have the ability to continue beyond where I previously thought plausible. As I apply myself to practice with dedication and respect, I am awed by the power of yoga. I now feel less anger and grief than ever before – which leaves me more cognitive space to concentrate on whatever I choose. I find more freedom each day I practice and control the habits of my mind. Although, I may not be able to change the past, I am now able to practice how to leave it behind, and not allow it to follow me into the future. I am confident that I am on the correct path necessary in order to no longer be haunted by my history.
If you are seeking to learn how to continuously evolve, you will surely find what you need most here in Mysore: