Why do we practice yoga? What sustains us through every resistance, every episode of mind negativity, every bout with the chattering ego? Is it not the desire—often unarticulated, sometimes buried deep beneath everyday consciousness—to be whole, to be truly ourselves, to radiate the energy into which we sometimes, joyously, tap?
In fact, is that not solely the goal of yoga, but the goal of life—to tap into the source of pure energy, and allow that energy to play through us as if we were harps upon which the Divine played it’s song?
Yes! Yes, we cry!
Of course, on tired days (and perhaps this is one), wouldn’t we simply like to be free of our exhausting neurotic impulses: our fears and obsessions, our blind spots and constrictions?
Of course. Of course we would.
Even for the experienced yogi, however, the path to this freedom is subtle and difficult to discern. A beautifully executed asana is not the path if the mind is full of its own clutter. The thoughts, comments, judgments, and reactions that make up the mind’s clutter are the roadblocks to wholeness and freedom because they are not of the present moment, and here is the key,
here is the subtlety: the present moment. It is only in the present moment that true life, true freedom, occurs. It is only in the present moment that we have any real power.
Thoughts masquerade as the present moment because they occur in a slice of consciousness we call “now.” But actually, thoughts always have their reference point, their true origin and location, in the past or the future. It is not thoughts, but experiences, that happen in the present moment. Experiences are feelings and sensations that are always locatable in your body—your hamstring suddenly seizing in resistance, a piercing shock of embarrassment as you fall out of a pose others are holding, a sluice of sudden energy through your spine in a deep backbend. It is when the mind comments upon or judges the experience that we are taken out of the present
moment because all of the comments and judgments have their reference points somewhere else: in a comparison point against which this experience transcends or falls short. The profound experience of wholeness, however, comes when we ALLOW the experience to be whole in itself—not better or worse than another experience we have already had, or wish to have in the
Seeking to unite the ancient consciousness-evolving practices of the East with the psychological insights of the West, John Ruskan writes, in his book, Emotional Clearing, that “while the mind is always either in the past or the future, the body is always in the moment because of its feeling
nature, and feeling is inherently in the moment. Being in the moment is a condition that we should strive to develop, because life is taking place in the moment. When locked in the mind, in expectations of the future based on the past, we do not confront and experience life.”
It must be admitted, however, that staying in the direct experience of the present moment is not easy. The mind has a way of asserting itself so convincingly that we are always believing ourselves to be just on the verge of real truth as we listen to its commentary. The mind is a persistent companion, a really loquacious “friend,” and just because we become conscious of the wish for it to pipe down (and perhaps, on an unconscious level, we’ve become rather comfortable with its noise), does not mean it will actually comply, and be quiet. It’s only means of survival, after all, is it’s own voice. It has every desperate stake in continuing its monologue, with you as it’s rapt audience.
Chip Hartranft, a modern interpreter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, points out Patanjali’s recognition “that one of the most primary internal forces in a human being is the inclination toward selfhood. Self-making has the effect of organizing the shifts contents of consciousness into a seamless pseudo-reality that seems to unfold over time.
” . . .However, when consciousness becomes truly motionless, these appearances of permanence and continuity break down . . . [and] the illusory reality represented in consciousness becomes transparent as body and mind grow deeply still.”
Furthermore, Hartranft points out, “one’s sense of time becomes spacious, with consciousness sensing many more individual events than before, and beginning to perceive it’s own workings in more detail. What had seemed like a smooth flow—the reality of the phenomenal world—can now be seen as the flickering of microphenomena arising and vanishing with unimaginable
subtlety . . . As [the] illusion falls apart, the self and the world reveal themselves to be nothing but a stream of rapidly changing events . . . In this light, the dramas of consciousness no longer seem real, nor do they propel one any longer toward thoughts or actions that bring more suffering.”
The only hope, then, for dispensing with the reality of our exhausting and, essentially, false dramas, is to acquaint ourselves with a more steady, more present companion. This companion is the breath. The breath is remarkably subtle and quiet, and yet it is always there—no, it is always HERE, right HERE, precisely in the NOW. The more you know the breath, the more you
unite your actions with the breath, the more subtle will be your awareness of the present moment, and the more power you will have to dive into the present moment’s depths, and see the true nature of reality.
The Yoga-Sutra reminds us that “a disciplined inner life is the most direct path to happiness.” Interpreting ancient teachings to a modern audience, Chip Hartranft explains that “our bodyminds can know their true nature by letting themselves gravitate towards effortless sitting and breathing. And our attention can be stabilized, with perception coming to rest in the
present moment and clarifying to the point where the unity of all things is known beyond argument or reservation.”
In other words, eventually, the breath will take you deep enough that the mind will no longer follow. In this place, you will find truth and freedom, recognizing that truth and freedom are one and the same, and furthermore, that the mind, in itself, has access to neither.
Put simply, any time the goal is freedom, the breath can be your guide. In yoga, in meditation, in a stressful situation, at dinner with your partner, in the car with your kids, the breath is your portal into present moment experience, and present moment experience is where you find your wholeness and freedom. Hartranft reminds us, however, that it is not in sitting and focusing on the breath that the trouble occurs, “but in overcoming the well-established mental and physical habits that already produce suffering in our lives. These habits of perception and behavior cost us dearly, yet we cannot help but hold them dear, for they ARE us. That is, we have all
developed seemingly tried-and-true patterns of thinking and reacting, crystallizing into stories about ourselves and the world, and we cling to them as our identity and home.”
While clinging to the noise of these stories and beliefs may be our inclination, we must never underappreciate the profundity of the breath’s depth and silence. The breath leads us to a place that confirms that the present moment requires no judge or narrator. The mind, protecting its
very existence, would only have us think so.
Quotes taken from The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, by Chip Hartranft and Emotional Clearing, by John Ruskan
This article was originally published in 2010.