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When you were growing up, I bet you had a special place of refuge you could go to for comfort. I had a favorite swing in my backyard that I would settle into when I felt the need for solitude. There, I found sanctuary in the fluid act of swaying back and forth, the cool breeze on my face as I floated through the air—up and down, back and forth.
When we take up the practice of yoga, becoming deliberately self-reflective, it eventually becomes apparent that taking refuge—from busyness and stress—is not about running away, but rather it is about deciding what you want to move toward. Refuge is not dependent upon a location at all. Rather, it is actually an intention we can choose. What do I mean? We can always opt to focus on that part of ourselves that is not made of thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations. We can choose to focus on that space behind our thoughts—on the silence from which we observe ourselves and the world and the space that we keep forgetting to notice.
When you stepped on the mat in the first days of your yoga practice, you were likely still associating refuge with a specific place: the mat or the meditation cushion. Many practitioners believe that the sense of stillness they feel from their yoga is something that must come from what they have done rather than from who they are.
But Patanjali writes in his most famous Yoga Sutra (1:2): “Yoga is a state in which the agitations of the mind are resolved.” This means that through yoga, we can stop identifying with fear and anxiety, for example, and begin to settle into the now—into an internal silence. Perhaps you have had a glimpse of this state on the mat, walking in the woods, or while worshipping or praying. This deep state of silence Patanjali describes is the residue of our practice but not the asana or meditation practices themselves. We miss the real practice when we are attached to the techniques instead of the residue, or the aftertaste of the practice. When we start to understand that the asana is not the yoga, we realize that the afterglow the asana leaves in our nervous system is the true yoga. This can lead to the radical awareness that refuge can be experienced anywhere, anytime, because it can truly be a choice.
Yoga practices help us get there. By helping to change what we are focused on, asana can become the foundation for us to find the courage and awareness to turn toward our lives with curiosity and presence—to take refuge in the moment. When we try a new, sometimes scary, pose, we are practicing courage, and when we are present to bodily sensations on the mat, we create a new habit of awareness. Restorative Yoga poses are particularly helpful. For example, time spent reposing in a supported Savasana (Corpse Pose) can reinforce that you are “enough” and have value simply because you exist. That’s because Savasana tells your nervous system that it is OK to let go: that you do not have to be doing and producing all of the time in order to feel full and content with who you are. The Savasana practice here helps foster the unimaginably important and radical understanding that you are not your thoughts. As you lie still with your eyes closed and nothing to do, all you have to focus on are your thoughts. You can learn to watch your thoughts rise and fall like clouds in the distant sky. The ability to be even slightly free from the tyranny of one’s thoughts is the beginning of moksha, or the only true freedom.
Pranayama can offer us a way into a state of even deeper contentment. Besides inhalations, exhalations, and breath retention, there is something else that you can contemplate during your breath practice: the utter silence that presents itself between the inhalations and exhalations. Focusing on the moments when you are not inhaling, exhaling, or holding your breath (the natural state of suspension in between the inhalation and exhalation) can have a profound effect on your mind and nervous system. When I practice this focus, it verifies for me that true refuge can only be found within myself and does not come from outside sources. When I’m in this state, I have no worries; I’m totally content with what is.
Perhaps the type of refuge you’ve most longed for is that from the tyranny of your mind. If you meditate, you know too well how powerful the constant barrage of arising thoughts can be. But meditation can help you create refuge in the midst of your mind. Here are three ways it can work:
- During meditation, cultivate the habit of accepting things as they are. You may not like the noise outside your window right now, but you can stop fighting it with your mind.
- Cultivate the willingness to love your judging mind instead of fighting it. This is very powerful. Taking time to be quiet and aware can help us see clearly that we live with a constant and unremitting critical mind. We judge ourselves with ferocity, and we judge others without surcease. It’s a radical practice to notice this and actually contemplate the opposite—loving the humanness of our judging mind. This is a form of self-care that is especially liberating.
- Simply be present. Wrap yourself in the mantle of the present moment. When you sit to meditate, allow yourself to feel the moment, hear the moment, and be the moment.
Acceptance is the key to a peaceful existence. Creating a deep mental state of being that rejects nothing is the best form of refuge there is. This means you allow yourself to be as you are. This does not mean complacency. It means actively cultivating the ability to allow yourself to receive the grace of being.
A friend of mine once said, “The worst mistake we make in spiritual practice is to believe we have to be different.” This shocked me and made me realize that changing who I am was what I thought I was supposed to be doing with my yoga practice. I thought I was supposed to become more advanced in my practice and more spiritual in my being.
Constantly striving to make ourselves different is at the heart of human suffering. I am not suggesting we just lie on the couch all day being busy accepting ourselves. I’m suggesting, however, that we choose to act from who we are with compassion and kindness.
See also Yoga and the Power of Compassion
The ultimate self-care is recognizing that you are more than your surface self and remembering to act from this realization. When you do this, you may feel a spontaneous and sometimes surprising upwelling of kindness, compassion, and joy. And when you practice from this place of love, you cannot harm yourself by thought or deed. You give up harsh judgments and needless worrying. You eventually no longer need to seek refuge so ambitiously because you have become your own refuge—you will be able to take refuge in your True Self. This is a deep-Self remembering that, even in minute doses, will change your perception about who you think you are. You are paradoxically “changed” back into who you have always been.
This is the point of yoga.
About the author
Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, has taught yoga since 1971 and is the author of nine books on yoga. Find her at judith.yoga.