Amidst the growing controversy as to whether we should continue to honor Christopher Columbus with a federal holiday bearing his name, I can't help but wonder if we would be having this conversation if Columbus had approached his expeditions a little differently, perhaps from a yogic perspective. Rather than being “singularly focused on his mission to find riches and conquer new lands”, imagine if he and his team of explorers had stayed open to the myriad of possibilities available when we surrender to what we cannot control and let go of the idea that we have all of the answers. Rather than imposing his will and order upon the Indigenous Peoples, perhaps a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship could have emerged instead.
Cultivating a healthy relationship with one’s self and others is at the core of a yogic philosophy. In order to enjoy being in relationship with others, we must first learn to be in ‘right’ relationship with ourselves. This requires cultivating a non-judgmental self-awareness, or “witness consciousness” - the ability to slow down long enough to simply witness our own experience. Suspending the need to judge or label the present moment, we learn to meet ourselves where we are with compassion and grace.
We can approach our asana practice in this way by accepting what is rather than forcing what’s not. Rather than imposing the will of the mind on the body we can use the practice to uncover the innate intelligence already there. Using the breath as a guide we can illuminate those parts of ourselves where we might be resisting or obstructing the natural equilibrium present in our body and various internal operating systems.
Let’s take the example of the breath and explore it a little further. The process of taking air into and expelling it from the lungs is the result of the innate wisdom of our body and the symbiotic relationship it has with its environment. The efficiency of our breathing depends on our body’s capacity to adapt and change shape. Despite the fact that an inhale might feel like we are exerting effort to pull air into our lungs, that's not exactly what’s happening. According to Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews, co-authors of the classic book Yoga Anatomy,
“The energy expended in breathing produces a shape change that lowers the pressure in the chest cavity and permits the air to be pushed into the body by the weight of the planet’s atmosphere. In other words, you create the space, and the universe fills it.”
I use that analogy a lot when I teach balancing postures in yoga. Often in tree pose, I witness students attempt mastery over their body by holding in their breath only to temporarily achieve the look of the pose. After a dramatic exhalation they topple over to one side. In this case, the mind is very eager to achieve the result, yet the breath desires freedom to flow in and out effortlessly through the vessel of the body. It's my experience that when I approach my asana practice with patience and acceptance my body is much more likely to deliver the desired expression.
Sadly, we can't change history, but we do have the capacity to change the future. You might start by asking if the relationship you have with yourself is one of respect and love. Can you meet yourself where you are, honoring that every day is different? Can you let go of the idea that you’ve got it all figured out and cultivate the strength and humility to surrender to that which you cannot control?
Try this short exercise in cultivating the witness from wherever you are now, and notice the effects on your body, your mind and your spirit.
Come to a comfortable seat and begin to prepare your mind to disengage with the external world. Turning your attention inward, begin to notice your breath. You may even place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Resisting the urge to control or change your breath, simply notice your experience. Take inventory of the quality, depth and sound of your breath. Cozy up to your breath like you would a dear friend you haven’t seen in quite some time. Get so curious about the physiological changes associated with your breath that you notice your breath begin to lengthen and deepen. You might hone your attention so much that you notice the elusive pause between your exhale and inhale. Rather than grasping for your breath, you might patiently wait for your next inhale to arrive like a gift from beyond. Stay here for a few moments and enjoy the effects of being present to the miraculous act of breathing.