Five life lessons I learned by doing yoga in India

Opening ceremony for my yoga teacher training at Upaya Yoga, Goa

“So how was it?” they ask, expecting me to describe the beautiful sandy beaches, breathtaking sunsets, mouthwatering dishes and all the other earthly pleasures of life. Or the complete opposite — the agony of food poisoning, muggers and rapists lurking in the darkness, the overwhelming poverty, and so on. But while I am expected to sum up my experience in a few short sentences, my mind dismisses it as superficial and inessential. How can one take a journey of one’s lifetime and squeeze it out into a report, comprehensive and dry, for a simple and fleeting benefit of a small talk?

But, let me start from the beginning. I’ve spent the last six weeks in India, travelling and pursuing my passion for yoga, getting qualified as a teacher. It was my dream journey, and it took me a long time to make it happen — finding the right school, asking my manager for an unpaid leave, planning my finances, etc. I’ve always known it was going to be an eye-opening experience, and it was so much more than that. I lack words, words don’t give it credit, but somehow I need to try to leave a record of my most precious impressions and discoveries before it all sinks into the waters of forgetfulness.

So, I’ve made a list of five things I learned that made a positive impact on my life and are not food, beach or Bollywood related. Today I’d like to share it with you, and maybe, just maybe you will find it echoing in your heart too.

1. Happiness is a choice

It sounds like a cliche, and you’ve probably heard it once before, maybe popping up on your Facebook feed — a sort of inspirational quote on a light blue background, or an image of a blurry silhouette staring pensively into the sunset…

But what exactly does it mean? Does one choose to be born in a poor family, get dumped by his first true love, or lose his job during the recession? How can one decide to be happy? Well, this is how my yoga philosophy teacher Dr Ganesh Rao explained it. “If I ask you now to make a list of ten reasons for you to be unhappy — you will make this list. If I ask you to make a list of ten reasons to be happy, you will do that as well. Now, which list do you pick?

Every day we decide to pay importance and focus our attention on certain things and events that happen in our lives. But, it’s so much easier to notice bad things, things that contradict our desires. Today you are happy because you got that promotion or met the love of your life, but in a few months or even days it becomes a normality. We quickly move on from acknowledging the joys of life to taking it for granted. Every day we need to make an effort to be more conscious about the good things that matter and stop worrying about so called problems that don’t. And if you are ever in doubt — make two lists and burn the one that doesn’t serve you.

2. What we are and what we are not

Nowadays it is a common occurrence to say things like “You are what you eat” or “You are what you do.” And it’s even more common to tell people what they are not, “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.” (Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club) But how much of it is actually true, and what are we exactly? How can one define his personality and work to make it better?

Yoga says that you need to separate yourself from your physical body, because it’s just a dimension, a shell designed as a container for your being. It cannot define you because it is not stable, it will change over time — lose or gain weight, become stronger or weaker, get some ‘tears’ and wrinkles. And, actually, once you manage to achieve dis-identifying yourself from your body, you start treating it better and be less critical to it. You look at it as something that plays an important role in your life, and want to do your best to maintain it. You say to yourself, “This body needs good food to be healthy, physical activity to be strong, rest to have energy,” etc.

It might come as a surprise, but you are also not your thoughts, feelings or actions. While these things definitely seem closer to defining you as a person, they are also just other dimensions that tend to change over time. You grow smarter, adopt different believes, change your perception of the world. Today you are feeling one thing and tomorrow something else entirely. This is why you cannot identify yourself with it.

According to yoga, the only thing that is stable and certain within you is your awareness. Being conscious of oneself is the evidence of your existence. You are, therefore, in its purest form possible — your awareness. The more aware you are, the closer you are to enlightenment and liberation. This belief is also somewhat reflected in science, with self-consciousness stated as one of the things separating a human being from other animal species, or in Western philosophy (Cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am.) Yoga is a self-imposed discipline merging different dimensions of a human personality through physical exercise (asanas practice), breathing techniques (pranayama), mindful meditation and lifestyle. Practicing it is one (but not the only) way to take control of your own mind and become a better person.

3. Slow down 20%

“When you get too excited, slow down 20%,” said our course leader and hatha teacher Krishna to remind us that yoga is not a competition, and pushing yourself too hard can result in injuries. I thought it was a brilliant rule of a thumb and decided to apply it not only to my asana practice but also to other aspects of my daily routine.

But, honestly, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Hasty climbers have sudden falls. How often do we mindlessly rush into things, missing the obvious? We all know these situations. Rushing to answer that email, and hitting ‘send’ without the attachment. Being in a hurry to shut down your computer and forgetting to save that precious document. Leaving the house without taking the keys. This is where you have to take a deep breath and reduce the pace.

Slowing down doesn’t mean doing things very slowly. It’s about taking that pause when you start rushing into action, multitasking, juggling a few things at the same time. Once you start being more mindful about what you are doing, you are actually improving the quality of your work, and being more efficient because you are making fewer mistakes and doing only what’s necessary. It also helps to preserve the energy, which is one thing that grown-ups often lack. This is not to say that you cannot be mindful when you are doing things quickly, but it is definitely easier to maintain awareness at a slower pace. Just try it for yourself and tell me what happens. Write it in the comments. I’m serious.

4. Screw perfection

I have a confession to make. I am, or at least for a continuous period of time, was an overachiever. Partially, because I thought that being at the top of my class would make my parents love me more, and partially because I’ve always lived in a very competitive environment, among beautiful, successful people, and I wanted to do my best to be one of them. “Work hard, look pretty, never settle for less,” the world whispered, no — shouted, in my ear, and I followed. But, somewhere in the middle of this endless rat race I realised that being the best didn’t make me happy.

During my teacher training, I used no make up, paid little attention to my hair, and wore the same leggings to most of my classes. Guess what? Nobody cared. And, I somehow managed to enjoy every moment along the way. I felt beautiful, strong and liberated because the sun was shining and I was having fun with people I liked, and learning new things, and getting endorphins from physical exercises, and it was wonderful, and life was good.

Now, let me get this straight. There is no such a thing as being perfect. First of all, perfection is very subjective. You can easily test it by asking your friends who they think is hot and comparing it to your own answer. Secondly, and more importantly, there is always going to be someone better, smarter, richer, younger or prettier than you, and you need to learn to be okay with that. Because it doesn’t matter. Really. Why would you waste your precious life on comparing yourself with others and worrying about things you cannot control? Screw perfection. I am going to frame it and put it on my wall.

5. Love

“All of a sudden this strange ticking begins coming out of the dashboard. (…) (The cosmonaut) takes out his tools, trying to find the sound, trying to stop the sound. But he can’t find it. He can’t stop it. It keeps going. Few hours into this, begins to feel like torture. A few days go by with this sound, and he knows that this small sound… will break him. He’ll lose his mind. What’s he gonna do? He’s up in space, alone, in a space closet. He’s got 25 days left to go with this sound. So the cosmonaut decides the only way to save his sanity is to fall in love with this sound. So he closes his eyes and he goes into his imagination, and then he opens them. He doesn’t hear ticking anymore. He hears music.” (Another Earth)

One of the concepts of yoga, also somewhat reflected in the Stoic principles of life, is focused on transforming your negative emotions into positive ones. What happens around you is neither good or bad, it’s your attitude towards it that makes it so. The key to happiness, therefore, is learning how to love things that would normally frustrate you. Let’s be honest, life is full of bullshit. Things don’t always go your way. So, yoga says — instead of getting annoyed and depressed about it, try to feel the opposite.

Here is an example. A career ‘guru’ will tell you “Do what you love.” Doesn’t it sound like a dream? Maybe a handful of us will be lucky enough to pursue their passions and actually make a living out of it. But what about the rest of us? What if you don’t know what you love to do? Or you love doing many things and can’t decide which one you love more? Or there is no way your passion will pay the roof over your head? Or, even worse, you started doing what you really enjoyed in the beginning, and now you hate it? What do you do? You have two choices: a) remain miserable for the rest of your life; b) learn how to enjoy it.

We use hate and despise as a sort of internal superpower, a secret weapon of mass destruction directed at anybody who doesn’t fall into our accepted norms of behaviour. The issue is that the only person who suffers from it is you. When you think negatively, you generate all kinds of toxic feelings that spread out, and make you moody and sometimes even physically ill. You convince yourself that your job is bad, or that neighbour of yours is an asshole, and often ignore the evidence to the contrary.

So, here is what you need to do. You hate your job? Say “I love my job,” and try to find things about it you enjoy. That neighbour / colleague / schoolmate is annoying, say “I love this person,” and go and get to know him better. Who knows maybe he is not that nasty after all. This exercise can be applied to anything from washing the dishes to the way you think about yourself when you look in the mirror. Just try it. At first you’ll feel stupid, but then you’ll see it works. It’s not easy. It’s the hardest thing in the world. But, when you manage to bypass your prejudices, let go of your frustrations, a wonderful, magical thing happens. You become free.

Well, that is all folks, and it was one long piece of writing. Huge kudos to you if you made it all the way to the finish line. Three and a half pages, and I still feel like I didn’t say enough. Obviously I forgot to slow down 20%. In my defence, my blog posts are not normally that long. ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ and all. But, it’s okay, because I know I am not perfect and don’t try to be so. I hope you enjoyed this, and I’d love to hear what you think about it.

Namaste,

Anna