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  • Julie Lifton

Yoga Requires Courage



This is a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, Mystery, Yes:

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous

to be understood.

……….

How people come, from delight or the

scars of damage,

to the comfort of a poem.

How do ‘scars of damage’ bring me to poetry, or to anything else? Where do our scars of damage bring us and why? To me, poetry is much like yoga – it takes patience, many readings of the same poem or pose and each reading seems to change as we change. I believe we are drawn to yoga in a similar way that we might be drawn to poetry. We seek the distillation of experience into a single awareness, magnified by our attention to that single detail.

I feel that what brings us to these forms from ‘scars of damage’ is our instinctual urge to heal. To know in our bones that we can learn from anything, we can heal from almost anything and we can create beauty, or at least clarity, out of almost anything.

As we move through our yoga classes, we encounter places that feel blocked and inaccessible. The effort that our bodies have made to protect us from whatever might be hidden in these unopened pockets has created habits. These habits or patterns can be the result of how we have moved throughout our lives, from emotional scars, physical injury, or any experiences we have had.

It takes courage to face long-standing feelings, or parts of us that might feel locked up. These stuck places are lodged deep within us and have a way of expressing themselves without our knowledge or consent.

How can I build the courage required to expose these places? They are stuck for a reason, often a good reason, and I must proceed with care as I encounter my scars.

We have habits in our movement, in our behavior, and in our feelings. In Sanskrit these habits are called Samskaras. Sam means to collect together and kara means patterns of action. Samskaras are the mental and physical impressions left by our previous experiences (I noticed that to English speakers the word “scar” is even in the word samskara.) When we are afraid or don’t have the opportunity to confront our samskaras they stay hidden from us, but they don’t go away. They govern us and we follow rather blindly.

Yoga reveals these patterns and re-educates our bodies. It is not enough to tell ourselves to stop twisting a knee, we need to train that knee to move correctly. At the same time, we observe our inner responses while holding the body in integrity. We notice our tendencies to shrink away from the open chest, or lose connection with our inner strength. We notice our tendencies to criticize ourselves or compare ourselves to others. These mental tendencies are as harmful to our well-being as twisting a knee.

We have an invitation to release our limiting patterns. We can meet our samskaras with compassion; we can trust the intelligence of our bodies to heal. With observation and gentleness we hone our postures, we care for our bodies and psyches in a deep and meaningful way, and we find our way in to ease and freedom.

"Everybody aspires to be free. No one wants to be manipulated by unseen forces, but effectively, the banks of samskara in the dark depths of the unconscious do just that…… As these things are built up over time, they can be removed only over time."

- B.K.S. Iyengar, from Light on Life

Yoga is like the “lab” portion of a science class, the class called, “Who am I?” and in the lab we can observe the experiments and take note of what we find there. We can put into practice the theory we learn in our reading. Yoga gives us a set of rules. It is not easy to live by these rules, so we have the Asana (yoga posture) portion of our life in which to practice on ourselves. We practice being patient and kind with ourselves and we hope that this practice helps us be patient and kind with others.

“Our very own body, which is immediately available to us, becomes a laboratory of consciousness, a field of exploration into the truth of our own existence so that, figuratively speaking, our body becomes a temple for open awareness.”

- Richard Freeman, from The Mirror of Yoga

Through our yoga practice we not only build muscles and bones, we also build courage, the courage to pay deep and close attention to our old habits and to create new and healing ways of moving and being.

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