We may be seekers of ultimate moksha, but that moksha has to begin with liberation from our pain.

In the first installment, we looked at what the Bhagavad Gita identifies as the four goals of yoga: healing, personal gainself-unfoldment, and ultimately, enlightenment. These four goals lie at the heart of yoga practice. Although we might secretly or openly aspire for personal gain, and the last two goals appeal to us as spiritual seekers, overwhelmingly, most people are first drawn to yoga because of a desire for healing on a physical, emotional, or spiritual level. It is important to be free of pain and suffering so we can experience all that yoga has to offer. This then is the first step. Let’s explore what the Bhagavad Gita says about yoga’s intrinsic nature as a healing force.

In Bhagavad Gita 6:17, we read that for one who is entirely absorbed in yoga at all times, yoga becomes the destroyer of suffering. This is a remarkable statement. Our pain or suffering (duhkha) is frequently described as a symptom of imbalance. The idea, then, is that there’s something about living in balance that frees us from suffering. Krishna goes on to say that when we are in “that place in which thought comes to rest” (i.e., when we are established in meditation), we experience a “disjunction” from our “conjunction with suffering” (BG 6:22–23; Graham Schweig’s translation). These verses dramatically reflect the nature of yoga as a moksha shastra—a liberation teaching. We may be seekers of ultimate moksha, but that moksha has to begin with liberation from our pain. The first step is to find that place of stillness where we can disassociate ourselves from our painful sensations and emotions.

So what does it mean to be in “that place where thought comes to rest”? Many people think that to be in yoga, or meditation, is to be in a place in which there are no thoughts. This is not the case—not for me at any rate, or for anyone I know. But the place where the mind rests—well, that is a whole different matter. If it is possible for the mind to rest in a place—a place secure enough where it finds happiness over a period of time, then that experience leads to separation from suffering. This is what the Bhagavad Gita tells us. So we’ll be heading in the right direction if we can simply quiet ourselves, rest our body, mind, and nervous system a little more thoroughly, and then be able to do that again the next day, and the day after that. This is what the path of yoga offers us—a journey of unfoldment that begins with healing ourselves by resting within. These are not only the words of the Bhagavad Gita but also the words of the foundational text on yoga, the Yoga Sutra. There the great sage Patanjali says that yoga has two primary practices: one is the practice of meditation, and the other is the practice of non-attachment, or balanced living. If we can combine these two practices, we will have a healing strategy that leads us all the way to our highest goal.

When we find new approaches to duhkha (pain), we begin to transform.

The path of healing and the path of enlightenment are ultimately the same path. But they separate when the automatic desire to be free of pain becomes a struggle against pain, rather than a search for balance. Fighting mindlessly against pain only escalates and increases it. This happens in our interpersonal struggles, although we are often too close to the situation to see ourselves and our pain clearly. For example, we may feel frustrated by the fact that we are always helping our best friend out of a jam, but finding our friend never seems to reciprocate. Over time, that frustration can turn into resentment (either silent or expressed), which is not helpful for us and in fact is painful. One place where we can perhaps see this phenomenon more clearly is in our asana practice, especially in more challenging poses. If you’re in a difficult pose in class, you have a choice: either you can stay in the pose, thinking “It’s going to be over soon,” or you can do something a little bit different. You can join the discomfort. You can find some place within yourself to do the pose where you are not holding on too tightly to that discomfort, and you can back away from it enough where you can be with it—join it—without being overwhelmed by it. (Note that if you feel real pain, you should stop immediately.)

I’ve found that one of the greatest benefits of yoga is discovering that you can join a source of discomfort and not be overwhelmed by it, and in fact, find it to be the most interesting and fascinating aspect of your practice. This applies to every situation in life, whether it is physical pain or pain of a deeply rooted psychological nature. When we find new approaches to duhkha, we begin to transform. Our perspective on life shifts. That is when the exciting possibilities of yoga start to come into our view, and where the paths of healing and personal unfoldment (and eventually, enlightenment) again start to merge. Once even a little bit of that healing has taken place, yoga progresses in an altogether new and different way. This new way leads us to a higher experience of self.

So how can you and I, who might find that our struggle with pain is one thing and our yoga approach is another, learn to merge healing and self-unfoldment so that they once again become one path? In the next post in this series, we will examine the question of how to re-merge these paths so we can experience the fullness of yoga—and of life.