Who controls your mind? Is it anger? Is it sadness? Is it past memories or future fears? When you are ready to be free, just take a look inside and cut the chains that jail pure presence, the chains that permit you to be the victim to the external world. Once you see the sand that false validation is built upon you will have no excuse but to emancipate yourSelf.
Freedom through movement bridges the ancient and the modern as well as the internal and the external, the personal and the political. Freedom of movement is available to anyone and everyone – regardless of perceived physical ability, age, social status and geographic location.
Over the years of combining the wisdom liberation teachings of the Yoga Tradition with the asana evolution of the contemporary Yoga world, I’ve seen what awakening is possible by using the body to explore the mind, and to expand awareness of all that holds us back from being truly free. “Freedom” is relative. It is open to a ton of different definitions and yet it is the core purpose, which unites all the many paths of Yoga across both Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
The challenge for many of us is how to first identify a definition of freedom which goes beyond the superficial level that freedom means “to do whatever I want”. This is tricky territory. If we are to do whatever we want whenever we want without any regard to the surroundings then it is possible that one persons claim of “freedom” infringe upon another’s. This is of course why we have laws and under that a certain code of morality, and yet if we take a closer look at both of these we can begin to see that this narrow definition of freedom still puts other lives and species at great risk. This is played out through wars for territory whereby the “freedom” of one group dominates over the other. It also can be traced back to the huge disparity between the filthy rich and the filthy poor, as for some reason we are able to justify hoarding resources at the expensive of others. The list of examples is endless.
Universal Human Rights aims to protect and validate basic political, religious and social freedoms. Yoga can go far to enable individuals to empower themselves by supporting psychological, physical and emotional health in areas where these basic human rights are in jeopardy. In areas of conflict and extreme poverty the practitioner can access a space which is not dependent on these external conditions and this points to the internal freedom that is our inherent birth right no matter what jurisdiction or situation we may find ourselves in. We also have to consider that “life” itself can limit these more traditional definitions of “freedom”. Injury, illness and old age are the most obvious! Yes we can fling our bodies around, place them in inversions and jump through vinyasa’s but as we are well aware this is a privilege and a temporary gift. It is not always going to be this way. We never know what is around the corner, but one thing is for sure is that no-one who has ever lived has found a way to permanently dodge death. Therefore, we need to make sure that our practice doesn’t become an addiction and future source of suffering. What happens when we are unable to move freely?
The challenge with much of contemporary Yoga is that it has become obsessed with asana at the risk of forgetting that asana is indeed one aspect of Yoga. I am of the perception that Yoga can indeed unfold through a primarily physical practice and the irony is that as the bigger picture of Yoga tells us, we must be prepared to even let go of the “path” – which ever one we have chosen – as the true teacher and ultimate liberator can only come from within and must not be dependent on our circumstance. The path of Hatha Yoga also requires diligence that going through the motions doesn’t become an excuse for actually doing the work. So what “freedom” are we actually talking about here?
The scary thing is that most of us have no idea how “trapped” we actually are. A recent walking living breathing inspiration in my life was one of my friends who happen to find himself behind bars for twelve months. After a while he started to talk about his “jail mind” which was not the mind which he had in prison, but the mind he had the previous thirty years of his life. While incarcerated my friend was forced to dig deep. His physical freedom was severely compromised, in fact he had very little control over much of his day, every day. What he did have control over though was his mind. Whether he choose to respond to every situation or react to it. One year in prison revealed to him how he had been so trapped before – reacting out of instinct, conditioning, limited ideas of likes and dislike, right and wrong. Once behind bars, like many of the incredible women and men who wake up in there, he had time to sit with the one thing he could control and to observe how in Milton’s words: “The mind can make heaven of hell or hell from heaven.” This is not an invitation to put rose tinted glasses on and look on the bright side of life, no matter what struggles you might find yourself in, but to take a really close look at what Yoga considers to be the source of all suffering which is avidya (illusion).
Avidya was labelled by Patanjali as the first of the five kleshas (poisons, or obstacles to the goal of spiritual liberation). In classical yoga, avidya is seen to be the root of the other four kleshas because it is the belief that the impermanent is actually permanent. It is the belief that the body and mind actually exists in a static state, and with that the tendency to move towards a state of seeing ourselves as something separate from the world as opposed to a continuously transforming, moving manifestation of it. As a result, we work to validate our existence and this validation is what leads to the kleshas of attachments (raga) and aversions (dvesha). The wheel of karma even puts illusion, attachment and aversion in the very center of its spokes, as it is chasing attachment and running away from aversion that keeps the wheel spinning. True freedom requires great tapas (discipline), satya (truthfulness), and a willingness to change negative habits and patterns and replace them with more benign ones. To ultimately dive beyond the conditioned ways of seeing and being and arrive in a place that respects and bows down to the natural order of existence which is one of constant change. When we truly accept this we can see the self-imposed suffering of acting as if the impermanent is permanent. Once we recognize this then we can watch the human experiences of attachment and aversion ebb and flow, come and go, with the knowing that the most beautiful and the most distressing experiences will both pass. We can be gentle with ourselves for our huge capacity to feel, to love, to let go and remember this is just a natural part of our human experience. By wishing it to be different is almost wishing for us to not be human – to not be part of Nature, but some how separate from it and therefore immune from its cycles.
The challenge is that the dominant structure of human existence thrives on illusion. After all, it is easier to pretend that these bodies and minds are fixed. Human death is perhaps the most challenging concept to accept. Patanjali labeled this fear (abhinivesha) as the 5th klesha, and the greatest obstacle to spiritual liberation. Death is therefore an essential part of becoming free. Free from fear and awake to the union of male and female that birthed us, which nourished us, breathes us and teaches us. Life after all IS the teacher and perhaps the most a Yoga practice can do is to remind us of this. That the true teacher lies within, beating these hearts, moving the mind, allowing for wider ranges of consciousness to be embodied. However, in order to transcend the most dominant and pervasive way perceiving existence (which I will define as the term the “rational mind”) we need to explore a definition of liberation as “freedom from limitations on thoughts or behavior”.
Now here’s where it becomes interesting and merges into the path of a spiritual discipline. The more mainstream interpretation of this would concern topics such as women’s’ rights, or freedom to practice a specific religion or even the continuity of cultural practices. For example, how during the era of overt colonization the colonizer would often outlaw specific religious practices as a way to dominate, control and ultimately break down a community. In Yoga, this situation concerns the formation of the unconscious mind and actually demand that we challenge the validity of our education, upbringing, religion, culture and even our senses and perceptions.
All of these are what the Buddha termed “samskaras”; deep imprints on the unconscious mind which chain us to a specific reaction, like the tires of a truck that has got caught in deep grooves and no matter how hard the driver tries, it is almost impossible to move the vehicle in a different direction. We end up learning a set of belief systems, which dictate our morality and therefore actions and reactions – likes and dislikes. Most of us have come from cultures that hide death behind hospital doors and treat it as if it is a tragedy to run and hide from. The rational mind is also what sets us (as a nationality, race or religion) apart from one another. Patanjali labels this as the second klesha – the sense of Asmita of the “I maker”. It is ego identification or “stories of self”. We identify with our jobs, our perceived roles in life, mother, wife, breadwinner, teacher, artist, caregiver and though having an ego is not a bad thing (even Buddha had one I suspect) we pretty much need our ego to organize our mind and navigate through life, but to over identify with and cling to these labels ultimately brings suffering. Life is guaranteed to bring change, and when it does, often times these changes affect our identity. If we are over-attached to these labels, change can place us on pretty shaky ground. We suffer because we believe we have lost an irretrievable part of ourselves when we lose some part of our perceived identity.
Yoga teacher Michael Stone narrates that “we think of ourselves not as stories wrapped around other stories, but as fixed and somewhat permanent entities… we are constantly overlaying each moment with a story of self, preventing a direct experience of reality, creating a case of mistaken identity! Furthermore, compassion, listening or the ability to take in others is always superseded by the aggressive mechanism of the “I’-maker.”
Yet if we really break it down we begin to see that for the most part we didn’t actively choose what to think – or even “how” to think. It was something that we learned from a young age through imitation. Essentially, this is at the core of what dictates the era we are living in.
Although we have the intelligence to “know” more about the world and our interconnectedness, we have been so heavily conditioned through the generations that at times there is such a huge perceived difference between certain groups that wars, segregation, slavery and all sorts of other justifiable domination can thrive. At the root of it all is the determination that “our” way of seeing, being, believing is in some way superior to another’s. The next level is to consider our instincts including how we have been programmed by our DNA. We actually have to consciously override outdated “fight or flight” responses by the nervous system that wave a red flag at situations that once upon a time were dangerous for us. If were not careful, this could mean that we end up taking actions which if we were calm and alert to the present we would not choose to take. At an extreme level this could mean having a fight that could end up putting you behind bars. I know, because again, I have a friend who faces life imprisonment for precisely this situation. He was threatened, became angry, fought for his life, and ended up fatally hitting a stranger. This may seem like an extreme example but it is also very very real, and to a certain extent we are all guilty of this to one extent or another. Think about words or even glances, which in the heat of the moment are extremely violent. If we could own them, explain where they were really coming from, then we would have no reason to throw verbal or energetic punches around. We could accept why we have reacted like we have and choose a different and more appropriate response; one which also gives others inspiration to do the same.
Here lies the essence of the warrior – the one who is aware of what she is thinking, saying and doing and why, and has complete mastery over her emotions. This doesn’t mean becoming mechanical in ones emotions, far from it. It means getting real with them, and instead of becoming an outright expression, being able to press pause and simply observe the sensations in the body and the ability of the mind to either throw petrol on that internal fire, or allow it to pass, just as water flows over the feathers of a bird. Which of course is another benefit of asana – we can become an expression of so much in every moment and give a shape to energy, let it travel and be free of it. Movement through asana (similar to other Eastern traditions just as Chi Gong moves chi around the body) allows us to access areas of stagnation that internally allow for prana (vitality) to flow. Movement after all is life, and stagnation – death.
Conscious movement combined with breath unwinds the body and by doing so brings a new awareness to the mind. The breath is for most of us a subconscious action. Making it conscious and linking it to movement is almost like unwinding the tension held of the body, which is fantastic at recording our lives in its muscles, connective tissues and organs. Just bringing body, breathe and movement into alignment reveals the wisdom postures hold without any words, verbal queues or workshops necessary. For example, backbends open up the front of the body. By doing so they can release tension held around the belly and chest. This increase in circulation and focused attention can also help us to thaw out numbness and learn to be ok with feeling the intensity of this hugely sensitive area. The intestines actually have more neurons than the brain – they are our brain of “feeling”.
From my own experience, the more deeply we allow ourselves to dive into Yoga and specifically exploring the mandate of the path of Jnana Yoga, which is the Yoga of self knowledge, we start to see how life is not just happening to us, but that we are the makers of our own reality. Aspects of our personality that we thought were set in stone can shift if we allow it to. The same goes for the addictions that bind us to patterns of self-sabotage. Freedom from addictions is a perfect example. If we are governed by addictions whether this is drugs (recreational or pharmaceutical) and alcohol, or addictions, which are deemed completely acceptable, even desirable, by much of the modern world then we are not free. For example, an addiction to work, shopping, stress, adrenaline, relationships and social media all hide the subconscious feelings through either numbness or distraction. These are all conditionings, which limit us to a certain way of experiencing the world. Yoga can provide the opportunity to question our day to day choices by asking ourselves “why are we doing what we are doing?” Once we are able to listen to the answers we have no excuse but to take responsibility and make more conscious and life affirming choices. The same goes for gaining freedom from ideas of right and wrong, ideas of success and fame. Even how we are to look and dress, when it is appropriate to laugh loudly, or to eat with our fingers or to choose to leave our career, family, home and community to follow a totally irresponsible but heart felt call that transcends the rational mind. As the Adviata Vedanta spiritual teacher Mooji puts it: “Freedom is to be free of attachments, and the main attachment is to the “I” self.”
What if we realized we had everything in side of us. Everything! That we were capable to the most beautiful expression of consciousness as well as the most violent and destructive aspects of unconsciousness! Perhaps the purpose of Yoga is to realize this and once realized, to transform into the most liberated, conscious version of being you already were, before you fell asleep to the true nature of your reality. As long as we live dependent on what is going on around us we will always fear the end of pleasure and running away from pain. To wake up, as the “death doula” Stephen Jenkinson puts it, is just as a boat leaves its “wake” in the water, one begins to realize the consequence of ones actions and the conditioned mind which dictates them. Just as an actor can pursue his character with such dedication he forgets who he is, we too take on a role and fervently play out its idiosyncrasies. Perhaps to “wake up” is to realize that freedom is not something you can earn, nor is it something that can be given to you. Freedom is the ability to bow down to the natural order of life that has placed you in a certain body, with a certain mind, in a certain geographic place, within a certain culture and during a certain period of time. Yoga is here to show us that another version of reality exists, regardless of even the most extreme external details. It demands that we take responsibility of how we think and what we think, and essentially demands that we take responsibility for how we move in the world, no matter what life hands to us. In the same breath, this means to remember that just as life “gives”, life will ultimately “take back” – everything. Now breathe in and breath out and the pulse of life actually hums this mantra to you. As it does, it is generous enough to give two pauses – the kumbhakas between the inhales and exhales, the places in which everything is perfectly still and the perfection of presence can be heard. This ability to listen is the key to relaxing into a state of being which is in perfect harmony with existence, without having to do anything, it just is, and You just Are – already Free.
You are not separate from the whole; you are one with the sun, with the air, with the water, with the earth, with the space that your body embodies. You do not have a life. You are Life.
Extract taken from Freedom Through Movement Immerse-in-Yoga, course manual. June 2017