The Path of the Yogi

In his new book, One Simple Thing, Brooklyn-based yoga master Eddie Stern speaks to the pleasures and practicalities of maintaining a successful, fulfilling and long-lasting practice. Plus, Deepak Chopra MD, praises the power of yoga in an introductory essay.

 

Stern at the 2018 Inner Peace Conference in Amsterdam

Once we establish a yoga practice, we on occasion find that we are not always as regular, consistent, and diligent as we would like to be, and a couple of things may happen:

We can get discouraged and give up.

We can become hyper-enthusiastic and then fail to keep our momentum going through cycles of practicing and not practicing, until we find one day we aren’t doing it anymore.

The Bhagavad Gita provides a simple formula for how to maintain a consistent, diligent, and, most important, effective yoga practice.

Yuktahara viharasya yuktacestasya karamasu | yukta svapna avabodhasya yoga bhavati duhkhaha: “For that person who is moderate in food, moderate in enjoyments, moderate in work, and moderate in sleep, yoga is the remover of suffering.”

Even twenty-five hundred years ago, moderation apparently was the key to a happy life. We often think life was easier in the past, because there was no technology, no stressful city living, and so forth…but of course that isn’t true. As long as there have been people—especially people living in big cities—there has been stress. Here, I’ve outlined some basic suggestions and ideas to help you build a consistent, moderate, and effective yoga practice.   

What’s interesting about the above verse is that though we know that we need discipline in yoga, and that without it our progress is slow or does not come at all, it tells us that we also need to be moderate and enjoy life. Discipline does not mean rigidity. It means that we recognize that what we are doing is important enough to be committed to; once we recognize that, we choose our level of commitment, as in any relationship the more we enjoy what we choose to practice, the more likely we actually are to do it. Your practice should be something you are passionate about. Even if it is challenging or difficult to do at times, it should bring you joy or fulfillment or a feeling of satisfaction that you have attended not just to your body and mind but also to that invisible part of yourself that is the essence of who you are. So while yoga is a discipline, we also have to make sure that we love doing it. That love for practicing will make our efforts at being disciplined softer and kinder. And then we will become that way, too.

IN REGARD TO YOGA PRACTICE

1. Decide how often you want to practice. Two, three, four, or five times per week—it is up to you. Even once a week is okay as long as you actually do it. Allow this to change over time. A daily practice might be too much for you when you first start doing yoga, but perhaps after some time, it will be second nature for you to wake up every day and do some practice

2. Choose the days that you will practice, and try to stick to them so it becomes a part of your routine. If you are practicing daily, make sure you leave at least one day for rest.

3. See if you can practice yoga at the same time each day. This is very important for forming a new internal rhythm, and will help to hardwire your new habit in you.

4. If you struggle to make it to class on your own, bring a friend or find someone who is also interested in making practice a regular part of their life. Community, called sangha in Sanskrit, is helpful for maintaining regularity in practice. Our sangha becomes our spiritual friends.

5. Appreciate and give silent thanks each time you practice. Congratulate yourself each time you practice. And when you finish, reflect on your efforts and let the feeling of that soak into you. In this way you will bring your practice into your long-term memory and it will become a part of the background character trait of your conscious mind.

6. Recognize that practicing yoga is good for you. It’s a time for you to be with your thoughts, your body, your breath, and your potential to expand your capacities, all necessary things for us to take the time for.

7. If you find yourself getting obsessive or compulsive about practice, back off a little. If you are not able to temper yourself in your actual practice, then you may need to take a little break, or relax your discipline slightly. Eat some chocolate, go to a movie, sleep in. As soon as we become too driven about practice, we reinforce old patterns. At the same time, you have to watch out for laziness. Skipping one day of practice is okay, but be careful, because it can lead to skipping two days, then three, then many!

8. Yoga should create a feeling of vitality in you. Try to do your practice in such a way that you feel you are building energy, not depleting yourself.

9. It is not that difficult to build energy through yoga, but it can be difficult not to waste it. Considering lifestyle changes and examining addictive tendencies will go a long way toward preventing you from wasting your newfound energy.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says that practice that is like poison in the beginning, but filled with nectar or joy in the end is sattvic; practice that is like nectar in the beginning but like poison in the end is rajasic; and that which is like poison in the beginning and at the end is tamasic. Check to make sure your practices all fall into the first category. And of course, after some time, our practices can become a joy at the beginning and at the end. But sometimes they are just plain hard. That’s okay, too, and that’s part of why it’s called practice. Because regardless of how today went, tomorrow we have to get up and try again. 


From One Simple Thing: A New Look At The Science of Yoga And How It Can Change Your Life, by Eddie Stern and Deepak Chopra (North Point Press, 2019), $26

 

MIND MATTERS: The pioneer of integrative medicine, Deepak Chopra MD, praises the power of yoga to connect the brain and the body to balance the stresses of modern-day living,

It seems peculiar on the face of it that the mind is a problem, and even more peculiar that the mind is a problem for the mind. But the evidence of mental suffering is rife in modern society (one statistic reveals that Americans who are on a long-term regimen of antidepressants has doubled since 2010, and millions more are on long-term medication for anxiety). Any solution that might end mental suffering would be greeted with wild hope and relief—or so you would think.

It’s possible for the mind to get so lost in itself that a person’s very identity becomes confused, conflicted, and obscured. When Rumi asks, “Who am I in the midst of this thought traffic?” he speaks for every modern person. The sheer chaos of the mind is frightening, and finding an end to suffering by diving into oncoming thought traffic doesn’t work.

Eddie Stern’s insightful, wide-ranging book on yoga takes an optimistic view of how mental suffering can end. Healing through “one simple thing,” the regular, dedicated practice of yoga, is the essence of his message.

To accept healing is difficult, and mental healing the most difficult of all. Rumi confronted a mind filled with teeming, seemingly random thoughts, and our mental landscape today, distracted by video games, social media, and the internet, would be totally foreign to medieval Persia or ancient India. Yet Rumi and every other fully conscious person who has waked up knows that people will spend a lifetime choosing to be in denial, afraid of their own impulses and desires, driven by those same impulses and desires, totally convinced that the darker aspects of the psyche must be suppressed, and deeply embedded in social conformity.

When William Blake walked through the streets of eighteenth-century London, the “marks of weakness, marks of woe” he saw in the passing crowd were the result of “mind-forg’d manacles,” a haunting phrase that I have kept in the back of my mind for three decades. When the mind functions as both jailer and prisoner, finding an end to mental suffering seems incredibly difficult. Even motivating people to try is daunting.

Yoga currently rides a crest of popularity, but trends are fickle, and Eddie Stern knows that unless there is more than regular yoga class, unless there is a complete vision of yoga’s potential, there is a real risk of yoga becoming a passing phenomenon.

His underlying vision rests on yoga as union, which means overcoming the divided self. Separation is the opposite of union, and the ultimate separation, which has affected all of us, is the mind in separation from its essential nature. You can approach the issue from many angles: a kidney, heart, or lung cell is already unified in its natural state. Cells don’t doubt their existence. They function holistically, and offer us a model for life as a flow of energy and intelligence.

One can also focus on other distressing signs of separation, in troubled relationships, social discord, and all manner of self-destructive behavior, including addictions and preventable lifestyle disorders that people exacerbate rather than helping themselves to heal. Yet in the end, it is the self divided against itself that yoga fundamentally addresses.

One of the most important tenets of yoga is that the level of the problem isn’t the level of the solution. As long as we remain inside the state of self-division, we are dominated by it. There are only three attitudes one can take to mental suffering: put up with it, fix it, or walk away from it. Unfortunately, all three are doomed to failure—and for the same reason. The mind that attempts to put up with suffering, fix it, or escape from it is the very mind that has been split by the state of separation. A fragmented mind is like Humpty Dumpty, whose fall is misunderstood. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t repair a broken egg, no doubt. But Humpty Dumpty can’t put himself together again, which is the real problem.

Yoga solves this dilemma by asserting some home truths that are then carried out through the practice of yoga and meditation. I’ve already given the first one, that the level of the problem is never the level
of the solution. Here are the other home truths, as I understand them:

The level of the solution is consciousness, which in its very nature is whole, complete, and undivided.

Consciousness, being the source of creation, is always present in its pure, whole form.

When the mind experiences its source in pure consciousness, solutions dawn, not through the effort to end suffering but through the state of wholeness itself—no outside agency, motivation, or thinking is required.

The body, brain, mind, and universe are different modes of consciousness. Each mode is self-regulating, and so is the whole.

When self-regulation fails, the underlying cause is loss of contact with wholeness. By experiencing pure consciousness, self-regulation is restored.

I know that using yoga to return the universe to its natural state seems unbelievable, and the claim too vast to explore in a page or two. But when yoga returns us to source and allows us to experience the awakened state, there is no alternative but for reality itself, which we dub the universe, to shift along with everything else.