The breakthrough of yoga into the mainstream is an exciting reflection of our evolving society. But, sadly, if Krishnamacharya, who is considered the originator of the three main hatha forms of yoga, were around today, he would be a bit disappointed that this great healing practice he helped create has become rather contaminated, leading to more injuries than healing. Many people have become disillusioned with yoga because of an increasing focus on one’s gymnastic ability or competitive mastery of handstands or other poses. Instagram feeds can cause more intimidation and fear than support and humility, communicating to the general population that “good yoga” is hard to accomplish unless you’re an Olympic athlete.
The essence of yoga, by definition, is “union” or “to integrate.”
Every day I witness people who are the exceptional embodiment of yogis, even if they are not yet able to touch their toes. Here are three signs you might be a yogi, even if you can’t put your feet behind your head.
1. You follow your heart
Are you a passionate person? Do you make decisions based on letting logic be guided by instinct and feelings? A major characteristic of a true yogi is the ability to listen to that electric, internal guidance system; we might know this as being guided by the heart.
As a baby, the heart is the first organ to develop in the womb, and I think of it as our “initial brain.” You can strengthen this system when making a decision by closing your eyes and choosing one way and then examining how you feel. Does your heart beat faster, or do you have a knot in your gut? Then try the decision the other way, just to be sure. The heart knows. If we can listen to it, we can create easier lives for ourselves.
2. You compete with yourself, not others
Do you view growth as a lifestyle, not just a goal or milestone? The Dalai Lama says, “Give until it hurts,” so there is real insight to glean with inner work. Real yogis recognize that when we take our last breath in this body, only then is our work done here—but even that may still be the beginning. There are always more lessons to learn, means to serve, and experiences to discover. We must humble ourselves to the long journey of inner and outer work and continue to strive to be better today than we were yesterday, and that is it. I love this Rumi quote: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” In all that they do, true yogis strive to be better at each task than they were the day before.
3. You see the world as a reflection of yourself
Do you consider every person, opportunity, and aspect of your life as an invitation to reflect on yourself? The yogi realizes that we see things not as they are, but as we are. For better or worse, when something happens it may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility. How can we reflect on being the cause and perhaps adjusting our decision-making or actions in the future? We cannot control the actions of others, but we can choose how that makes us feel and how we respond. A great reminder that I learned from my teacher Juan Ruiz is that “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is not.”
A well of power springs from the willingness to own up to the way we participate in and interpret the world. Our job is to deal with “our side of the sandbox.” In fact, that is all we can do, so we might as well continue working on this, rather then pointing the fingers that will lead to three fingers pointing back at us—and to further suffering.
Great yoga can also be measured by one’s personal ethics and integrity. Good yoga can also be practiced by one’s willingness to live at the edge or live in the place where growth is happening and it’s just a bit uncomfortable, yet you are observing inward.
I have learned that the real accomplishment in yoga is what it cultivates within us. For some people their “yoga” practice may be their art, teaching, managing their business, raising their children, or being of service to their community.
That said, there is something to getting on the mat, going within, and refining the alignment of body and breath. Learning who we are by looking inward and observing the fluctuations of the mind (known in Sanskrit as chitta vritti nirodha, which translates to “monkey mind” or “mind chatter”).
Yoga does not care about the depth of your back bends; however, the practice of asana and a healthy and challenging back bend does rejuvenate the body and circulatory system and supports the spine, body, and mind. Alignment on the mat does help support all the above qualities as it invites us to reflect and can move us toward connecting inward and listening to our own truths. Good yoga on the mat would mean staying present, breathing, not reacting, and getting present again.
Yoga is not “one size fits all.” Our postures are not all going to look the same, but we can still benefit from a daily practice of moving toward alignment and bringing that spark of passion into our days. This is perhaps one of the best ways we can contribute to the life we are living and to the lives of others.