How does yoga shift us out of this painful tendency? It begins by encouraging the quiet consciousness that focuses on the spread of the toes instead of how we look in our yoga outfit. And, having taught us to be alert to our own strengths and weaknesses, yoga gives us permission, even insists, that we honor our bodies—that we come down from Sirsasana when our neck aches or take Balasana (Child's Pose) when our legs are wobbling through a vinyasa—no matter what the rest of the class is doing. Sometimes yoga even demands that we question authority so as not to injure ourselves; it shows us that there are moments when it's appropriate to disregard our teacher's instruction in order to honor our particular body. In other words, yoga is an amazing training ground for learning how to disregard unnecessary or harmful social pressures and expectations.
Learning to honor our own instincts, needs, and internal messages is a subtle and sometimes challenging process, but it pays big dividends: By loosening the grip of the egocentric self, we cultivate an experience of the transcendent Self. As a culture, we spend an inordinate amount of time on physical self-improvement: Our nails are painted, our bodies waxed, our wrinkles Botoxed away. All of this can make for a society of well-groomed yet self-absorbed citizens. Through yoga, we learn to loosen our intense attachment to how we look, as we learn that we are not our body. We practice not identifying with our outward appearance so deeply—an exercise that can be a great gift for those who are chronically preoccupied with thoughts of shame and anxiety about their body.
We learn that happiness—even happiness about how we feel about our body—lies within, if we can just quiet down for a moment and find it. Losing the preoccupation with how we look, even for a moment, allows us to experience fully the miracle of the human body rather than feel burdened by it. Instead of seeing fat thighs or sagging breasts, we can see the divine within ourselves—and do the same with others we meet. "We are magnificent works of art, a living, breathing miracle," says Stan Dale, founder of the Human Awareness Institute in Foster City, California, which conducts workshops on intimacy and body awareness. "Want to see a miracle? Just take a deep breath."
While the culture of desire encourages us to feel deprived and want more, yoga practice teaches us to feel satisfied, joyful, and grateful for what we do have and who we, in fact, already are. The only risk of adopting this perspective, Dale says, is that "if we loved the way we looked, our economy would collapse."
At Home in the Self