"Through friendliness, kindness, and compassion, strength comes."
---Patanjali's Yoga Sūtras 3.24
The Jivamukti Yoga Focus-of-the-Month for June, written by Yogeswari, explores the question “What is Strength?” Strength, of course, can mean physical strength. The āsanas of yoga help us to build physical strength (as well as flexibility), and the breathing practices of yoga—known collectively as prānāyāma—strengthen the muscles and organs of respiration in addition to affecting the subtle energetic body.
Strength can also mean, as Yogeswari says, “being able to withstand varying degrees of pressure, including mental and emotional.” Yoga helps us to develop this inner strength and stability. Practices such as meditation, equanimity, and mindfulness help us develop the ability to respond skillfully to challenges rather than to react habitually to them. In other words, we become more resilient and less reactive. It is inner strength that gives us the ability to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Tapping into our inner strength can be thought of as tapping into our inherent, fundamental goodness and our natural wisdom and warmth. We begin to develop compassion for ourselves and others.
Strength can be moral as well. It takes strength and courage to stand up for what is right; to step in when help is needed; to speak up when it would be easier and more comfortable to be silent. Yoga helps us with developing moral strength. For example, consider the Yamas, the first limb of the eight-limbs of yoga. The Yamas, known as the great or universal vows, are non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, wise use of sexual energy, and non-greed (see Yoga Sūtras 2.30-2.31). They provide a moral compass to guide us in our interactions with others. My teacher Sharon Gannon says the best thing we can do to uplift our own lives is to do all we can to uplift the lives of others. In other words, the more selfless we become, the more we receive.
Spiritual strength, of course, is developed through yoga practice too. The practices of yoga help us to overcome our challenging tendencies toward greed, selfishness, hate, jealousy, and fear. When we replace those less skillful emotions and tendencies with more skillful ones such as generosity, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love—we are moving closer to the state of Yoga (Union). The Yoga Sūtras give us some valuable tools to help with building our spiritual strength. Consider Yoga Sūtra 2.33, “When the mind is disturbed by wrong and improper thoughts, one should ponder on the opposites, that is, on constructive thoughts and driving forces” (Translation by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati). So, for example, when you notice yourself thinking something negative, stop and think something positive instead. In Sūtra 1.33, we find a practice for cultivating happiness, compassion, joy, and equanimity and to maintain our innate serenity of mind. The instruction is to feel happiness for people who are happy, compassion for people who are suffering, joy and delight in those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those for whom our feelings may be less than loving—the difficult, challenging, wicked, or non-virtuous people we encounter. Make it a practice to notice honestly how you are feeling toward people you interact with daily and see if you can apply the teaching of Sūtra 1.33.
Yoga teaches us to move from being self-centered (selfish) to being other-centered (selfless) and eventually, ultimately, we move to the state of Union, of not seeing others at all—of seeing only One. Through practicing friendliness, kindness, and compassion, we move from selfishness to selflessness, from the illusion of separation to the reality of Unity. The highest aim of yoga is realization of the Oneness of Being—enlightenment. The teachings say that to realize enlightenment we have to let go. We cling so tightly to our identities, to our small “s” selves, and it takes great courage, faith, and spiritual strength in order to, as Ram Dass says, “let go of who we think we are so as to identify with who we really are.” And who are we, really? According to the teachings of yoga, we are Love itself— beings of limitless joy, boundless compassion, and unconditional love. And while realizing the Oneness of Being may seem far off, if the last year has taught us anything, it is that we are stronger together, and that the way to come together is through friendliness, kindness, and compassion. That’s where we start.