Yoga has gained recognition as a physical practice in the West, but physical yoga asana is only a small part of a vast body of yogic practices in the authentic and closely-guarded spiritual traditions. Practicing physical asana alone can still be effective for everyday problems, but divorced of the internal work, they fall short. There are mental or emotional methods that ignite the physical practices so that they are actually transcendent. For practitioners trained in both, yoga is an essential tool to achieve Enlightenment. Enlightenment, of course, is the final alchemy, the most important transcendance, defined as the permanent cessation of all mental afflictions. This is the true purpose of yoga.
In the East, it is common to speak of subtle energy maps in the body, made of prana or chi. The teachings of yoga work with this internal energy that underlies everything: our health, emotions, our experience of ourselves, and our experience of the outer world. Each asana is designed to move energy in a specific way. This is one reason for the “yoga high”, when you’ve come out of an excellent yoga class. You feel physically better, relaxed, more kind, and maybe more patient. You might even feel radiant. This is not only due to endorphins.
Yoga asana specifically designed to work with this subconscious, internal energy system to create blissful and intelligent states of mind. Moving physically affects this subtle energy, but the mental method of cultivating certain states of mind moves this energy more quickly, and effectively. It is said that the thoughts, and these energetic currents are like a horse and rider. One or the other can be in control. They move in tandem. Actually, they must work together to get anywhere.
When a practitioner becomes serious about the goal of Enlightenment, they make a promise: HLAKSAM NAMDAK. Meaning that they will use any means necessary to become Enlightened, so that they may be of benefit to all beings. And it is prudent to: when you can combine the mental and physical methods, they become more powerful, and help you move more quickly from a state of discontent, pain and fear to internal and external experiences of angelic proportions. If we are wise, we use both.
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “…if you must be selfish, be wisely selfish.” He is saying very explicitly to trained ears that the goal of freedom from your own pain is contingent on your love for others. That it is self-serving to love others, but loving others destroys selfishness. It helps you to help others. In yoga, you must care for others as much as you care for yourself. This alone is the fundamental internal mental awareness that is required to initiate a higher yoga. Such yoga helps you rise above the whole painful game we seek to escape, anyway.
A simple way to instruct on this alchemy, which I have been teaching regularly in my yoga classes is called The Four Infinite Thoughts. This instruction is found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Verse 32 states, “And if you wish to stop these obstacles/there is one and only one,/crucial practice for doing so./you must use kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.” If we can keep our mind on compassion for others, we can destroy any obstacles we face permanently. Such profound internal states are difficult to cultivate, but contain immense power. They are an untapped renewable resource to the yoga community. They are, as the Patanjali emphasizes, “infinite.”
An American yogi, Buddhist monastic, and geshe that I have had the immense pleasure to learn from got a download of the complete physical and mental methods after his twenty years of study in a Mongolian monastery. When he moved to New York in the early 90’s he saw that yoga was being taught at Jivamukti, before yoga was a widespread practice. When he saw yoga being taught publicly, he relayed this to his teacher, a Buddhist yoga master. The master cried. He was so moved that so many Americans had received these teachings in past lives. He said “you must remind them of the meaning of yoga; they are drawn to it, but they have forgotten.”
Suggested Practice for Combining the Physical and Mental Methods:
Step 1: Before a yoga class begins think of someone who you care about who is going through some sort of pain. Dedicate your practice to them. (This person can be you).
Example: My Mother has depression. May this practice help me remove depression from the world entirely.
Step 2: Keep them in mind during the entire practice, like a moving meditation. Do not let your mind move away from this goal. If it moves, bring it back. Feel that every movement you make gets them closer to being free from that suffering.
Example: In my mind as I move: “May I remove depression from the world, using these movements of my body”
Step 3: In savasana, the final resting pose, reflect on all the hard work you’ve done trying to concentrate on this person, and all the physical effort you’ve expended in the class. Feel very good about what you’ve done, and dedicate it again to the removal of that kind of suffering in the world.
Example: “I just kept my mind on compassion for my mother, and everyone with depression for 60 minutes, and I finished a challenging physical practice as well. I am so happy to have attempted this. May the entire planet be free from depression in it’s entirety.”
Rachel Webb has trained simultaneously in yoga and mental health for the past decade and in Tibetan Buddhism for the past 6 years. She has completed a meditation teacher training and private yoga teacher training in 2017 and is en route to complete a 6 year Buddhist philosophy certification in 2019. She is has served as a peer coach for social workers using the Motivational Interviewing counseling technique. She has over 6 years of experience working with people diagnosed with serious mental illness, assisting them in achieving wellness goals. Rachel has hosted several therapeutic groups on relationship health over the past year and is currently working on relationship wellness workbooks that combine modern psychological approaches with Buddhist techniques. Rachel currently teaches yoga and meditation classes in Manhattan, and takes clients for coaching sessions. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a private session or interview. Follow @yung_dakini or attend her classes at Three Jewels NYC for further instruction on the physical and mental methods of yoga practices.