It's when we move away from choosing the easy option that our path to fulfilment can begin, says Chandrika Gibson
The term "spiritual fulfilment" is often heard amongst yogis. As difficult as it is to define spirituality, except in terms of direct experience, it is also baffling to express what exactly is meant by spiritual fulfilment, unless that has been your experience.
For newcomers to yoga in the West, just following detailed instructions on the positioning of the body, adjusting the breathing patterns and not falling over is plenty to concentrate on. The idea of yoga as a spiritual path seldom crosses people's minds until they have built up some experience with the asanas and then been exposed to some philosophy which resonates with them. Even then, for many practitioners of yoga, finding a sense of ease within a pose is as close to fulfilment as they would hope to get.
Yet, without any obvious effort, yoga does transform people. From being scattered and stressed out, a busy person finds themselves calm, focused and more productive than ever before. From exhausted, run down and negative, one finds themselves waking up with a joyful heart and a body strong enough to achieve the goals of the day.
It is in this process of goal setting and accomplishment that yoga comes into its own. While other spiritual traditions emphasise stillness, yoga finds the still point within the movement - the sense of peace amid hustle and bustle which modern society is so hungry for, the relaxation under pressure. Rather than being a passive activity, yoga asanas build physical energy, strength and endurance alongside flexibility. The clean, clear cellular structure of the yogi is the perfect vehicle for life as it makes the day to day tasks easier and harnesses energy for the "extras". It is when we have a little extra energy up our sleeves that we feel able to turn our minds to deeper goals. We seldom have the courage to dream big when we are frazzled and strung out by daily life. But when regular yoga practice has become a steadying influence, the possibilities of an ideal life loom large.
So where does one choose to direct this surplus energy? It can be frittered away without any trouble in any number of inane pursuits. Perhaps setting a speed record on a computer race car game is your goal. Yoga practice will give you the steady hands, focused gaze and will to win. Or maybe lowering your handicap at golf is important to you. Again, yoga will be the perfect cross training for body and mind.
It's possible that such goals are indeed your life's work, the thing you will be known for and feel proud of that will be eulogised at your funeral. Or, maybe you see them as mere pastimes with no greater purpose than a little harmless recreation. Yoga is not anti-fun - of course, these things are fine in moderation. But yoga's ancient wisdom would indicate that this human life is a precious thing. The sacred texts such as the Bhagavad Gita encourage aspirants to summon their courage for the inner battle of personal growth. According to yoga, it is this effort to overcome obstacles which brings lasting fulfilment.
As a beginning student of yoga, one must gather one's energy to attend class. Often the classes are either before or after working hours and the temptations of cosy beds, well- worn couches, food, sex or TV can quell the desire to go to class. Each time the lower urges to seek comfort are overridden by the higher urge to improve oneself, the subtle bodies shift. The flow of prana or energy is altered and a little spark of happiness, joy, even fulfilment creeps into the mind.
From once a week classes, to two. Then to attending workshops with visiting teachers, to buying books and yoga magazines, the interest grows. The old habits may survive, drawing you back to bed on a rainy morning. But the unrest created by missing class becomes uncomfortable and the student has to make a choice. It can be excruciatingly painful to knowingly turn away from something beautiful inside oneself. Yet, plenty of people do. They get distracted and drop their practices for a while. In survival conditions once more, they get by without that lovely feeling of fulfilment. Then, one day, the feeling rises up again, the inimitable desire for yoga. Like a craving, it builds in momentum, until the urge to call a teacher, enrol in a class or buy a mat to practise at home becomes overwhelming.
The body holds the memory of the poses and this time it comes together quickly. No longer a complete beginner, confidence grows as, under the guidance of a trusted teacher, the student challenges themselves in more difficult asanas, dynamic vinyasa (flowing sequences) or lengthy meditations. After the trial by fire, the student has been transformed. New qualities and expressions shine from them, negative traits seem diminished and family and friends notice the renewed healthy outlook. Reinvigorated from the time away from yoga, now it becomes more than a hobby. The old goals seem trivial and the only goal worth having becomes the spiritual goal. The student has become a sadhaka, a spiritual seeker who aims to elevate their consciousness through the many practices of yoga. The asanas are still intriguing, but it is the writings of the yoga masters that strike at the tender heart of the aspirant.
At the end of one's life, if the process of dying unfolds naturally and is not very sudden, one has a chance to take stock of life and how it has been lived. Palliative care workers agree that people tend to die as they have lived. Sometimes a wrapping up occurs, a sense of closure is found, but that is often not the case. More common is an experience of things becoming gradually less important. What we are left with, if we are fortunate enough to be lucid, is what has been fulfilling in our lives.
It seems that portions of lives, sometimes very large proportions of the lifetime, are spent chasing after goals which don't eventuate. Time, resources and our precious energy get poured into the pursuit of dreams which may show themselves to be unrewarding when they are finally achieved.
In yoga, the act of goal setting is done intentionally, in the form of sankalpas. A sankalpa is a positive phrase, terse, clear and direct, which sums up an internal goal. The exact phrasing is to be determined privately by the individual. In general, sankalpas are one sentence, beginning with a positive statement such as "I am..." or "I will....". These may relate to qualities one wishes to develop. For example, "I will do business ethically", or "I am a loyal friend". Beyond that, sankalpas are often used to set one's sights on the spiritual goal. "I will be a force of good in the world", or "I am a beacon of light on the planet". More than simple self hypnosis, the intention when set, directs the flow of prana in a certain direction. It is commonly said in New Age, as well as traditional, circles, "Where attention goes, energy follows".
When practising the dynamic standing poses of Virabhadrasana I, II and III, yoga students are often instructed to focus their gaze on particular drishti points. The yogis, including Sadashiva, widely considered the father of asanas as well as dance and music, understood that where the eyes go, the prana follows. Modern teachers of yoga and related mind-body disciplines also emphasise the power of attention. It rings true in practice that where the attention is fixed, energy follows. Energy can be understood as prana, chi, ki or vital force. Each day when we wake up, we are naturally aware of our sense of vitality. Depending on what we focus on, we may experience greater or lesser amounts of energy.
Just as having the correct alignment of the feet in Virabhadrasana allows us to extend the arms and gaze beyond the fingertips, having a firm foundation in our life allows us to reach for our goals. In any standing pose, there is the possibility of overbalancing. In any life, there is the possibility of missing the mark, of misdirecting one's energy and missing out on precious opportunities for happiness. Fulfilment comes when the alignment is right, the foundations secure, the stance elegant, the eyes directed forwards and upwards. The mind is filled with the rosy glow of genuine confidence, the unshakeable sense that victory is assured. Like the spiritual warrior Arjuna guided by his wise advisor Krishna, our aim is true. Guided by principles and practice, our chi has direction. When we lack a direction for our energy to flow it turns in on itself, causing suffering, pain and lethargy.
Of the four basic desires for happiness which the yogis say reside in the base or muladhara chakra, the directions one takes are invariably in the pursuit of the satisfaction of those desires. As the practice of yoga nurtures those seed desires, higher goals supercede the basics. Beyond the passing pleasures of sensual life, lasting, long term happiness beckons. Each time the yogi sets an intention, repeats their sankalpa, they are intentionally moving their energy up, perhaps encountering obstacles along the way. With the strong determination of the warrior, obstacles are overcome, cherished goals reached and a fulfilling life unfolds like the sweetest blossoming lotus flower.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath