“A ship is safe in the harbour, but that is not what ships are built for.”
My friend who is moving from a major metropolitan area to the remote town of Katherine in the Northern Territory, Australia was sent this quote to help deal with this big life change.
This conjured for me a recent sailing trip I did down the coast with strong winds and three metre swells. The boat I was in usually races at Lake Burley Guerkin (as my sailing buddies call it). During these races we have often sit bobbing safely in the water in the hot sun waiting for the faintest a gust of wind. But on this day at the coast I saw the boat in all its glory. It was like it came to life and found its true expression. It bashed against the waves and rode the swells with impressive grace, facing the power of the sea with its own power and confidence.
In some ways I think this is what yoga is training us for. It is not making us immune from stress, anxiety or depression, rather It is building us up so we are better able to ride the “slings and arrows” of life and move seamlessly from safe harbours to high swells and back again. Yoga works towards increasing our ability to self-regulate during times of stress, frustration and difficulty. It increases our ability to go into the eye of the storm and witness what we are going through and make choices on how to act. It builds our understanding of what we can control and what we can’t.
Yoga moves our bodies through shapes that can bring inevitable discomfort physically, emotionally and mentally. The pose begins when we want to come out of it. It is at this moment we are in the storm and the skill of responding rather than reacting is being asked of us. The process of svadhya (self-study) begins. What is making us want to come out? Is it purely physical or is there an element of self-talk or an overwhelming emotion that makes us want to exit? Can we learn to do stressful things in a relaxing way?
Yoga does not make us immune from life’s stresses and anxieties. It works to build our skill to manage these stresses both good and bad. It breaks us out of the habit of always gravitating to the things we like and teaches us to embrace the good the bad and the downright difficult with equal measure. Yoga builds our skill to face the powerful forces that hit us and to move through them, rather than around them, so we can arrive back in the harbour safe and with those on board (friends, partners, children) safe as well. -although not necessarily unaffected. I came out of that sailing trip safe but soaked from head to foot and full of adrenalin.
Increasing our ability to self-regulate betters our capacity to deal with underlying problems in our relationships and helps us to understand the frustrations we may face with careers and other life challenges. It would be nice to think that eventually we will achieve a state of deep serenity, but this hope itself can create a subtle aggression of self-improvement. It is important to come to yoga with an element of self-enquiry and self-love and no expectations of results. The Bhagavad Gita says “Do your duty, but do not concern yourself with the results.” The yogi K. Pattabhi Jois says: “Practice yoga and all is coming.” The idea of going into the storm, riding the waves and taking what comes is nicely expressed in the poem The Guest House by Rumi
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks