As an extraordinary year comes to a close, many reflect upon the days behind them. Some are making New Year’s resolutions informed by behavioral patterns born from a year of struggle, loss, or hopelessness. Some might reflect upon recent habits and develop a sense of shame or guilt, while others might harness them to rally change. Regardless of where one finds themselves on the spectrum, the time has arrived when a resolve for new beginnings inspires many to seek out the yoga mat believing it promises happiness. And why wouldn’t they? So much of the propaganda surrounding yoga and its ilk emphasises guaranteed serenity – scenes of blissfully smiling yogis drifting lightly through poses, the glow of candles dotted around a spacious room with a vista of bountiful, natural beauty, a space where everyone is nice to each other and nothing is amiss. Ah, inhale the facade, and exhale wishful thinking. Unfortunately for the inexperienced, that scene could not be further from the truth.
In Karma Yoga, Swami Vivkenanda states, “after a time, man finds that it is not happiness, but knowledge towards which he is going”. Moments on the mat are an opportunity to learn more about our true nature, to hone the craft of observation without punishment of ourselves or others, perhaps to practice non-attachment which could blossom into a version of contentment, but happiness?
Dostoevsky once wrote, “pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
It’s important to pause here and define ‘suffering’ in order to prevent any misunderstandings or exaggerated projections. For some, suffering is excessive physical pain or mental torment whereas others might ‘suffer’ from missing their annual excursion to the Cayman Islands. Our perspective plays a key role, and it is very tempting to project our emotions from isolated incidents onto the word. In this post, suffering is defined as: the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship. Unprocessed guilt, witnessing the hardship of others, clinging to fear, hiding behind ignorance, all of these could be defined as ‘suffering’. No matter the experience, it’s understandable one would search for methods on how to avoid it which is why so many seek out exotic solutions.
The attainment of “enlightenment” is often mistaken for the realisation of happiness. If only we could turn that corner, overcome that obstacle, achieve that goal, then everything would be right with the world. As we slowly trudge towards awakening to the truth of our suffering, striving to overcome it, we anticipate the journey of enlightenment will take us across time and space to an existence where there is an absence of suffering. Hearts and minds will find peace and there ends our travels.
I invite consideration that enlightenment is more in alignment with a never-ending passage through existence, one which requires integrity and courage to search for and abide in Truth – a place synonymous with discomfort – concluding that merely existing is, in fact, synonymous with ‘suffering’. The flaw not being in the act of suffering, but in our perspectives of it.
Captain Kirk once said, “Damn it, Bones. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain.”
All of which is likely why I know of no ancient text that states the goal of yoga is happiness.
In the midst of our troubles, we may find the mat offers a temporary refuge from chaos, but it’s not meant to be a permanent residence. It’s a brief respite before we courageously return to the fray hopefully with more insight and less impulsiveness. The Yoga Sutras mention sthira (steadiness) and sukha (ease, or sweetness). During my training course, a tutor once shared an old joke, “too much sukha causes truth decay”. So make the resolutions, discover a local yoga teacher who inspires you, but remember –
Come to the mat for truth, not happiness.
Arrive seeking knowledge, not numbing.
Who you are when you leave is entirely up to you.