Yoga is a Mirror

Yoga is a mirror. It has the ability to show you—you. But then again, so does everything else you do.  So what’s so special about yoga?

There are many new-age yoga tropes, however, this is one I resonate with for it reveals the power of what yoga can really do. It can allow us to see, and therefore know, who we are.

Knowing Yourself

“Who am I? Not the body, because it is decaying; not the mind, because the brain will decay with the body; not the personality, nor the emotions, for these also will vanish with death.” – Ramana Maharshi

People from all over the world would travel to India for the opportunity to speak with Ramana Maharshi, a guru who was thought to have reached a state of enlightenment. They would sit and reveal their inner struggles, their sorrows, and many other questions – in search of over-coming their human struggles and reaching enlightenment. He offered those people, those seekers, one perpetual question “Who am I?”. Who is it that is struggling? Who is it that is sad? Who is it that believes they need something, to be something better? Three little words, forming a deep question that cuts right to the bone of human consciousness.

Who. Am. I?

Ramana Maharshi

But how do you even go about answering the question “Who am I?” I can tell you – the answer doesn’t require some sort of world scavenger hunt where you have to seek out a guru to show you the way beyond your blocks or go “find yourself” in some remote village of Bali.  No, it’s much simpler, and more difficult, than that. 

To begin, it’s a process of slowing yourself down and bringing your attention to what you are doing. There’s power in that understanding because if we want to know who we are, we need to look at what we do

The reality is, understanding your inner drives, motivations, road blocks and the like is flat out not going to happen over night, or even in most situations (nor should it).  When you are driving you are not thinking, “Man, I’m changing lanes impatiently today.”  Rather your focus should probably just be on changing lanes effectively. 

But there is time to look “in the mirror” at your patterns, habits and behaviors. Self observation is a practice that serves us well because the things inside of us (doubts, fears, hopes, dreams…) are affecting how we are operating externally through life. For example; If we feel ‘less than’ as a leader, we might adopt a leadership style that is authoritarian or self-serving—because we have something to prove.  If we treat everything as a competition, we will lean on that tack even when we are in non-competitive situations. This doesn’t mean you need to obsess about every little thing you do.  That will drive you crazy. 

Instead, make it part of your routine to regularly check-in. And yoga, can be and is, that practice.

In my classes, I focus less on the shapes that my students are making and more on the quality of their thoughts. It’s not that the poses and alignment aren’t important, but what’s behind them is where the real shit starts to bring us towards understanding ourselves. I mean, why would you pay $18.00 or more to practice yoga, only to spend an hour give or take judging yourself (positively or negatively)? What does it really matter if you can stand on your hands, if you walk outside the door and act like a jerk? There is a fine line and a balance between growing your asana practice and growing your yoga practice.

You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.” – Ice Cube

This is no secret.  When I was growing up, my dad had a book, “The Inner Game of Tennis,” that was well worn.  The premise of that text is that how you play on the court is based on how you deal with the opponent. The opponent not being the person on the other side of the net, but rather, yourself—your mind.

We have complicated relationships with our inner-mirrors.  I tend to think it’s because we think we are seeing our truth, instead of what is actually there.  Imagine every failed relationship you’ve ever been through or heard of. Each person has a story and their side, and both think they are right… Love it or hate it, every single relationship we have (with others or ourselves) is complex.

A first approach is to stop and look in the proverbial mirror.  This is akin to finding the you are here sticker on the map.  It’s just a starting point. In yoga, we do this by watching not only “what” we are doing but more so how we are doing it.

Upward Salute

For instance, when we come into upward salute (urdhva hastasana), what we are doing is raising our hands up above our heads.  However, how we raise them will carry a certain quality, such as in a gingerly, playful, aggressively, hurriedly. How you perform this relatively simple action, can/will demonstrate what is happening in the mind/body. The quality comes from within.  In other words, it is an expression and reflection of our inner nature.

There is a challenge to watching ourselves.  We’re not very good at it.  We have a tendency to see something, then instantly react.  We see another thing and react to that.  Ad infinitum.  Yes, we are all cats chasing laser pointers. Thankfully this is something that can be practiced, and something you can get better at with time and patience.

Yogis have terms for who we are when we watch ourselves.  It is known as “the observer” or “the witness.”  stemming from a place of buddhi, or wisdom. From this space, judgement is released and one can approach their process of reflection as a scientist of the self. You can think of it as someone who is highly interested in what is going on with you (yeah, that might sound a a little creepy/stalkerish, except it’s you watching you).

Assuming the role of the observer allows us to watch how we do things without jumping to judgement or reaction.  We put some distance between ourselves to have some perspective. Again as an example, if we do something above and beyond what a teacher asks us to do in a class, is it because you think you know better (could be true in some cases to be sure), or is it because you always work to over achieve?

Observing yourself can be uncomfortable, like hearing a recording of your voice, but for me, it’s more so not knowing how I’m moving in in the world that’s uncomfortable. And I can assure you, it’s helpful to see the act happening and having the time to re-approach if needed, rather than having to do forensic relationship analysis later on. 

As you hone your ability to watch yourself act, you can even begin to watch how you think.  The contemporary term is metacognition or “thinking about thinking” but you could equate it with being mindful.  Like anything this can be taken to an extreme and become nothing more than mind games so keep inviting your focus back to your actions with compassion FFS.

Being mindful, or conscious, on purpose, gives you the ability to make change.  It gives you the ability to be more effective in all of your endeavors.  Watching yourself gives you helpful feedback, and without it, you are essentially flying blind, at night, in a storm.

Even if you find yourself in front of a mirror, there’s no guarantee you’re going to see anything.  You can make it more likely, though, if you keep a few things in mind.

  • Be curious.  An interest, or even eagerness in knowing what is going on will work in your favor.
  • Be enthusiastic.  At some point, when you’re looking, it will become challenging.  Enthusiasm is important to carry you through those times.
  • Be open.  Instead of just seeking the answer you want, be open to whatever may come forth.  Even if it’s not ideal, like water flooding your bathroom, you can address it once you know what’s there.

I can’t even count how many times I thought I had it all figured out.  Then there was more to learn.  It’s happened so often that I have chosen to adopt an attitude of, “What else is there.”  Because there’s always more there. Remember—Change is gradual and comes with time and repetition. You have to do it and then keep doing it.  It’s why numerous ancient yogic texts refer to yoga as abhyasa, or repeated, consistent practice.

To close this blog, let’s take one last example from physical practice. If over time and consistent practice, you can repeatedly lift your arms up oer your head in a steady, relaxed way, you will start moving that way through the world. It might seem like a stretch when read plainly, but think about it. What you do over and over becomes engrained in your neural pathways. So this one simple practice of refinement through sustained awareness and reflection will eventually become your manner of operating in your everyday life.  It takes time, but it will make your efforts potent.  You will have made that change.

Maybe you are a yogi, maybe you’re a runner or a mom or a CEO or a cashier at 7-11. Any moment of your life can be observed, reflected upon and refined towards self knowing. It truly doesn’t matter how you get to your mirror, but it is important that you do. If you’re not sure how – this is what yoga is here for, and it’s a practice for every BODY. Don’t stop before you start! Instead, go check your fine ass out in the mirror and see what’s there.