Why do we practice yoga? What is about the asanas, breathing, and wisdom that is so alluring? Are we enticed by the lean, muscular bodies of the Ashtanga yogis and want to look like them? Is it the sensuality, sweat, and openness that makes us feel so great after an intense yoga class?
How about the feelings of acceptance, non judgement, and compassion bestowed by the teacher? Whatever keeps you coming back, the reasons are personal. The common thread is simple — yoga makes us feel good. It is a wholesome approach to wellness that encompasses body, mind, and spirit.
The Allure of Yoga
The foundation of yoga might not be obvious to Westerners at first. Personally, I was drawn to yoga as exercise before even a spark of interest in pranayama, meditation, or mindfulness existed. My friends in America who grew up in India, however, had a different notion of yoga than I did.
A few of them found it funny that I was a yoga teacher, since I have a background in Western medicine and grew up in the United States. In contrast, my Indian friends had yoga as part of their schooling beginning in the elementary years.
This “yoga” was only partially about the asanas. Their study of yoga included Buddhist teachings, history, meditation, pranayama, and satsang. Most of us in the Western part of the world don’t recognize these things as being part of yoga at first.
The foundation of yoga has to do with mindfulness. The idea is that the mind contains the seeds of its own awakening. We can cultivate these seeds to bring forth the fruits of a life lived with consciousness. How do we do this? By practicing mindfulness, of course!
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a simple word with a not-so-simple explanation. Like asking for the definition of “love” or “wisdom,” mindfulness requires an in-depth study and some personal experience to fully understand its meaning.
I first got a glimpse of mindfulness in one of my first yoga classes over 20 years ago during seated pranayama. The teacher guided us through breathing exercises in a dim, quiet room, and taught the class to sit in stillness. As we focused on our inhales and exhales, it was the first time that my mind was quiet enough to observe itself.
In other words, I could separate my manomaya (mental) kosha from my vijnanamaya (intellectual) kosha in order to “see” my brain and it’s thoughts as separate from my “self.”
Up until that point, I had been living in accordance to my thoughts, allowing them to drive my actions was and constantly thinking about the past or worrying about the future. “Being present” or “living in the moment” are some phrases which can help to understand mindfulness in just a few words.
Besides breathing exercises and meditation, how can I learn to be mindful?
The Buddha teaches us that there are four pastures for establishing mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, and dhammas (experiences). In all these pastures, we should approach them with contemplation, ardency, free from worldly desires, and with clear knowledge.
What does it mean to be ardent?
The Buddha tells us to approach mindfulness with our body, feelings, mind, and dhammas with ardency. How do we put this into practice? Ardent implies a balanced and sustained effort performed with passion and enthusiasm. He teaches that we should have a careful, consistent, and continuous path towards mindfulness.
By definition, my current practice of intermittent seated meditation when I feel like it, and drop-in yoga class when it fits my schedule is non-ardent! But don’t be discouraged—ardency can refer to your intention as well.
I should find comfort in labeling myself as an intentional yogi. I have good intentions to practice yoga with ardency, but during this time in my life, a sustained, consistent, and continuous effort is not realistic for me.
However, I can find balance in this dance between yoga the busyness of life and become ardent in a different way. I am sustained in my ability to practice yoga off the mat, consistent in my parental role to my children, and continuous in my effort to keep learning, growing, and practicing yoga to the best of my abilities at this moment, all while exhibiting enthusiasm and passion for living the life that I love!
Another way to appreciate the Buddhist teaching of ardency in our lives is to reflect on how rare it is to connect with teachings that awaken our spirit and liberate the heart and mind. Of all of the billions of people in this world, how many do you know who have access to teaching like this?
Of those people who have access to soul-awakening knowledge, how many of them chose to be in tune to it? Of those who chose to practice, how many actually stick with it?
Once you appreciate the rareness and unique opportunity you have to follow the path, you will begin to direct all your time and energy into reaping its worth by putting the Dharma into practice.
Gaining respect for this practice leads to a greater ardency for each moment.
Nothing can prevent the universal process of birth, growth, decay, and death, yet we continue to cling to people, possessions, and feelings. Nothing that we have, see, or feel is exempt from change. Change will happen whether we want it to or not. Yet, we attach ourselves to people, devote our time to caring for things, and get caught up in our adventures and experiences.
This does not mean that we should be mute to emotion, deaf to others, or have disregard for our environment. On the contrary! The difference is that we should not become so affected by these things. Feelings of pride or wealth should not be “good,” just as feelings of sadness or poverty should not be “bad.” They just are.
When someone says, “you look so pretty today,” we take is as a compliment. When someone says, “your hair looks ugly that way,” it makes us feel badly about ourselves. When we obtain wealth, we feel powerful and happy, but when the money runs out we feel empty and worthless. Why?
Why do we allow external circumstances to affect the way that we feel? Is being rich “good” and being poor “bad?” What if the rich man gets murdered for his wealth and power, while the poor man receives a donation to pay his bill. What is good and bad now?
Feelings, possessions, people, and circumstances are always changing.
No matter what. What should not change is our reaction or response to those changes. We should be ardent, that is, consistent, balanced, and passionate, about the world around us and it’s ever-changing ways.
The understanding and practice of impermanence leads into the concept of karma. That is, the fundamental and essential understanding that all of our actions bear fruit depending on the motivation associated with them. Consider this teaching by the Dhammapada:
“Mind is the forerunner of all things. Speak or act with peaceful mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
In summary, ardency is the first step to understanding the lifelong practice of mindfulness. Appreciating its rarity, application to impermanence, and the laws of karma as they apply to the Buddhist teachings help us to put the idea of ardency into practice.
As practitioners, we should develop our study of yoga with a balanced and sustained effort that is passionate and enthusiastic. This careful and continuous path will lead us towards mindfulness.