A Clean Sweep: Yoga to Declutter the Mind
Decorating is one of my favorite holiday traditions. The annual unpacking of ornaments and accessories is my own personal Christmas, unwrapping the joys of holiday treasures collected, gifted and inherited. The fresh pine scent of the tree wafts through the air, its branches trimmed in decades of memories and a lifetime of love. Softly lit adornments glimmer with warmth and hope throughout our home, the tree’s radiant glow filling the darker recesses of the room. Perhaps unabridged beauty, or simply nostalgia, inspires my sense of pure joy, but there is a quality to the holiday scene that renews my spirit of peace.
As much as I treasure the heartwarming, picturesque backdrop of the holidays, do you know what I enjoy more? Putting it all away. You read that right. Cleanliness soothes my soul. Holiday undecorating in my house always includes a “spring cleaning” of sorts: top-to-bottom dusting, scrubbing, mopping. Like the meditative mood I feel from the sights and sounds of the holiday, an orderly space brings me greater ease. My home, like my body and mind, are containers through which my life is expressed and experienced, and all operate more efficiently and effortlessly when they are well-kept. While house cleaning requires any number of tools, depending on the task at hand, for decluttering the inner house of my mind, my primary mechanism is yoga.
By definition, yoga is about the cessation of the turnings of thought (citta vritti nirodha), and by its very nature, yoga provides the tools for cleansing the mirrors of our minds. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of yoga’s most well-known texts, proffers eight limbs, or practices, that lay out a path to peace. One is asana, or yoga posture, which is defined as “steadiness and comfort.” At the level of the physical practice, yoga postures should offer a sense of confidence, balance, ease. This is not to say that postures fail to challenge us; it is to say that each personality, and all the components that contribute to one’s personality, experiences a posture in a unique way. Where a handstand may be a challenge for one student, corpse pose may be the same for another. Many years ago, a student approached me after class and said, “You know, I get really angry with you when you lead Bound Angle (Cobbler) pose.” To that, I simply smiled and offered, “It sounds like that posture has something to teach you.”
The teacher in me could give that answer because the student in me had been mopped up by more than a few yoga postures over the years. Each time I learned where I had tendencies to harden, tighten around, resist and push against my experiences. I learned how to watch. To pause and to stay. Over the years the shapes, their mutability and their teachings led me to understand that yoga is not about the pose; it’s what happens inside the pose. The yogi does not attain enlightenment by coming into the deepest backbend. We become enlightened each moment we deepen into the experience of the backbend (or whatever shape it is).
Humans are a complex web of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that are based on past experiences and that inform future ones. In yogic terms, these experiences come from the ahamkara (ego mind), that aspect of us shaped by the sensations, thoughts and emotions that validate or threaten who we believe we are. Yoga postures require various muscle actions, such as contraction or lengthening, all of which create physical sensations. These impressions pass through our sensory experience, and the mind extrapolates meaning, which is expressed through language and thoughts and, inevitably, through how we respond. In this way, asana becomes the container through which we learn about our patterns of thinking and being.
As a yoga practitioner, I will be the first to tell you that yoga is not always fun and bliss. Neither are scrubbing baseboards and washing walls. Winter-spring cleaning and routine upkeep of my home might be easier than maintaining dust-free corners in my mind, but both take commitment and effort. Like carrying out routine chores to maintain a semblance of sanity at home, yoga requires consistent practice in order to purify the mind. While it is just one of the eight limbs of yoga, asana is the package. And when we unpack the contents, we receive the gift of self-awareness.
Tra Kirkpatrick, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is co-founder of the Center for Integrative Yoga Studies. She teaches 200- and 500-hour training programs, and regular weekly classes in Decatur and Atlanta. For more information, visit www.IntegrativeYogaStudies.com or contact Tra at [email protected].