Although I have no statistical evidence, I'm convinced that when you start practicing yoga and meditation, you invite major changes into your life. Those changes start from within: Maybe your practice alters the way you define personal integrity; maybe it unleashes a deep longing in your heart or shows you truths you've been hiding from yourself.
Soon, these inner shifts seep into your external life. They make you question the way you do things and nudge you to live life differently. You might notice that your practice has triggered a mysterious process that I call "karmic acceleration." In other words, having a yoga practice tends to speed up the way your relationships and life scenarios play out. So instead of putting up with an unhappy relationship or an unsatisfying job for, say, 10 years, you may find yourself bulldozing through it in two. And not because you're flaky.
'Let's Face It, Life Change Is Scary'
Most of us who practice yoga will, at some point, find ourselves facing internally motivated choices that can radically alter our lives. That's when we need to learn how to bring our practice off the mat so it can help us birth the emerging self that change promises to bring forth—and support us as we work through the fear and confusion that change can bring. I think of all this as I listen to Rita, the 37-year-old owner of a yoga studio in Pennsylvania who has been contemplating divorce for nearly five years. Her 18-year marriage has long felt emotionally dead.
She and her husband rarely spend time together, and when they do, they tend to argue over issues big and small. Part of the problem is that their lives don't match: She's a dedicated yogi and environmentalist; he thinks spiritual practice is a big yawn and that climate change is unproven. It's been years since they've talked about anything except household matters and their teenage daughter. Yet to break up the marriage would be to end life as she knows it. After nearly 15 years out of the mainstream job market, Rita is not sure how she would cope financially, much less run her yoga studio without her husband's support. Then, of course, there is her daughter's well-being to consider. So, although her gut has been telling her she needs to create a different life, Rita is seized with terror when she thinks about what it would mean to get divorced. And so she puts it off.
I am a veteran of several radical life-scenario changes, so it's not hard for me to imagine how she feels. In my mid-20s, I ended an unhappy marriage; in my late 20s, I left a perfectly satisfactory journalism career and the world of family and friends to live in a spiritual community; 30 years later, I felt called to leave that community, move across the country, and begin an entirely new life.
In two of those situations, it took me several years to take the plunge. I wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing—and let's face it, life change is scary, especially when other people's lives are involved and you don't know what is waiting on the other side. Even contemplating a divorce, a career change, or a cross-country move can bring up core survival fears, which can surface in many ways: as health issues, nightmares, escapist behaviors such as overeating, lingering indecision, or a counterphobic tendency to leap out of the situation without a plan, just to get the whole thing over with.
Believe it or not, these core survival fears rise up even when the radical life change is positive. Stress studies show that "life-enhancing" events, like getting married, starting a new job, or finally getting a longed-for opportunity, are often just as stressful as negative ones (think of a bride breaking down in tears before her wedding, or of the young man who dropped out of a prestigious graduate program at Columbia because he missed his life in San Francisco).
In other words, change can be scary, even when you've initiated the changes yourself. What if people get hurt? How will you live with yourself if your choice turns out to be a disaster? Do you have the skills to deal with the confusion and chaos of the process? These questions paralyze Rita, and they're the kinds of questions that will sometimes keep us lingering in stagnant or painful situations until an outside force makes the move for us.
How Yoga Can Help
Yoga—in its widest sense—can give us the strength and insight we need to navigate the most radical forms of change. Equally as important as the practices of yoga are some of yoga's basic (and highly applicable) teachings—the recognition that we affect the exterior by working on the interior, that behind the diversity of life lies a fundamental oneness, that real strength is found in stillness, and that our true Self is not the shifting, fearful, egoic person that we sometimes seem to be.
One test of your yoga practice is how well it serves you during a time of big change. Yogic teachings won't necessarily keep you from feeling scared, overwhelmed, or confused. But they can rise up within you like a wise friend to guide you through those feelings so that you don't get lost in them. They can even help you avoid getting mired in indecision, or jumping impulsively without thinking things through.
Over the years, I've formed the habit of turning inward during times of transition and confusion, and asked for a helpful teaching. Much of the time, it's the same teachings that come up again and again. Below, I offer you seven core yogic instructions that will help you navigate radical change.
See also How to Change Your Life With Yoga