The practice of yoga, through poses, gives us the opportunity to examine the ways in which we treat and live in our bodies. Once we've become aware of the condition of our bodies, we are able to examine the ways in which we lead our lives and our relationships. This inner work can lead to very rewarding, and difficult, realizations about who and what we are.
For instance, it's very easy for us to accept positive attitudes and feedback about ourselves. Someone tells us we are intelligent or attractive, and of course we feel good and readily accept that information. It's less easy, however, to admit those less-than-admirable qualities about ourselves. BKS Iyengar in his book "Light on Life" states that we readily admit when we have done something good, such as donate money to a charity, but are less likely to admit that we might stab someone in the back to get a promotion, especially if no one had to know about it. The truth of the negative action, in Iyengar's words, feels closer to the soul. When we take a closer look at who we are in this earthly life, and what our motivations are, we get a clearer picture of what we need to work on to be free of affliction and conditioning. This picture can be quite a scary and uncomfortable thing to look at. Often, we have clues that are reaffirmed in our lives, either through our conscience, or through the input of others. But again, when looking at those things that make us uncomfortable, we are more likely to block it out, or lash out. It is, after all, easy to point the finger outward at others, checking off a list of your perceptions on their failures and problems. It takes more fortitude to point the finger back at ourselves and begin to be aware of our own mentalities.
The five afflictions listed in Patanjali's yoga sutras lie in the ignorance of our true nature. They are ignorance, asmita (or identifying with the finite ego), attachment, aversion, and clinging to life. We all sense that we are eternal, but according to yoga, the role that you play in this life will not carry over to the next.
In asana, we begin by simply being aware, for instance, of what our big toe is doing in a pose. A teacher helps guide us, and as we become more proficient, we gain deeper understanding and awareness. The first step toward change is awareness. We then can take this step out into the world and notice how we behave in every day life, the contents of the mind, the nature of our thoughts and of our relationships. It has been said, to change the world, we must first change ourselves. It is the only change we are truly capable of making. And only then can we realize that our afflictions can be overcome and true peace can arise from the knowledge of our true state of being. That we are more than these lives, these petty thoughts, our defenses, our offenses, our furniture, our paychecks, our problems, our prides. We are ever so much more, if we can make the choice to look. When we stop pointing our mirrors outward to the world at large, so full of blame, judgment, and inadequacies, and instead point the mirror inward, we wipe it clean from affliction and conditioning, cleanse our minds and our actions, the mirror becomes a lense that allows our true nature to shine forth. We take the focus away from how others look or act and instead draw our attention inward. This is the true work of yoga. It begins in asana, and leads us to the inner depths of our being.
I am actually reading Light on Life right now and have yet to finish it, but so far it has been very good. You bring up a lot of good points in this article. I would add, also, that while it's good to look at yourself, you do not need to fix every fault you have. So-called negative traits are often positive when looked at differently. People who are stubborn, for example, are steadfast and can be relied upon to stick to their convictions.
Additionally, I feel it is a misdirection of many spiritual philosophies to say "don't be judgmental." I call judgment "discernment." By discerning things, you get clarity on what you want and don't want in life. Discernment is vital to our democracy. We need to be able to critique not only ourselves but where we are going as a whole. We should say sometimes, "Hey, that's broken and we ought to fix this." Thus I believe we need to work both inwardly and outwardly. We can't afford to be gurus in secluded caves these days. We must get out and get involved.
Thank you for this beautiful piece! You mentioned in your second paragraph that it's much easier to point the finger outward rather than at ourselves, and to accept positive reinforcement over negative, but I actually find the opposite true for myself! I feel like I'm more apt to accept the negative over the positive when examining myself. This can be a fatal flaw too--I believe that balance is truly necessary when we look at ourselves. We need to see both the bad and the good and understand they make up the whole.
Also, Candace, regarding your comment, I wonder if it's truly possible to be objective. I think that judgment is very much a part of who we are. We'll always have judgments about ourselves and others, but that doesn't mean that we can't question their truth, even if we can't arrive at an objective and independently verifiable truth. :) Changing ourselves begins with compassion for those judgments, I think.