In the spirit of preparing for the New Year, I have been spending more time in my practice dedicated to self-study (svadyaya). I have heard this process of deepening self-awareness described as a process of making the invisible visible. In other words: “What are my patterns (samskaras)? Which ones are serving me? Which ones do I need to change?” Essentially, I am getting ready to make my New Year’s resolution, or in yoga-speak, I’m looking for my sankalpa for the new year.
I have often been amazed at how the yoga practice has helped me on my life path, and on how many levels my practice has given me insight into my samskaras.
On a purely physical level, those new to the practice come face to face with that which was hidden fairly quickly. The posture (asana) practice has a knack for making us aware of our strengths and weaknesses quite quickly. I often see students who find a strength in their practice and want to work on their strengths every time they practice. Many students also prefer to avoid or neglect working on some of their weaknesses. We also tend to, while avoiding weaknesses, sacrifice proper alignment in order to get “deeper” into a pose. We tend to exploit openings and focus on destinations, usually to the detriment of the quality of our breath and other parts of body that often could use more attention. But many of us, over time, also realize that the recognition of these weaknesses, our acceptance of them, and our willingness to work with them, are at the very heart of a yoga practice that is beginning to gain depth. “Sthiram sukham asanam.”
These physical samskaras are easier to identify and address. Where yoga has a largely hidden value is in addressing the more subtle subconscious patterns. Yoga also helps to make the invisible subconscious patters visible and then provides us with the tools, similar to the asana practice, to reshape and re-pattern these, as well.
As a mindfulness practice, the yoga practice helps us observe our mind’s patterns. First, we begin to recognize our narratives on the mat. Then as our practice expands into our lives, our narratives out in the world become more apparent. At least this has been my experience. Some patterns I had, I had become resigned to. I didn’t know how to address them. I simply thought that that was the way I was. It wasn’t until I was presented with the tools to work with my patterns that I realized that I could change long standing behaviors. My first teacher, Yogi Vishvketu taught me that to change a behavior, we need to foster an opposing behavior. In other words, to get out of your rut, create new ones, more positive ones. If you find yourself in conflict with others put yourself in service to people. If you are stuck in your head, move through your heart. Karma Yoga.
As for changing the way I think, changing behaviors will help shift thought. But to eliminate the kernel of the initial thought, the source of the behavior, yoga offers an even more subtle tool. My guru, Rod Stryker, has taught me that mantra is the means by which we can shift on a deeper, more subtle level, the very seeds of our thoughts. Plant positive seeds so that they may take root and alter the landscape of your mind. There are many kinds of mantras. Some, japa-mantras, are given to us by our teachers, these remain secret and have a particular purpose in our practice. Others are mantras we can choose to help us affect change in areas of our lives where we need a shift.
You see, we all have many mantras already. Many of us say: “I can’t”, “I won’t”, “I hate” or something that puts us into a negative or defeated mindset. Others among us fall into habitual patterns like the need to feel wanted, special or even the need to be against. These are attitudes which keep us invested in or attached to the ego and often focused on difference rather than union.
Whatever your own mantras are, we lay the groundwork for our thoughts and behaviors through these kernels or seeds that grow and infect our days and our lives. Adopting a new positive mantra to help you shift a behavior can serve a purpose in shifting your attitude towards those around you, which can in turn affect those around them. Mantra can help you be the change you wish to see in the world.
The mantra I have decided to begin my day with and share with my classes to spread more happiness and peace for the new year is: “LOKAH(HA) SAMASTA(HA) SUKHINO BHAVANTU” – “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions, of my own life, in some way, contribute to their happiness and freedom.”
My experience with mantra is that, fundamentally, most of them point to the same truth: Through love and understanding for ourselves and others, we come to the realization that we are all divine. Yoga.
Here’s to a successful new year sankalpa!
By Todd Lavictoire