The Epidemic Of Ignorance And What Yoga Has To Do With It

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What’s holding you back? Whether it’s a belief that you’re not fit enough, not strong enough, not clever enough or simply not good enough, our beliefs can limit our growth and potential and define us as something we’re not.

Avidyā is one of the yogic kleśhas, usually translated to mean ignorance. The Sanskrit word ‘vidyā’ means wisdom or knowledge, and the ‘a’ in front represents the negative, the lack of, so when we discuss avidyā we are really talking about lack of wisdom or knowledge.

Now I don’t know about you, but ignorance is not something I like to think of myself as having. I like to read, always make sure I vote in elections, and in my field (that’ll be yoga then), always have my head stuck in a book. What about you? If someone implies that you are ignorant how would you respond?

Seeing Is Believing… Or Is It?

The word ignorant often comes hand-in-hand with words like stupid or idiotic, but this isn’t the case. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge, not a lack of information — heaven knows we have plenty of information.

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
~ Confucius

In yogic terms, ignorance is what happens when we consider our perceptions and beliefs to be the truth. If we think that we are unlovable, not good enough, too fat, too poor, or whatever else we believe about ourselves, we risk seriously limiting our growth and potential as human beings.

In my teaching, I sometimes struggle with my preconceptions of what a yoga teacher should look like. Overloaded with images of beautiful bendy yoginis in advanced asana postures, I can easily fall into a trap of not feeling good enough. These beliefs are often formed at some point in the past, and perhaps they even served us for some time. Our yoga practice helps us move past this by pushing us to:

  1. Let go of the past.
  2. Resist the desire to live in the future.
  3. Stop making decisions today based on an assumption of what might happen tomorrow.

Reconnect With Your Body

It’s not just in our heads that we can become disconnected with the truth. I often see people move through a yoga sequence seemingly unaware of where their body is held in space. The first step for these people is to pay attention to where the body is in the present moment, and this is where the āsana work really comes into play.

Exploring our freedom and our limitations can be a very grounding, reassuring and sometimes intensely healing process. Used properly, yoga postures help us connect back into our bodies. That being said, it can be easy to get carried away push our bodies beyond their limits. Not only can this cause injury, but it is also a classical example of the ego (or asmitā, one of the other kleśhas) getting in the way of your yoga journey.

I have a friend who has a beautiful yoga practice: she is elegant, strong, flexible and dedicated. She once confessed to me that she was feeling exhausted, to which I suggested increasing her prānāyāma and meditation practice. She looked worried about the thought if not doing her daily āsana, but she wouldn’t be giving up her practice by not practising poses — there are another seven limbs of yoga!

An attachment to āsana is the same as an attachment to a negative thought or belief. Particularly with yoga, there may be times in our life that we can’t practice our usual āsana. Perhaps we break a leg, give birth, catch a flu… or are just plain exhausted! Does this mean yoga just stops for us? If our ignorance is telling us ‘I am so-and-so and I practice yoga six times a week without fail,’ this is as much of a delusion as ‘I am so-and-so and I am unlovable.’

The World Around Us

Ignorance is often the root cause of serious social ailments like racism, homophobia and other prejudices. Would these problems exist if we saw everyone as the same, and treated each other as we’d like to be treated? “Love thy neighbour,” the Bible simply stated. Although religion is often used to justify hate filled actions, this simple statement could be all we need to create happier, peaceful communities.

“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”
~ Benjamin Franklin

To believe that the world is not in constant change is to be in avidyā. Climate change is a textbook example of ignorance in the world right now. As many people bury their heads in the sand in response to the dangerously scary changes we are causing our planet, our ignorance brings very scary consequences. The world is always changing – socially, politically, geographically, and to avoid avidyā, we need to stay aware of them.

Where Are You Experiencing Avidyā?

Let’s look back to the Yoga Sutras, where it all began:.

“Ignorance is regarding the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant and the non-Self as the Self.”
~ Sutra II:5

Although avidyā may seem to be everywhere, the solution in a way is simple. It’s about mindfully accepting that nothing – from the depths of grief to the height of happiness – is permanent. Approaching your yoga practice with a meditative attitude is essential, as is the willingness to be open, honest and kind towards yourself. Scary as it may be to imagine not being attached to happiness or joy, think of the freedom that comes from not being drawn into long fits of depression or worry. When we discover that our happiness lies in our connection to the world around us, the veil of avidyā is lifted, like clouds clearing on a grey day to reveal the sun.

As an exercise, take a moment to reflect. What happened today that you took as permanent? Perhaps the idea that you can practice a strong Vinyāsa Flow practice every single day? Perhaps you mistake being a yoga practitioner as a symbol for purity and goodness, thinking that surely you can’t get ill if you practice yoga? Or do you take your neediness for reassurance in a relationship as a symbol of love and commitment? Once you’ve found it, what will you choose to do to counteract it?

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