Most of us practice because of what it does for our minds. With practice, we feel lighter and more awake. We feel more comfortable in our skin. We accept ourselves, and we face the day with gratitude.
These are all lovely reasons to practice. Without them, most of us would not be doing Ashtanga at all. And for many of us, including myself, these reasons have been a source of light in dark times. They lifted us up when nothing else could. But these reasons are all self-concerned. And there comes a point when we have to give them up.
Somewhere along the path of yoga, the ground starts moving beneath our feet, and our concerns for ourselves, for our own development, are pitched high into the air. As they fall around us, showing us their true shapes and colors, they appear much less important than before. What we see in these moments of clarity is that the concerns that drive our practice, however fine, beautiful, and spiritually oriented, are egocentric. They are reflections of our deep desire to perfect ourselves.
When we come to this realization, we see that, in the larger scheme of things, our own progress in the practice hardly matters at all. It will not tip the balance of suffering in the world. And more importantly, we realize that our obsessive concerns for our own state of mind, even our concerns to have an open and radiant mind that attracts divine forces, are actually somewhat selfish and vain.
At this point, we begin to experience a shift in our motives for practice, a shift that may seem relatively small on the register of our thoughts, but a shift that has cascading consequences. We find ourselves less concerned with our own process, and more concerned with taking part in the ritual, not because of something that we might receive, but because of something that we might give.
In particular, we see ourselves as participating in a larger process of unfoldment that involves countless other minds, each of which is just as important as our own. And we realize that we can better support this process by giving ourselves to it, rather than by seeing what we can take. So we offer ourselves into the fire of the practice, allowing it to burn our samskaras, not so much for our own benefit, but for the sake of the sacrifice itself. That is, we throw ourselves into the fire to tend it, stoke it, let it burn hot, for the benefit of everyone involved.
The practice becomes a channel through which we give, and so a channel through which we express our awakening sense of connection with other beings. And by acting from that sense of connection, by acting from love, we participate more fully in the process of yoga.
This shift of motive can make a difference to our routines. It can pull us out of that narrow rut of thinking by which we choose to practice only when and where we think it would be best for us. It can inspire us to go to the local shala, and practice alongside others, rather than hiding out at home to “work on” ourselves. It can inspire us to show up reliably, so that we reinforce that sense of communal dependability that deepens everyone’s commitment to the practice, and adds vibrance to the community. Finally, it can inspire us to visit the epicenters of our tradition, not just to collect teachings and improve our own practice, but to be an integral part of the community.
Yoga is about waking up to the reality of other beings. So if yoga is what we want, we should stop practicing just to improve ourselves, and we should start practicing more consciously for the sake of others. We are so fortunate to have been born at this time, when Ashtanga Vinyasa has spread its tendrils all over world, and blossomed into so many little shalas. And we can only begin to express our gratitude by remembering what the practice has done for us, and the trying to give back at least as much as we have received. For those of us whose have been saved by this practice from spiraling downward into the abyss, this might take many lifetimes of giving.