As a practitioner of yoga for nearly 20 years, I have seen all sorts of claims of what yoga can do — mostly well-intentioned to help people out of their own suffering. Claims like ‘finding your bliss’, ‘experiencing our inner peace’, ‘learning to calm your mind’ are common and alluring those experiencing stress. The problem is, that these claims aren’t promises, but the sometimes side effects, of a rigorous and dedicated practice.
It is true that many people who begin a yoga, meditation or mindfulness practice experience states of calm, bliss, happiness, etc., early on. But very often these states shift and realizations surface about the ways in which our lives are out of sync with how we feel inside. And then a scramble begins to realign the outer world with the inner, and often this pursuit creates more strife than a person was experiencing before they started. Of course, everyone’s path is different, but I see a trend like this in many practitioners I encounter.
Yoga means union. Union can be thought of as integration, or a bringing together of separate aspects. Often, this union is described as bliss.
There is a misconception that when all of the separate aspects of ourselves are integrated, we will reside in a continual state of bliss. Perhaps this occurs upon enlightenment, but I don’t have any personal experience with it, nor do I personally know anyone who has. What I do know, is that along the journey towards integration we are likely to experience moments of bliss or happiness, but just as often, we are likely to experience sadness, anger, pain and suffering.
Reconciling the separate aspects of ourselves in the pursuit of yoga or union, asks us to look at each of these pieces. We all hold shame, insecurity, self-hatred, embarrassment, guilt, and more vulnerable qualities. Sometimes we tend to push those down as a way to defend ourselves from having to deal with them. Defensive strategies can look like inflated and deflated states of ego, anger, being overly confident, playing victim, blaming, criticizing, judging, avoiding, isolating, and clinging.
As human beings, we have a tendency to get stuck in our emotions and our mental constructs, especially when they are uncomfortable. Union or yoga refers to the process of stepping back into a broader awareness, a place of centeredness, so that we might have a chance to see all of these experiences playing out within us and through us. When we can see our mental constructs, observe our emotions, bodily sensations, and our connections with others and the world around us, we have an opportunity to hold the complexity of all of that within us.
The Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi, writes:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.
To me, this quote is the essence of what yoga is all about. It speaks to the ability to perceive ourselves and the world around us from a field of awareness. From this place, we have the capacity to hold the tension of opposites within us, see multiple perspectives, and experience the broad range of human emotions, bodily sensations, and intra- and inter-personal experiences.
None of this has anything to do with continual states of bliss or happiness. Those are just moments along the journey. When we make the mistake of clinging to the idea that our yoga practice is supposed to bring us something in particular, we are already headed back towards suffering. Yoga affords us the opportunity to see ourselves as we are, without judgment, and increase our capacity to experience all of it, whatever our life and practice may bring.