Yoga and the Art of Seeing Just What's Ahead

The High Line in late January

Walking on The High Line this week, I came across this whimsical piece of Art. I was immediately captivated, and it put me in the present moment. This is what great art does, and this is yoga in action.

It reminded me of this quote by Robert Louis Stevenson:

The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.

Essentially what this is telling us is that when one is focused just on what’s immediately ahead, the mind can quiet down. This is yoga in action. Quite often in life, we can get caught up thinking too many steps ahead into the future. We get caught up in the web of our big wishes, dreams and desires, wanting them to be manifested right now. And if they are really big ones, they will undoubtedly bring many challenges to us as we strive to attain them, and our journey will likely be filled with stressful moments for our minds and hearts.

But Robert Louis Stevenson is saying that the best things we have in any moment is just what is right in front of us at any moment. Notice as you are walking down the street (without your cell phone in hand!) or doing a yoga asana, how if you just focus on what’s immediately in front of you how your mind does start to quiet down. Especially if you are walking down a street whose path you have traversed many times already you will start to notice things you never knew existed and your awareness will expand as a result of the seeming newness of the moment. Or if you’re doing a difficult balance pose and you just focus on what’s a few feet in front of you instead of way out ahead, suddenly you will find that your balance is easier and your mind is more at ease.

I swim once or twice a week regularly. I’ve noticed that when I am swimming the dog paddle – which surprisingly is a stroke that in doing takes a lot of stamina to traverse the whole length of the pool – and I am focused on the end of pool, my mind starts to get uncomfortably active thinking “how long before I get to the other side?” And I’ve noticed the dog paddling gets to be a bit more uncomfortable and feels more strenuous. However, when I just drop my vision a little and focus on just what’s a foot or two ahead, suddenly the paddling becomes more comfortable and easier, and I find I am enjoying the process of getting to the other side more. My mind quiets down, as I am not focused so much on the end goal, but rather just taking each moment as it comes, stroke by stroke. I feel more present, the journey is more fun, and I find that I arrive on the other with a greater sense of mental ease.

Remember always that yoga is not about mastering headstands or touching your toes. Rather the goal of practicing yoga is to quiet down the movements of the mind. Here is what the first four of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali say with an interpretation by Swami Jnaneshvara:

1. atha yoga anushasanam. Now, after having done prior preparation through life and other practices, the study and practice of Yoga begins.
1.2 Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field. 
1.3 Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam. Then the seer rests in its true nature.
1.4 vritti sarupyam itaratra. At other times, when one is not in Self-realization, the Seer appears to take on the form of the modifications of the mind field, taking on the identity of those thought patterns.

You have come to yoga because your life experiences have prepared you for this moment. You are now ready to engage in the practice and to understand it further because you are now more curious about how it works and you are seeking the benefits it can provide, such as experiencing mental comfort and joy more often.  When the mind is not quiet — which is the goal of yoga — one identifies with the thoughts one is having and believes — wrongly — these thoughts are who one really is. Sometimes these thoughts can be very scary, and sometimes very pleasant. But nonetheless, the thoughts are not who we truly are from the yoga perspective. Rather who we truly are is the Seer of these thoughts. And we can only come to realize this when our mind is quiet.

And when the mind is quiet, suddenly – almost magically – the right path will open up for us as we reach for our dreams. Possibly one aspect of the definition of what it means to be a New Yorker is to be someone who is aspirational. Yet in our pursuit of our aspirations, we can experience tension, worry, and fear. But if you just focus on what’s immediately ahead, a lot of that discomfort can be alleviated. Try it and see if it works!

Whether you quiet down your mind by doing yoga asanas, breath work, meditation, or simply walking through life seeing what’s just in front of you, you are practicing yoga.

As you continue to maintain your new year’s resolutions and reach for your dreams,
May you not get too far ahead of yourself and just see what’s immediately ahead,
May your mind quiet down,
May you live with ease and comfort,
May you see the path of right for your life that is gently being revealed just in front of you,
May you one day reach your aspirations,
For the benefit of all beings everywhere. 

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni