“You have everything you need to rise above all the noise, and to fulfill every last one of your dreams, and it is so important that you do that.”
These words were spoken by Michelle Obama at a convention on women’s education in July 2015. The video was viewed more than 700,000 times on YouTube and I, too, was about to share this “power to inspire” with my teenage daughter. But, as much as I admire Michelle Obama, something stopped me from clicking the ‘send’ button.
There is pressure on everyone, especially young women, to believe that they can do anything they want: if you are diligent and work hard, you will get better, rise to the top, shatter the proverbial glass ceiling. You can “be what you want to be”. The message is everywhere from song lyrics to advertising and political campaigns.
The same type of message circulates in the yoga community: come to class more often, and you will get more flexible. Keep trying, and one day you will do this posture perfectly. Meditate, and you will have peace of mind. Practice makes perfect. Never mind if you have a heavy type of physique or inherited the stiffness gene from your parents. And never mind if you struggle with personal issues. The teacher says that you too can become light as a feather, supple as a fish, or peaceful as the Buddha.
The end or the means?
“Big dreams” can be dangerous for two reasons: first of all, they tend to keep us focused on the final outcome instead of the process. Thus, they take our attention away from understanding what our talents really are. The yoga tradition calls this svabhava, literally “that which exists within our self”. Our potentials are part of it.
At this point, let me say that I am not trying to promote a nonchalant or negative attitude. To identify and develop our potentials takes commitment, effort, and personal reflection. Once we know our potentials, we can reduce the time spent on non-essential pursuits and make more time for these important seeds to grow.
But our minds have been polished with so much positivity that it is considered politically incorrect to say “I can’t” or “I won’t”. Positive thinking – an attitude that consists in focusing on the bright side of life – has gained huge popularity, as evidenced by the many books and lectures about it. The term was also coined to describe a controversial movement in psychology, which is based upon the assumption that a) you can be anything that you want to be, and therefore b) if anything bad happens to you, it is your own fault. Our ego is generally centered on what we can do or on what we think we should do, but we are often unable to recognize what we cannot do. So we set ambitious goals, since we were told – repeatedly – that anything is possible.
How does this apply to yoga? Let us take the example of a 40-year-old beginner who cannot touch his toes. In a typical class, he will compare himself with a number of people who can easily do it; the teacher is supple too; there are mirrors on the walls. Gradually, with regular attendance, our friend becomes more flexible, but he is still unable to touch his toes. He has made some progress but he feels that he keeps failing.
The headstand syndrome
We are all the same as this beginner, in a way: we can improve, but only within the scope of our potential. While some people can accept it gracefully, it is more difficult to recognize failure when it hides behind a success.
To explain this, let me assume that I really want to do the headstand without support from a wall, and that my next goal is to do some leg movements whilst in the head stand, without losing my balance. I keep trying and eventually manage to do both, after several months. I am happy… But then I realize that recently my blood pressure has increased. I also have chronic neck pain. So I did achieve my goals but failed to notice that their pursuit created new problems for me.
Please understand: I am not saying that the headstand is bound to give you high blood pressure and a stiff neck. I am not saying that we should avoid trying something new because it is risky. This example just shows that in certain situations, success in performing yoga techniques might cause serious problems if the chosen techniques are inappropriate for the student. It may be good to set the bar high. But in yoga we often do it hastily, without seeking the advice of a mentor and without reflecting on important questions: why do it? Is it good for me? What we can do is not always the same as what we should do.
Aside from “hidden failures”, straightforward failure also yields consequences. The first symptom is frustration: why am I unable to do this? Why is so and so better than me? I am trying so hard but it is not working. We accept this frustration as part of the package but in fact it is a symptom of discomfort – “dis-ease” – according to yoga.
The second one is a chronic lack of focus: it is not working or going too slow, so I give up. Let me try Pilates. Or gardening. Or both of them at the same time. The tendency to skip from one method to another, to try several activities in quick succession, to follow several ‘gurus’ and consult several doctors, is connected with chronic dissatisfaction and the sense that we have failed at what we tried. Often, it boils down to the fact that our targets were unrealistic or inappropriate.
Alienation is another problem: I should do this because everyone says it will be good for me. Seeking help from many people and listening to many opinions makes one confused, disoriented, unable to stop when things do not feel right. I feel sad when yoga students force themselves into difficult postures without recognizing that they are in pain, because the teacher assured them that they could, and therefore should do it. Or because they believe that pain is a necessary part of the process… This inability to heed one’s instinct is truly disconcerting; indeed, it goes against yoga’s fundamental aim to know ourselves at a deeper level.
Michael Massimo: astronaut-yogi
Some of you might be wriggling uncomfortably on your chair by now. What is yoga about if it is not to improve our self? What is life about if there is no motivation to get better?
I have no objection to that, on both accounts. In fact, a broad definition of yoga is: “that which takes us where we have not been before”.
Michael Massimo is a perfect example of this “yogic attitude”, even though he may not have set foot in a yoga studio in his life. A mechanical engineer with a doctorate in philosophy, he worked for IBM in the 1980s before being accepted in the NASA space program in 1996 and joining two space missions.
What Wikipedia does not mention is that NASA rejected him four times on the grounds of poor eyesight. He could have given up but refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. He went through eye therapy to correct his vision and was accepted in the astronaut candidate program several years later. Mike clearly had what it takes to become an astronaut, it was part of his make-up (svabhava). But he had to work on himself and he did it without any negative side effects. He realized his potential.
The end AND the means
If we are to engage in yoga at a deeper level, beyond physical postures, we need to look at the big picture. We need to ask our self: why am I doing this? What do I expect to gain from it? But we should also ask: does it make me a better person? A better parent? A better friend? Does it make me feel complete or does it fuel negative tendencies?
It is often said that yoga is about the journey rather than the destination. Actually, it is about both of them, even though the process is indeed more important. The ultimate purpose of yoga is ambitious: complete freedom from any kind of suffering – mental, emotional, and physical. Yoga calls this samadhi, kaivalya, or mukti… Some people say that it can only be attained in the afterlife, but this topic is too vast to address here.
On a more practical level, The Bhagavad-Gita (India’s famous epic poem) defines yoga as “disconnecting from what binds us to suffering”: in other words, it is the ongoing effort to remove what creates discomfort. It would be good for us to occasionally remember that, along with the other definition: “The process of shifting from incapable to capable is yoga”. Surely, there will be some obstacles, and we may even realize that we need to stop along the way, for a period of time – or indefinitely – to consolidate the state that we are in.
Yoga can help us to realize our dreams, as long as these dreams are within our capacities. Instead of trying to “be what we want to be”, we should strive to understand who we are really meant to be. I guess this is what I want to say to my 14-year-old daughter.
dedicated to my 14-year old girl and beginner yogini, here she is!
 Quoted in “The wellness syndrome” by Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer (Polity Press – Feb. 2015)
 apraptasya prapti yogah: from incapable, to become capable, that is yoga.
 tam vidyad duhkham samyoga viyogam (…) : Bhagavad Gita VI.23