Among the six darshanas (schools) of Indian philosophy, yoga provides the tools—postures, breath training, meditative methods, and self-reflection—to actively engage with inner life. As a result, yoga is described as a moksha shastra, a “liberation teaching.” But liberation from what? Keep in mind that although yoga may be described as a moksha shastra, it is not an escapist path. Yoga does not tell us to turn away from the world or to avoid human affairs. Rather, yoga calls for self-effort and self-reflection. Its aim, in the words of the Bhagavad Gita, is to arrive at a “disjunction” from one’s painful “conjunction with suffering” (BG 6:22–23). This is the underlying meaning of moksha and the goal of all practice—freedom from pain and suffering.
Yoga is described as a moksha shastra, a “liberation teaching.”
Faith and the Inner Healer
The journey toward such a remarkably new perspective is one in which we gradually transcend ourselves. Yoga helps bring about this sort of change—but how? What shifts make new learning possible through yoga? As we have seen in earlier Yoga as a Healing Art posts, the needs that bring us to a yogic path are varied. They include the need for healing, for personal unfoldment, and for spiritual awakening. In each case, shraddha (faith) is said to characterize the beginnings of the path. Even the repair of minor maladies (a cut finger or a runny nose) awakens faith—faith in the strength and presence of an inner healer. In each demonstration of health restored and strength recovered, we gain even more certainty that there is a healing presence in us. And by turning toward balance and aligning ourselves with such basic tools as rest, breathing, and quiet detachment, we invite this force of healing to come forward.
Even when health is more seriously undermined—challenged by chronic illness, emotional distress, or severe pain—faith in the healing process anchors our search for relief and awakens confidence in the effectiveness of yoga techniques.
For most of us, these techniques begin with asana, a collection of postures and supportive practices awakening awareness in the physical body. A well-designed asana routine can yield fundamental changes in the way we respond to pain. As time passes, calmer reactions, more stable moods, and beneficial changes in lifestyle can become part of a new skill set.
It is inevitable that progress in yoga leads to the desire for more powerful healing tools. Yoga manuals often seem to offer just that—ways to stretch our limits. But while demanding postures may entice us, less demanding strategies are often a better fit for healing. A practical approach is to take a restorative attitude toward asana work. Slow and patient stretching; systematic muscle strengthening; coordinating movement with breath awareness; attention to the energetic dimensions of practice—all these strategies help.
Frameworks for Self-Reflection
Another approach is self-reflection. Spiritual life is reflective by nature. Its themes—health and healing among them—prompt us to use various aspects of yoga teaching to examine ourselves. Over time, this self-examination leads to the recognition of samskaras (habit patterns) that shape our daily routines and fuel our desires. Students of yoga are particularly interested in understanding these patterns of inner life, thus learning to gain mastery over them and their negative consequences.
A particularly beneficial strategy is to nurture the tools of contemplation and self-reflection built into the yoga system itself. One example of these tools is the collection of the yamas and niyamas, the restraints and observances that are the foundation and first two limbs of raja yoga (Yoga Sutra 2:29).
- Moderation of the senses
- Determined self-effort
- Trustful surrender to the Infinite
Efforts to practice the yamas and niyamas are an essential ingredient in the yogic process of introspection. When we consciously quiet our attention and turn it inward to contemplate how we are or are not practicing these 10 commitments, it is naturally drawn toward the most refined part of the mind, buddhi. There, sensitive both to what is pure and what is impure, buddhi guides us. It provides an inner sense of whether we are on the right track, centered within ourselves—even in the face of competing distractions—or whether we are starting to veer off the path, and what we might need to do to get back to center. When the approach we take is to align ourselves with what we sense to be wise and true, then self-reflection will lead to balance and self-understanding. For instance, if we feel angry, we can respond in one of two ways: we can react and strike out in return, which will cause even more harm, or we can step back, take a few deep breaths, walk away, and contemplate what triggered our anger and why—and then work to resolve it.
You can cultivate a similar practice of contemplation based on the list of nine obstacles (antarayas) and the symptoms accompanying them, found in Yoga Sutra 1:30–31. Here is the list of each:
- Mental inertia
- Inability to withdraw from sense cravings
- Clinging to misunderstanding
- Inability to reach higher ground
- Inability to retain the ground that has been attained
- Unsteady limbs
- Disturbance of inhalation
- Disturbance of exhalation
These obstacles indicate blocks in the unfolding process of yoga. They represent circumstances in which equanimity and concentration have been diminished and replaced by one or more roaming tendencies of the mind. But the nine obstacles and their accompanying symptoms are also opportunities. They act as food for introspection and supply us with questions—ones to be answered by our practice: Of the nine obstacles listed above, which is the main one keeping my practice (and my life) from being less than perfect? What symptoms do I notice that are holding me back? Identifying these tells us what to prioritize—where to start, and where we might need more guidance, self-effort, or a change in attitude. In the process, we start to view more clearly our own transformative journey and the signposts along the way.
Yoga reminds us that all suffering is a teacher and that its lessons are for our upliftment.
We shouldn’t imagine that reflective thought alone, without the other practices of yoga, automatically brings productive change. In meditation, we often see our shortcomings as well as our potentials. Existentially, we abide midway between the two—glimpsing the final goal but often falling short of it. Ultimately, yoga restores balance at our deepest levels. In the process, we learn to listen more attentively to buddhi, the voice of our heart—a voice frequently lost among competing inner perspectives. Yoga reminds us that all suffering is a teacher, and that its lessons are for our upliftment. With that understanding, we can begin to see periods of reflection as opportunities—gems of quiet, shining light.