There are a few books that spend a lot of time in my bag while I scurry around on the London transport system. They tend to be the kind of books that don't have set beginning and end points; the ones you can open at any page when you're in need of a quick pick-me-up or calm-me-down, and find something useful – or at least something so abstract and confusing that you become absorbed trying to work out what it means. So much so that it distracts you from the sweaty body pressed up against you on the underground.
One of these books (although this one does have a beginning and an end, once you've read a book from cover to cover once I think it's reasonable to break the rules and skip to your favourite pages now and then) is Maya, by Jostein Gaarder. I won't bore you with a book review, but at the end of the novel is The Manifesto, which contains this little gem of a paragraph:
We bear and are borne by a soul we do not know. When the riddle raises itself on two legs without being solved, it is our turn. When the dream picture pinches its own arm without waking, it is us. For we are the riddle no one guesses. We are the fairy-tale trapped in its own image. We are what moves on and on without arriving at understanding. (Gaarder 2000: 335-6)
And it's kind of true. We are all riddles, and we're trying to solve ourselves by thinking and thinking and thinking. We get upset and worry that we're thinking the wrong things and that's why we don't understand ourselves well enough; and then we tell ourselves off for getting upset, and find ourselves in a sea of sadness, anxiety, frustration and anger that makes us feel even further away from solving the riddle.
What if we don't arrive at understanding precisely because we're trying too hard to understand?
For me, this is where yoga comes in. Yoga practice gives us a chance to stop questioning and stop trying so hard to make everything make sense. And when we stop trying to force it, there come moments when we realise everything's alright: we are where we should be, and we're just people living our lives.
Those minutes or hours we spend on the mat give us a bit of time in which it becomes apparent that all of the thoughts and problems we stress about are more clearly outside of us. I'm not saying yoga will fix everything — it doesn't. In fact, even while we practice yoga, most of us will still keep on thinking and trying a bit too hard to solve the riddle.
But maybe, after a while, or even just for some moments, we can use our breath and a little bit of concentration to see that it's not all as complicated as we lead ourselves to believe.