“Close your eyes and start listening to your breath.”
Nowadays, most yoga classes will start with a guidance along this line. Indeed, the yoga we practice today can be described mainly as a series of postures one would do on an individual mat. Yoga thus typically refers to one’s intentional connection to the breath, the body, or the mind. Even the way yogis would practice more than a thousand years ago was largely individually based, such as meditation.
When I started getting into yoga a dozen years ago, I remember the comment of a few friends: “Yoga is a selfish practice pretending to benefit others. How can you close your eyes and make a difference in the world?”
They just could not see how doing something for yourself could be more important than engaging in activism for environmental or social justice purpose or volunteering to “truly” change the world. I felt a little shame, I remember, and did not know what to answer them. Today, I have another, more nuanced take on it.
First, practicing yoga on a mat and social engagement are NOT at all mutually exclusive. A serious practice of yoga, however, might change how we involve ourselves into the world, no matter what we choose to do so… This being said, of course, I find it important to acknowledge that the yoga world, like any other world, has its dark sides. Abusing power over others (e.g., diverse sex scandals from “gurus” or teachers) is one; building a new identity to prove something to others (e.g., “I-am-a-cool-yogi-and-know-better-than-you” type of reasoning) is another; bypassing our hard emotions, direct responsibilities, or the organic unfolding of our spiritual journey (e.g., “let’s-skip-anger-and-go-straight-to-happiness” or “I-just-want-to-be-in-void-consciousness” kind of attitude) is a third one—along with many others. In other words, yoga can totally become an excuse to stay individual and bypass our role(s) in our community and, sadly, what actually is the dearest to our hearts.
Yoga for the community
Second, if we go back to its history in India 1500 years ago, yoga as a practice grew away from an ascetic practice (of which an archetype would be the thin sage retreating to a mountain cave and dismissing completely the body needs to transcend its limitations) to a more life-embracing and community-based practice. Yogis, including the Buddha, realized that attaining liberation did not depend on denying one’s primary needs but rather was more about seeing transforming how one views and experiences suffering. They also knew that the path towards liberation was not easy to walk alone and thus required help and support from other within the kula or the sanga (Sanskrit and Pali terms for spiritual community). Seen in this lens, one would practice not just for one’s own spiritual development but also for that of the others in the group. If you have tried to practice both on your own at home and with others, you probably have noticed the impact of other dedicated yogis around you on your own practice.
Yoga to step up for oneself
Third, and this is where the selfishness argument falls apart to my humble opinion, the practice—when done with commitment—keeps clearing the mind’s obstructions and functions as a “compass” that can help the yogi stay aligned with the lineage or the “view.” As a result, the practitioner keeps cultivating altruistic qualities such as compassion, kindness, and love, which (we can agree) potentially will make the world a better place. At the same time, because of the commitment and continuing dedication, the yogi gradually grows courage and self-awareness; two qualities that in turn prepare them to care for oneself, see opportunities in challenging times, and eventually discern what their unique impact on this world truly is.
Not selfish… but selfless?
Yet, you might ask, what is the fine line between not selfish and… losing oneself into being here for others? Can “selflessness,” which some spiritual communities advocate for, be sustainable?
Again, these questions call for a more nuanced answer. For the sake of brevity, I’ll try to stay short. Selflessness can be sustainable, but it also can be not sustainable.
If one acts in the world as a semi-conscious psychological strategy to feel good and worthy, one wil most likely end up feeling quite miserable. Many of us in the yoga or spiritual world want to help and, perhaps, are what we commonly call “pleasers;” we want to make others feel good. We unconsciously learned at a young age that pleasing others’ needs was the best strategy to receive love and experience worthiness. This, although very common among us and myself included, is not selfless. It is, in fact, selfish as it is a strategy to get one’s need for love to be met.
What a practice like yoga and meditation can teach us, however, is how honoring our needs and growing love for ourselves first are necessary if we are to share any form of love with the world. Because when we do, we become a more resourced version of ourselves who can give “from a full cup”, and not “an empty cup” as one says in Qi Gong.
Selflessness as letting go
Now, another teaching the practice might give us is that selflessness, at the same time, partly defines our true nature. Before my mother passed two years ago, I spent quite a few hours by her bed. She could not really have a normal conversation, so I’d massage her arms and legs for hours. The sickness was taking over her body, and clearly, like each and one of us, she was not in control of how her body was evolving towards death. Death is the ultimate form of letting go we humans will have to face and accept. There is no other way.
Therefore, as the ancient eastern sages encouraged yogis to do, we can start with letting go right now. We can embrace that we are not in control, for example, of bigger conditions like the weather, what others think, or even time. We can try hard to delay our body’s ageing and make the decay process as healthy and smooth as possible, yes. Yet in the end, we cannot avoid the ageing process itself.
In a similar vein, we do not own anything, and even less anyone. We like to say: “my spouse”, “my kids”, “my job”, “my body”, or even “my house”. We might own something on paper or be the primary relative to someone, but eventually this too will change. We can be the best custodian of what or who we are given or choose to own for a while, but until we realize our incapacity to control most of life, we will suffer. The deep experiential of this realization might be selflessness in real terms.
At a more spiritual, esoteric, yet directly felt level, selflessness in Buddhism describes a state of consciousness of literally “no self;” no ego or no “I” behind the mysterious machinery of our lives.
Not only does the realization of selflessness enhance our inner wisdom, but it also brings a sense of relief and liberation. Then, our hearts can open to a new level and get our full permission to transform the world, one thought, one word, one breath, or one action at time.
No need to worry about never getting there, because you already do reach selflessness every night when you enter the deep sleep state. Then, we forget who we are as identified selves. If we practice with the right intention, we can touch the same space during the day, again and again, and at many different levels.
Notice the natural pausing after your exhale, and let your attention linger there – in the Sunya in Sanskrit, the void.
Here. You. Are.
The “self” floating in emptiness…