Read an Excerpt
The Practice of Being Present
Yesterday is dead.
Tomorrow isn’t born.
We can only live in the present.
–yogi amrit desai
The essence of Kripalu Yoga is not a posture, a breathing exercise, or even a meditation technique. It is learning how to be fully present in the moment-by-moment experience of being alive. In the beginning stages of practice, Kripalu Yoga uses a combination of yoga postures and breath awareness to teach you how to bring yourself fully present in your body. As practice deepens, this ability to be present becomes a tangible force, transforming the techniques of yoga into powerful tools to cultivate health, facilitate psychological growth, and awaken higher potentials.
Beyond teaching you how to stretch and strengthen, Kripalu Yoga is an approach in which you learn about yourself by being present to the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that are constantly flowing through you. This type of experiential learning awakens your inner knowledge of what is good for you. It empowers you to experiment and learn from the results, leaving you more self-aware and also more empathic of others. At first on the yoga mat, and then in all areas of your life, Kripalu Yoga teaches you how to learn from your own direct experience of being alive.
Ten Feet by Ten Feet
Swami Kripalu used to tell the following story: There once was a traveler on a long and pressing journey. Night fell, and he lost his way in the dark of a thick forest. On the verge of despair, he saw a light flickering in the distance. Making his way toward the light, he found a hut in a small clearing. When he knocked at the door, an old yogi answered and said, “What is it, my friend?” “I’ve lost my way,” said the traveler, “it is a moonless night and the path I am following is hard to see.” “Come in and pass the night with me. Although my hut is humble, it is warm and I have food to share,” answered the yogi. “Thank you,” said the traveler, “but I must arrive at my destination by morning. Can you help me?” The yogi went into his hut momentarily and came back to the door smiling. “I cannot go with you, but take this lantern. It will illumine your way.” Looking forlorn, the traveler held the lantern aloft and said, “But I cannot find my way with this lantern. Its light shines only ten feet ahead, and I have a journey of many miles to complete.” The yogi replied, “Walk ten feet, and you will be able to see another ten. And when you have walked ten more feet, yet another ten will be illumined. So ten feet by ten feet, you will reach your destination.”
Swami Kripalu taught that each of us is a pilgrim, a traveler on a spiritual journey that must be completed in the short span of a lifetime. Along the way, it is inevitable that we will lose our way and encounter moments of despair and confusion. Ultimately no one can complete the journey for us, or even provide shelter from its hardships and rigors. The most anyone can do is to offer a lantern, an aid to walking step by step from the known of the past into the unknown of the future.
The Practice of Being Present
On the journey of Kripalu Yoga, the practice of being present is your lantern, a core technique you can always come back to when you have lost your way, a practice you can rely on in times of challenge. It consists of the following steps:
•Breathe Let your breath flow freely in and out.
•Relax Soften your muscles, let go of mental tension.
•Feel Open to the sensations and emotions moving through you in this moment.
•Watch Observe your experience closely, neither grasping what is pleasant nor pushing away what is painful.
•Allow Accept yourself and your experience exactly as it is, dropping the need to change it in any way.
Bringing yourself present is easy. Over time it becomes second nature. Come into a comfortable sitting posture and give it a try right now.
Simple and Profound
The practice of being present is deceptively simple. Don’t discount its potency just because it appears easy to do. Being present brings your mind and body together, creating an inner state of receptivity and focus. This receptivity acts like a magnifying glass, raising your awareness of feelings and thoughts. As you attend to whatever is present by choosing to feel it fully and see it clearly, it becomes free to pass through you. Insights naturally arise in the relaxed and spacious awareness that results, leaving you perpetually fresh to the next moment.
Learning how to be present is a somewhat paradoxical process. It begins with a compassionate self-acceptance, yet it leads to the ability to act dynamically in the face of inertia and fear. A particularly common obstacle that blocks us from being present is self-judgment, often reflected in a critical inner voice that constantly sees ourselves as not enough and may tend to blame others as well. Because self-acceptance soothes and gradually quiets this inner critic, it is an essential starting place for anyone wanting to dive deeper into their here-now experience of life. But the practice of being present doesn’t stop with self-acceptance. When the time is right, it encourages you to step beyond your comfort zone and challenge yourself in healthy ways. Breaking free of habits and fears that draw their power from past conditioning, you can explore new experiences that strengthen your body and mind.
Simple yet profound, the ability to bring yourself fully present is one of life’s true secrets. Grounded in the body, taking good care of your health becomes a matter of listening to the urges and feelings that give voice to its needs. With your mind focused on what is happening here and now, you can respond to life directly, free of past baggage and worries about the future. Being present empowers you to make conscious choices about what you want–and don’t want–to create in your life. When you are present in your body, you live with a natural ease and grace.
Here. Right here, right now,
bring your mind to this place
and time. Invite it, even if it
resists, to sit and witness
what it is to be alive. Let
there be no ulterior motive
in this moment but to be.
Rest on the waves of breath
and choose to experience
all of it. Let thoughts float
through and leave again, as
the mind slowly settles like
snow inside a shaken
This is all there is. Here.
Right here and now.
I was in the middle of a Kripalu Yoga class in 1999. The teacher led us into a seated forward bend, giving us alignment and breathing direction. He then said, “Don’t abandon your body.” Well, I looked down at my leg and realized that I’d been estranged from my body for most of my life. I thought, “Who are you? What are you? How are you?” At that moment, I knew that my body had been waiting all these years for my attention and love. It was the beginning of my healing journey, and of what has proved to be a continually amazing relationship of respect for my body.
Being Present On the Yoga Mat
You may be amazed at the rich mix of sensations, emotions, and thoughts you encounter on the yoga mat. When you become present to this inner flow, you discover that body and mind naturally gravitate toward a healthy state of balance. Feeling sensation, tensions release and the body begins to heal. Being with the rise and fall of emotion, defenses drop away and emotional balance is restored. Observing the flow of thought, distractions fade and the mind calms. Kripalu Yoga teaches that underlying sensation, emotion, and thought is the flow of a life force called prana that can be felt as tingling currents of energy. When you attune to this energy, all these levels of your being naturally come into harmony. Over the course of a yoga session, you use the techniques of yoga to come back in touch with yourself and rest there, present and relaxed.
For many years, I have pushed aside the conference tables of our Boston law firm to teach yoga to CEOs, venture capitalists, and other busy professionals. One time a leading corporate lawyer who had worked in the same high rise for over twenty years came up to me after class and said, “I never thought I could feel so relaxed and at peace in this building.” It was a beautiful moment, and I also know he was learning a major lesson. A big part of the quality of our life experience is determined by how present we are, and not by our outer circumstances.
Being Present Off the Yoga Mat
Yoga practice is just that–practice. The fruit of practice is being more present in your life. The next time you find yourself stuck in traffic and feel your blood pressure rising, apply the principles of breathe, relax, feel, watch, and allow. Turn an unavoidable inconvenience into an opportunity to relax and center yourself. While selecting items from a salad bar or menu, bring yourself present. In touch with your body’s needs, and awake to all the sights and smells, you can make the best possible food choices.
As your practice deepens, experiment with remaining present in the face of strong emotion. Watch what arises in your mind during a frustrating moment at work, or after a heated exchange with a family member. Closely observing your inner experience in moments of challenge reveals volumes about yourself. When you are present in moments like these, life itself becomes your teacher. Connected to your body, attuned to your emotions, aware of your thoughts, you let the moment-by-moment experience of life touch, teach, and transform you.
I used to spend most of my waking hours planning the next day, week, or month. Although I was driven and passionate about life, I was never satisfied with myself or my family. I read self-help books and listened to tapes, but something was missing. Then Kripalu Yoga taught me how to breathe into life, feel its wonder, and watch it unfold with all its power and miracles. As a result, my relationship with my husband and daughter has deepened. I honestly love myself, the work I perform, and the people I reach out and touch. Kripalu Yoga has given me a new lease on life.
Being Present Versus Being Perfect
Kripalu Yoga is not about attaining any form of external perfection. It is not about developing the perfect body, doing perfect yoga postures, or living the perfect yoga lifestyle. Kripalu Yoga is a way to be fully present to the reality of life unfolding in the moment–however it is showing up. Rather than teaching you how to get somewhere else, it helps you be fully where you are.
From the Trade Paperback edition.