Rumi’s poetry speaks of our lifelong quest to unite with the divine as if with a lover, a yearning that is both spiritual and embodied, transcending language, rationality, and humanity–we are the lily, the moon, and the “seawater [that] begs the pearl to break its shell.”
Two years ago I began working with this poem in a yoga retreat–working with its insights as a way to confront something I’d been doing without naming it, a kind of applied yearning, a use of asana to manage the host of physical, emotional, vocational, and interpersonal transitions that arise for so many of us at mid-life. During moments of grief or frustration I would hold poses for extended periods of time, tuning into the sensations of discomfort, weakness, strength. If asked about this practice I would say I was practicing self-acceptance–but it was also an attempt to transcend the person I thought I’d become, someone I didn’t love enough, living a life that felt too mundane and small for my big heart.
I sometimes called it “fuck you yoga”–a defiant, satisfyingly ego-centered vinyasa. I would do vasisthasana variations on a paddleboard, cranking Martha Wainright and Amy Winehouse anthems into my ears, because I could–which is to say that I was reminding myself that I could, at fortysomething, be someone who did that with my body. It made me feel youthful and empowered. I extended my limbs, testing my limits, forever reaching toward an experience of self that felt more true. At the time I understood this practice as a moving meditation, a prayer even; I was beseeching the universe for something beyond the self I was afraid I had settled into being. In retrospect, I’d now call it more of an incantation. I was seeking release.
But a part of me was searching for something else–groundedness, compassion, a way to feel strong without feeling reckless. A different kind of empowerment. An empowerment that comes from connection rather than stoic self-reliance. My illusion, the one that seemed to have sustained me for a decade living alone in a broken house with an anxious dog–was that my toughness would preserve me. I’d periodically make crappy decisions, but I would endure the consequences and keep on trucking. I felt grateful to the universe for the privilege of my independence and guilty for not making enough of it.
In his first book on the Bhavagad-Gita, yogi Ted Cox discusses three categories of maya–illusions that block each of us from recognizing our true Self. These illusions conceal truth and feed our self-doubts, manifesting in three ways: mayiya-mala, a sense that we are different from everyone else, which tempts us to compare ourselves to others and become jealous of them; karma-mala, a feeling that we aren’t doing enough and lack the resources to do better; and anava-mala, a belief that we are separate from the divine, that we are imperfect, unworthy and incomplete.
Cox explains that the anava-mala is potentially the most debilitating illusion because it reinforces the others: we erect boundaries that feed our isolation and keep us stuck. On the other hand, anava-mala is also a catalyst for personal transformation, an “urge to merge with something greater than ourselves” (142-43). This simultaneous, seemingly contradictory denial of/yearning for connectedness is the yoga of living with our illusions.
Those of us who so fervently seek a better life, a different life, a truer life are missing the point that we are already our best selves. We can change things about the way we live, but we are always already wonderful–and, deep down, so is everyone else.
Rumi says, “There is some kiss we want with our whole lives, the touch of Spirit on the body. . . .” As an embodied practice, asana can help us perform acts of grace in moments of uncertainty. We can experience the wonder of that. And what about the yearning? The yearning becomes a reminder of what we already have.