My yoga teacher wrote this post about how your yoga is working for you off the mat. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and feel the need to clarify some thoughts in writing.

As I do this, Michael Jackson’s song “Man in the Mirror” keeps playing in my head. Because this applies to me as much as anybody else. Feel free to play it as you read the words below.

This entire topic also relates to the U.S. cultural discourse about being nice – applied mostly to women, and often used and misused (by women themselves, nonetheless) to hold women back. (Cultural hegemony, anyone?)

I think the change of behavior we expect or hope to see after practicing yoga is a lot more than behavior – a lot deeper.

Yoga is a powerful practice – whether you understand it or not, when you practice yoga you are moving energy around and living some unique experiences. Sooner or later, it may rub off on you: You may discover increased empathy, patience, compassion, as a result to connecting with yourself or a higher principle. This connection, or union (the root of the word ‘yoga’) that brings oneself home, body, mind and soul in harmony with each other and with some higher force – cannot help but affect you in some way, at some point. Let’s call this effect spiritual awakening: A different, broader, more encompassing type of consciousness/awareness.

A simple example: I woke up one day, a few months after I started practicing yoga regularly, overwhelmed by feelings of empathy for chickens (the only meat I ate at the time). Suddenly, I was no longer able to eat any meat. I had flirted with vegetarianism before, but it was out of a rational conviction, not one that arose from the depths of my being.

So, let’s assume that, at some point, after 3 months, or maybe 30 years of practicing yoga, something shifts inside you. This shift will motivate a change in behavior. But it comes from within. Not from external commandments and expectations. As a result, you may end up behaving in nicer, more compassionate ways. But acting out of loving kindness does not mean being always nice. I love this story which I probably heard on Zencast (an insight meditation podcast):

A young woman was walking back to the ashram where she was staying in order to learn from a spiritual master. On the way back, she was attacked by a robber. She defended herself by beating the robber with her umbrella. Distraught, she went to the spiritual master to ask for forgiveness for being such a bad person. The spiritual master said: “You ¬†know what you should have done? You should have mustered all the loving kindness you are capable of. And then, you should have beaten the robber with your umbrella.

So, I try to act out of loving kindness. I try to be compassionate, and bring healing. But I’m not always nice. The difference is, the behavior arises out of a mindful place, instead of being a knee-jerk reaction. It’s a long way to go until every single behavior, even the small remarks, come out of that place. But this doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying. My colleagues and friends know me as the person who says the things that are difficult to say. Sometimes I owe it to them or to a higher principles not to be nice.

But then, let’s work with the other assumption: You practice yoga, and nothing happens. So you wonder, how long will it take until I’m spiritually awakened? A year? Two? Thirty? Alas, I am not the one to answer this for you. But I can tell you that it is possible that you will practice and nothing will happen. Or that a small shift will happen and then you’ll stay there, stuck for years, or for the rest of your life. I don’t know why. I don’t understand how this works. I guess this is where a guru comes in.

And I bet this happens more often than not, especially in a society where yoga has become a business. Think about it, according to this spiritual awakening hypothesis, ALL yoga teachers should be quasi-saints. But they’re not. Some become yoga teachers after having practiced for 6 months. Others feel the pressure of making a living out of Yoga. Then, you have the entire publishing industry, celebrity teachers, etc. I’m not saying they’re all bad. But it’s an environment where practicing your yoga is very hard, because there are many forces that pull you in the opposite direction. And as nice as most yoga teachers are, I’m not sure if the behavior comes from deep within or from an external expectation/commandment that this is how yoga teachers should behave. And certainly, not all of them are (quasi-)saints – and by saint I mean someone who has undergone a deep spiritual transformation, not only a behavioral one.

Of course, we cannot expect mass spiritual awakening. That’s not how it works. Look at the history of most major religions.

So, where does that leave us? I don’t know about you, but as for myself, it leaves me with the awareness that when I practice yoga I’m messing with something big and powerful. I want to be open, cautious, mindful and curious, and aware that shifts may happen “overhead.” Also aware that I may get stuck, or lost, and that it will take someone with a light to help me move on.