Most of us who practice yoga will at some point find ourselves facing internally motivated choices that could radically alter our lives. That’s when we need to know 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 in working with the fear and confusion that change can bring.
It is yoga – in its widest sense – which gives us the strength and the insight we need to navigate the most radical forms of change.
Its not just that yoga offers tools. Even more important than 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; the knowledge that real strength is found in stillness, and that our true self is not the shifting, fearful egotistic person that we sometimes seem to be.
One test of our yoga practice is how it serves us during times of big change. Yogic teachings won’t necessarily keep you from feeling scared, overwhelmed, or confused. But they can rise up from 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 asking 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.
1. Recognize that change is inevitable
Buddha’s second Noble Truth is called the truth of impermanence—meaning, change is inevitable, continuous, and unavoidable. Everything changes. Just realizing that fact can protect you from that most disempowering of reactions to change: “Why me?”
What the Buddhists call impermanence, a tantric yogi would call Shakti—the intrinsic, dynamic power of the divine. Shakti is the intelligence of the cosmos, the creative force within all of life. On the deepest level, the endlessly change-full nature of life is the hallmark of Shakti, the cosmic, divine feminine energy that continually brings things into manifest being, keeps them going for a while, then dissolves them. Every moment, every enterprise, every cell is part of this flow of creation, sustenance, and dissolution. This flow is happening on a microcosmic level and at a macrocosmic level simultaneously. It’s happening through the ups and downs of your life, the flow of growth, decay and renewal in your cells and in the world, in the flow of thoughts and emotions in your mind. If you understand the divine nature of the process of change, it becomes easier to greet change with honor, surrender to it, and even partner with it.
2.View the change as an initiation
In traditional societies, every phase of life was regarded as an initiation into a new way of being, and marked with a ceremony that often asked the initiate to step into the unknown in some way, whether through a prayer vigil, a night spent in darkness, or even answering questions that tested their skills. Nowadays, we don’t always do the ceremonies, but we still undergo initiations. Changing careers, moving to a new city, deciding to go back to school or drop out of school are all initiatory experiences, in that they ask you to step outside of habits, test your skills, and, for a time, inhabit the unknown. More, each of these changes will subtly or even dramatically redefine you. You won’t be quite the same person after you step out of the old situation and into the new. The change itself, if you go through it consciously, is the doorway into the next stage of growth—one that propels you into a deeper relationship with yourself and the world.
An example: Twenty-four-year-old Frances accepted a job offer to teach English in Seoul, then freaked when she got there, overwhelmed by loneliness and culture shock. What convinced her to stay was recognizing the ways in which being a foreigner freed her from old self-descriptions and helped her find a new way of being herself. When your life is changing, consider the ways in which the change will expand you, teach you about yourself, show you both your limits and your capacity to move beyond them. The more you can accept this as an initiation process, the easier it is to discover the gifts in change.
3. Practice meditation to stay steady through uncertainty
The deep uncertainty that arises during processes of change is perhaps the most daunting part of the experience. Why? Because a true change process will involve surprises, reversals, false starts, and periods of coming to a dead halt. In these moments, you’re likely to experience fear, anxiety, anger, irritability, sadness, grief, and the physical and psychological contraction that often goes along with feeling uncertain and unclear. Your gut tightens and your mind begins spinning one of your victim stories: your worst-case-scenario story, or your “I just don’t have what it takes” story, or your “I’ll never get what I need” story. And your next move is nearly always some form of escape. You turn on the TV, or eat something, or call a friend to complain.
But the real antidote to the discomfort of uncertainty is to move into it rather than away from it. You connect to the way the discomfort feels in your body. You let yourself feel it. You let go of the story that inevitably accompanies feelings of discomfort. And you just stay present with yourself, with your feelings, without resistance or expectation. The more you can be present with uncertainty, the more you can let the change process take place naturally and effectively.
It’s much easier to stay steady through a big change process when you have a meditation practice, because meditation teaches you how to keep going back into your center, the core Awareness that is your contact point with the Self, and that aligns your individual consciousness with the heart of the universe. Your meditation practice can be as simple as attending to the breath or repeating a mantra, or as subtle as tuning into the awareness that knows you’re thinking, or as physically centering as breathing into the heart. The important thing is that it connects you to your innate sense of Being, the Presence inside you.
4. Use self-inquiry to uncover your truest desire
Self-inquiry, or atma vichara, is the core yogic process for navigating change. It’s a simple but effective process of asking yourself core questions, like “What is my true desire in this situation?” and “What outcome would be the best for everyone?” As answers surface, write them down.
Next, sit for a moment in meditation, following your breath, until you feel a sense of connection to Presence. Say to yourself, “May my deeper Self, the teacher inside me, tell me what is the right thing to do.” Then ask yourself the self-inquiry questions again and write down whatever responses come up, even if some of them seem irrelevant.
Now, look at what you’ve written and look for common threads that should give you a sense of what your deeper Self wants for you. Getting in touch with your deepest, truest desire will help you organize the entire change process.
5. Make a sankalpa (a strong statement of personal intention)
A sankalpa is a clearly articulated, affirmative statement about what you intend to do. When you make a true sankalpa, you call on the power of your personal will, and align your personal will with the cosmic will. If you have gone through the self-inquiry process and have a sense of what your true desire is, you should be able to make a sankalpa that is in line with your truest wish. The deeper the alignment between your core desire and your intention, the more likely you are to successfully initiate a life-change that supports that alignment.
That said, it’s important to recognize that your sankalpa will change according to the time and the circumstance. At one point, the sankalpa may be, “I have a job that I love and that allows me to spend time with my children.” At another time, it may be, “I am skillfully creating stepping stones to finding a new home”. At another time it may be, “I am healing my body and my spirit.” Notice that each of these sankalpas is stated in the present tense. That’s because a sankalpa is not merely a wish, or even a statement of purpose. It’s an articulation of direction that brings your goal into the present moment goal. What gives a sankalpa its strength is that it assumes the outcome is not just certain, but has already occurred.
6. Take action, one step at a time
The heart of the practice of yoga is abhyasa—steady effort in the direction you want to go. So when you are initiating a life-change, consider the steps you need to take to make it happen, again using the technique of self-inquiry. Rita, for example, is contemplating divorce and has to consider stepping-stones to a different life. Rita is not sure how she would cope financially, much less run her yoga studio without her husband’s support. And then, of course, there is her daughter’s well-being to consider. She asks herself, “Where will I live?”, “Who will be my friends and support group?”, “How will we help our daughter cope with the changes?”, “What other sources of income do I have besides the studio?”, “How will I pay the studio rent if my husband can’t or won’t?” Thinking through her options and possibilities helps settle Rita’s fears and devise a plan, even though she doesn’t have all of the answers to her questions yet.
Once you’ve thought things through, it’s crucial to take action. Effective abhyasa, in the yoga of life-change, is to take things one step at a time so you avoid feeling overwhelmed. Rita’s initial step is to increase her workload with private yoga clients. Her second step is to take a course in Conflict Resolution, an area where she has worked in the past and for which she feels an affinity. Taking actions that could lead her to financial independence gives her the sense of stability and the confidence to begin talking to her husband about a divorce. As you take your first small steps, you’ll usually find that each step leads to another—and that opportunities begin to show up in response.
7. Practice vairagya (letting go)
One of the positive byproducts of making a life-change, from a yogic perspective, is the opportunity it gives you to practice vairagya, which is usually translated as detachment, or letting go.That means letting go of the past, letting go of the way things used to be, letting go of your fear, your grief, your old relationship, your old job. You don’t want to let go in a ‘hard’ way, forcing yourself to be a samurai of change. Instead, let yourself grieve the losses or feel the anxiety. But then breathe out and imagine that whatever you’re holding onto is flowing out with the breath. Or offer it to the universe with a prayer—something simple like, “I offer this change and everything associated with it. May the results be of benefit to all beings.” You do this again and again, until you experience the feeling of freedom that comes with real vairagya.
In my experience, just remembering to let go—moment by moment—can all by itself be the inner key to navigating positive and radical change. In fact, if all you learn from your change process is a little bit of letting go, you’ll have received one of the great gifts of change—and you’ll be one giant leap closer to living the life of your dreams.
EXCERPT FROM AN ARTICLE BY SALLY KEMPTON
ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON SALLYKEMPTON.COM
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It. Her website is www.sallykempton.com.