How yoga helps us be truly free – not just doing whatever we want

Some notes from a yoga class I took 3 years ago on the subject of freedom:
The teacher was talking a lot about freedom.  And she said freedom is not about just doing whatever you feel like doing — because then you are actually being captive to those internal forces that cause you to feel like doing one thing or another — cravings, desire, neuroses, fear, etc.So to really be free is to first free yourself of all of those internal drives — discover what it is you really want to do and then do what the intelligent self really wants to do.  That’s freedom.

And of course in order to do that first takes discipline – turning inward – focus on the self, the breath.

So first: free the mind with yoga; then let the intelligent self guide your action.  That’s real freedom.

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Maintaining Yoga Practice Through Physical Pain

For the last two months, I’ve had lots of physical pain.  First a knee gave out, followed by surgery.  Then my herniated disk flared up, causing continuous mild to severe pain in my shoulder and arm.  So I’ve spent a lot of time considering how to maintain my yoga practice through this pain.

I’m not so much talking about Asana practice.  It’s fairly obvious that if your body is fragile, you need to be careful with Asana: don’t overdo it; back off if you have pain.  At the same time, Asana can be an excellent way to heal your body if you focus on alignment and practice with mindfulness and compassion.  Iyengar’s Asana practice, for example, was intended in large part to heal physical ailments.

And I’ve had practice with this before, so I am reasonably good at adjusting my Asana practice for physical ailments.  When I had a kidney removed and my abdominal muscles severed, I could barely sit up but I could still practice viparita karani.  (A great pose for anyone who says they cannot do yoga every day: you can always put your legs up the wall – that’s yoga!).  And I’ve dealt with knee stuff and neck stuff for years.

But for me, what’s harder is maintaining the yamas and niyamas.  Pain makes me want to take the easy way, to comfort myself, to wallow.  Pain makes it easy to forget Ahimsa and to lash out or be impatient.  Pain makes me want cookies and chocolate and to self-medicate with a margarita or a scotch, setting aside Aparigraha.  Pain makes it hard to focus and to act mindfully and with Tapas, or to take the time to concentrate on Sw-adhyay.

So what’s the answer?  I am far from having conquered my pain, but I have found some relief in the yamas and niyamas themselves.  Great solace can be found in Ishwar-Pranidhan: relinquishing concern about the self and turning my focus outward to appreciate the wonder and divinity of all things.  Buddha is reported to have said “suffering is real. You have to face it, live with it. There is no escape.”  But there is no need to be mentally consumed by pain.  Accepting it and then turning to other things is the best I can do.

Something else that helps is chanting and Pranayama.  Pure meditation is just too hard for me when I have pain.  But practicing breathing exercises can help me take my mind off the pain and at the same time relax my muscles, infuse the body with oxygen, and perhaps ease some of the discomfort.  Lately, I have also really enjoyed the Gayatri mantra.  For a time I took an early morning yoga class from a teacher who chanted the Gayatri every morning. Since then, the sound of it takes me right back to that time: to sunrise when hardly anyone is awake and the time is just for me and my practice.

I would love to hear other ideas anyone else may have: how do you maintain the yamas and niyamas through a period of physical pain?