The Mysticism of Yoga
          Letting Go of What You Haven't Got

A beginner came up to me after a class with a familiar 
lament. "I never knew I was so stiff!" I eyed him and said, 
"But you feel good, right?" Surprised, he admitted, "Yeah, 
I never knew I could be so stiff and feel so good!" 
Something about the way he said "good" made the 
word sigh with relief and enthusiasm and understanding. 
Perhaps yoga has little if anything to do with flexibility, 
but instead something far more accessible and fulfilling; 
perhaps he could benefit from and even like yoga despite 
making a snail's progress in doing the poses.

There was a time when I thought of yoga in terms of
progress in my practice, but lately I've come to see that 
yoga is more about not getting stuck than about moving 
ahead. That's precisely what makes yoga so relevant to 
anyone who has a life beyond the yoga mat -- namely all 

of us. "Getting stuck" is a broad term with no particular Sanskrit equivalent, but it is a yogic concept
through and through. I'm stuck when I limit myself to narrow concepts of how things are or ought to be,
and to concepts of what constitutes progress. Getting stuck doesn't just mean being brought to a
standstill, or reaching a plateau and not being able to climb higher. Limited ideas of progress get me
stuck in the wheel ruts of repetitive patterns, going forward but nowhere new.

Ask a yogi about his greatest teacher, and you're likely to hear a tale of an injury that stopped him in 
his tracks. Setbacks move us forward. Why? Because they bring to our attention back to ourselves to see 
what we have been neglecting in our quest for progress. Yoga is such an organic process of growth and expansion that whatever we neglect within ourselves will ultimately hold us back, acting as a tether that 
keeps us galloping in circles. The shock of a setback brings us to realize that, while we may have been 
doing our routine, we have strayed from doing our yoga.

In my case the wake-up call came literally with a knock on the head. In a group practice session we had 
been working on backbends, and the leader of the session announced that we would do drop-backs. (A drop-back is to start from a standing position and bend over backwards, dropping into a full backbend by reaching back and landing on your hands.) This is not something I have any particular problem with, though mine are not the most elegant backdrops. But on this day my heart just wasn't in it. I went ahead anyway, mostly because everyone else was doing it -- after all, this was a group practice meant to challenge and move us forward. I coaxed myself with the theory that perhaps doing a couple of them would spark the enthusiasm I was as yet lacking. I resigned myself to it, and proceeded. On the first try I didn't open enough with my heart, was late with my hands, and landed pretty much on my head. This didn't cause any great injury since I did manage to catch well enough with my hands to muffle the impact, but it did give me an opportunity to sit back, watch the stars, and consider what had just happened.

Why had I attempted it when my heart wasn't in it? What had been the point? This is yoga, and a yogic challenge takes us forward when it's met with the heart, not just the head. You have to want the challenge because it nourishes you, because your focused effort gives you a taste of the goodness of life. Yet I had 
left my heart behind in the rush to keep up, so it wasn't there when I needed it -- and my head got its just reward.

These days, when I feel some resistance to doing a pose, I pause to ask what I really want from this 
practice. When I focus on the inner experience rather than the ambition to achieve a particular pose, 
the resistance is easily overcome and the challenge met with greater wisdom, energy and patience than if 
I had simply forged ahead for the sake of the discipline. Other times I just know it is better to set the 
effort aside for another day.

Moreover, when a teacher cajoles me to go deeper or stay longer in a pose, my (silent) reply is, "I'm not 
doing my yoga for you" and I ask myself what I want to feel from the pose. If my heart is there, the pose 
is too. If the heart is not, or the body is not ready to go that extra inch, there is no point in forcing it. 
There is of course nothing wrong with accepting encouragement or asking for help to experience a pose 
more deeply; but the desire has to come first from within, for the pose is ultimately an expression of your 
own self. There is no yoga in being cranked into a pose.

We do celebrate physical accomplishments in our culture that, while hard-won and a wonder to behold, 
are only temporary -- bright and glistening moments that quickly evaporate. Yoga wants to show us what is lasting about ourselves, what is eternal and indestructibly good. The body and the mind provide the tools 
we can work with to recognize and live this truth, but the accomplishments of the body and mind are not 
the point -- they are anecdotes illuminating a greater truth, the goodness, resilience and strength of the 
human heart.

It's irresistible to focus on accomplishments. Accomplishments give us a tangible foothold for our sense of progress. But while we are directed by our goals to make greater and greater advances, our goals also limit us, because they represent what we think we lack; they often mirror our sense of imperfection. The moment we define our world by what we lack -- and indeed we do this every day -- we are stuck, and progress in achieving our goals is no real progress at all, as long as the idea of this lack remains. Our goals, even when attained, do not finally satisfy that original sense of emptiness.

The problem begins when we set up this sense of opposition, of division or duality in our lives -- having and not having, winning and losing, success and failure, peace and turmoil. This creeps into our yoga practice in a number of ways. It begins when we set our yoga apart from our lives. It can be a relief to think of our practice as a refuge, as a moment for ourselves away from it all. In fact it's such a relief that we often do achieve moments of peace and stillness -- and then get frustrated when we (or perhaps those who know us) see that this pristine peace does not carry over into the turbulence of the everyday; one minute we're serene and Buddha-like, the next we fly off the handle when things don't go our way.

Often too our schedule makes it impossible to fit our accustomed routine into the day. Disheartened by such setbacks, we lose enthusiasm while feeling guilty and resentful all at the same time. It is a great discipline to make our practice a sacred and inviolable time, but our frustration from the dichotomy will not go away until we find a way to make every moment of our lives our yoga, for yoga is not time apart from the world, but full participation in the world.

An even more familiar strain of poverty-consciousness shows itself in our practice the moment we judge our practice as 'advanced' according to the repertoire of poses we have achieved, or our ability to hold them 
for impressive lengths of time. It's basic human nature to see things this way; but yoga is meant to pull us 
out of this self-defeating perception of our practice.

When the measure of your practice becomes your accomplishments -- and especially when that leads to frustration or (God forbid) pride, the relevant question is this: are you doing your yoga for your heart or 
for your head? Are you more concerned for how you perceive yourself or for how others -- your teacher especially -- perceive you, or for how you genuinely feel inside? Success and accomplishment make us feel good, but which part of you is feeling good, and at what cost? Might there be an even deeper and more steadfast way of feeling good through your yoga than what you've been feeling until now? Can you feel as good even when you can't quite do a posture -- or meditate -- to your satisfaction, or have you made 
succeeding the point of your practice? Does your standard of success have you stuck? What might you experience by letting go of success?

The Bhagavad-Gita has this to say: "Your right is to action alone; never to its fruits. Never should the fruits of action be your motive" In other words, while we have the right to set our intentions and make an effort 
to grow, we have no real entitlement to have things turn out just the way we want them to. Most of us know or acknowledge this truth on some level; few of us actually accept it.

It's strong medicine. The teaching demands our recognition that if we judge the worth of our efforts by 
the outcome, we'll never be free of the gnawing sense of lack that makes us feel we are less than we truly are. Outward success is never certain -- or lasting -- and for that reason cannot appease the sense of lack 
or imperfection that goads us to chase after success in the first place. Rather than focus on the anticipated fruits of success in the future, we need to address that sense of emptiness now.

Yoga would have us know that this sense of lack is a false premise on which we're basing the argument for our lives, and we would do best to dispel it with the truth. For genuine progress is not measured by outer achievement, it is measured by our recognition and appreciation of our true inner power. If we don't let go 
of the expected fruits, dissolving our own picture of success or failure, we make little progress in that kind 
of self-understanding. Even our successes will remain tainted with a nagging sense of emptiness and disappointment.

Physical achievements are fleeting and fragile, but the effort is not pointless. Any effort toward mastery 
will lead us to draw upon the true source of strength and wisdom within each of us -- and the more 
challenging and impossible the situation, the better. The moment of breakthrough when we draw upon a 
deeper power to get us through is a moment of grace, and that moment makes the whole experience 
satisfying and worthwhile. The taste of this grace is what truly feels good. It's that moment when we were truly in touch with our greater Self and our inner power, so much so that the outcome doesn't even matter. In that moment we experience what in yoga is called steady wisdom -- stitha prajna. We draw upon the 
strength and wisdom behind all accomplishment and we do not fear the outcome, because we no longer 
listen to our limited ideas and instead make the leap into a higher way of being, erasing our false sense 
of lack with our own understanding.

The true goal -- and measure -- of progress in yoga is to become established in this steady wisdom. One of the great texts of yoga, the Yoga Vasistha, summed up steady wisdom in a simple maxim for dealing with the events of our lives: whatever comes, let it come; whatever goes, let it go. Behind this teaching lies the 
experience gained from yoga that we are already full and complete in our own essential nature. We needn't fret about what will come to us, nor fear what we will lose; nothing that happens in the world can add to or take away from what we already are. To know and genuinely feel this sense of completeness and ease with the world is steady wisdom.

Outwardly we handle the events of our lives as a play and participate fully; inwardly we keep steady 
wisdom, knowing that there is the presence within the heart of a greater, wiser Self. Let the body be 
cranky, let it be supple; steady wisdom is to be free of the limitations of success and failure, but rather 
to live with an awareness that welcomes and can deal with both, neither getting too proud of success nor 
too disappointed with failure. It's a play, which if it has a purpose at all, is meant to return us to our own 
inner steadiness, so that we the actors may enjoy the play as much as its author (and even do a good deal of ad-libbing).

Yoga is at its heart a mysticism that turns our common way of perceiving, evaluating and living our lives on 
its head, one that does not define progress in terms of success and failure, but instead defines progress 
as becoming free from success and failure. Yoga teaches that we get unstuck by staying put, remaining steadfast in our own wisdom while delving deeply into it. Beyond letting go of ideas, beyond making the 
mind still and thought-free, there is an experience of fullness, plenitude and enthusiasm within that the 
texts of yoga describe as "purno-aham-vimarsha," the experiential awareness that in our innermost nature we are already perfect and complete. We always have been, and always will be; there is nothing to achieve. We just need to entertain that understanding and become quiet enough to experience it, even if just for a moment, and then gradually make it a steady state of awareness through our practice. The texts of yoga say that this experience is no further from you than your own breath. Just as your breath is always with you, so the experience of perfection is always close at hand.

The mysticism of yoga is this: that we can step up to our mat -- and to our lives -- without expectation of 
how things will turn out, and with that finally begin to experience ourselves as we truly are: light, 
spontaneous, resilient, strong and supple in spirit, and fully open to each moment of grace as it comes.

That's the practice of yoga.

How is my Dog Pose today? I'm stiff and I feel goooood.

Doug Keller