Sunday, October 23, 2011

Reflections on Yoga from the Inside Out

I understand that I am late posting my reflection, and I want to apologize for the delay - it has been a crazy past week and I wanted to make sure that I was able to sincerely reflect on the book because I feel that it is a powerful illustration of all aspects of hatha yoga.
I would like to begin my reflection by saying that this book could not have been introduced to my life at a more perfect time. For the past few weeks, I have struggling with weight gain, which has of course affected my own image of my body. Although it has only accumulated to about 6 or 7 lbs, I am used to a certain external body image projection and an internal perception of my body – I understand that I am not fat by any means, but just as the Christina Sell expresses throughout the book, it is the Sleeping World and the American cultural pressures that create a certain expectation, as well as an internal expectation of what we should look like. The book is a very personal narrative and testimony to the powerful influence of hatha yoga and its philosophy – but more surprisingly, it is also a comprehensible guide, a manual almost, that teaches the philosophy at a deep level which can be reflected from the inside out.
The ways in which I am able to identify with the struggles that Sell encounters throughout her life surprise me, and in a way her stories help me properly communicate to myself how I feel. Her experiences with perfectionism and criticism are narrated in a way that I never would be able to put into words – and sometimes someone else can just simply say it more effectively, particularly effectively enough that you come to realize some things about yourself. Bringing attention to how often I keep my problems and emotions to myself and build a wall around my heart, I am able to begin the process of self-reflection. The parts of the book where her story really shows how she uses yoga and the spiritual aspects of the philosophy is a really helpful tool with which I can begin to encounter these issues of mine and follow a guide with which I can identify.
Throughout the book, Sell offers useful methods to aid this pursuit of spiritual union and self-reflection. Chapter two is one of the most insightful sections into the Sleeping World and the idea of beauty. To begin to wake from the Sleeping World, we should assess why we want to, in the particular instance, lose weight in the first place – “Each person must, through a rigorous process of self-observation, come to his or her own determination of motives, intention and behavior in regard to these dynamics” (page 29). This is not only applicable to asking one why we want to lose weight, but why we are such slaves to the demands of the Sleeping World, when there is clearly nothing good that can really come out of it. I realized something about myself after reading this section – according to the height/age/gender standards, I am considered severely underweight and often health teachers, doctors, etc. confront me about my weight. Many advise me to gain a few lbs and I have always thought, absolutely not, I will never gain weight because I do not starve myself and I am happy with who I am. And then I gained a few lbs this semester and have been terrified of gaining more. I continued to read and Sell conveyed a very powerful message: “Beauty is a function of psychological health, dignity, and nobility. When a person knows fundamentally who they are, that is extremely attractive.”
My reflections thus far may not seem to have much to do with hatha yoga, but I truly believe that the first few chapters of the book illustrate the very beginning stages of being able to practice yoga from the inside out. The philosophy behind hatha yoga is really explained in a detailed, yet personalized way to make it more easily understandable to the average reader, particularly to someone that is experiencing internal struggles of his or her own. The actual philosophy of hatha yoga is put into perspective by relating it to personalized life stories and experiences, not just as they are experienced by Sell, but by her family, students, and friends. Her guru and various teachers’ insights are also very interesting explanations of the virtues to be cultivated through practicing hatha yoga. The personalized approach is really instrumental for placing the student in the context of 21st century American culture and the Sleeping World.
John Friend’s insights were a great illustration of guidance and advice, and I found his interpretations to be very straightforward, yet motivational and inspiring. Until about halfway through the narrative, I had been somewhat critical of the book as I had a very high expectation of applicable advice as to how I can practice certain things to help myself grow spiritually through physical practice. As I have not yet experienced that truly deep meditative state while practicing yoga, I was really excited about this book and hopeful for some guidance. The process can only begin, however, when one’s mind is right and is able to view the body “as a temple.” As cliché as that sounds, it is absolutely true and I realized that there are no physical actions that I can perform properly until my mind is right and I respect my body and its range of abilities. One of the most valuable reflections to be taken and utilized from the book describes the body: “Instead of a battlefield, the body becomes a vehicle for greater awareness, for spiritual practice, self-expression and celebration. The body actually becomes our salvation, our means of true authenticity and spiritual transformation” (page 48).
The values and principles behind the Way and the Work are very flexible and universally applicable within all faiths, which is an important topic for such a spiritual reflection to address. She is constantly referring to the higher Divine power in a way that can be understood from a variety of different views. One section in particular describes fighting the devil and using hatha yoga as a way to help us see the good in ourselves and overcome our darkness with good, instead of our frequent tendency to overcome darkness with more darkness and evil. This is not only a significant suggestion in progressing toward a more positive view of the body, as I described previously, but such advice is so powerful when taken in relation to Christianity and fighting “every day darkness” of the ugly realities of 21st century American culture. If one is struggling with the philosophy of yoga as compatible with Christianity, reading this book should illuminate the ability to find harmony between the two – this is not only shown through Sell’s interpretation of spirituality and the Divine, but also through some of her students’ reflections, as many of them refer to a connection with God as their ultimate Divine end. The support and connections made within the spiritual community are not unlike the Christian community, and this idea is also reflected in Sell’s explanation of the importance of community.
I mentioned previously my high expectations for the book as a valuable tool to aid my physical practice, or the Work, in order to observe my own Self. It is not until the spiritual and internal topics are addressed and realized that one can truly practice with full intention. Sell addresses the fact that one often practices yoga in a way that is inattentive, and reflecting on my practice thus far, I see the many ways in which I am doing and thinking the exact thoughts described at the beginning of the fourth chapter. When setting up my mat and waiting for Dr. Schultz, I observe my feet and the desperate need for a pedicure, even trying to hide my feet from view; I dwell on my semester-long illnesses and the work I need to be catching up on as a result of feeling so sick all the time; I often dismiss the final relaxation pose and the advantages of closing my practice with a moment of complete rest. As she points out, “Over time, a deeper relationship with the body and the self emerges because of the attention that has been paid to the integration of the body, mind and spirit” (page 52). It takes a certain amount of experience gained over time to appreciate your practice, to reach the level of being able to “practice with intention.”
Her insight into attentiveness helped me connect other aspects of hatha yoga philosophy we learn in class. One aspect of the teachings in the sutras that has consistently stood out to me throughout the semester is the idea of self-observation. Sell puts all of the teachings of the sutras into perspective and communicates their meanings and significance throughout the book, but one of the most helpful explanations that she offers relates to self-observation. In a single quote, the sutras are summed up, explained, and really put into perspective, which is important particularly because the sutras are so easily read superficially and often within a specific context: “Self-observation is about bringing an honesty and depth of clarity to manifestations, motivations and behaviors. It means to see objectively from an observer’s point of view without justifying, rationalizing, projecting, implying or excusing anything, and obviously without any feelings of pride, vanity, guilt or shame as a result of what we observe in ourselves” (page 51-52).
As a very critical person, the idea of observing oneself without judgment is not a concept that I am able to immediately embrace. I came to some realizations about myself while reading the book, particularly as I read chapter four: I must remind myself when practicing that my body has limits, and I must pay attention to such limits without criticism, and embrace my pursuit of finding myself at the deepest level. Chapter four is one of the most useful sections in describing the ways in which I can pay attention before, during, and after practice in order to be attentive and to do yoga from the inside out. Had I read chapter four as an introduction to my yoga journey, I would probably have progressed much further as a student, and probably much sooner. However, I understand that being such a perfectionist and a critical person, I may not have come to such a realization without practicing yoga without any prior insight into the idea of self-observation – so the task that lies ahead of me is to accept things the way they are, pay attention to my body’s limits and alignment, to the battles I am constantly fighting with my body, and the emotions that I am battling to keep in: “The perspective of yoga as a pathway ‘in’ can permeate our journey and confront our perfectionist strivings that steer us away from life just as it is” (page 62). As Sell puts it in another way on page 68, “alignment can be philosophical, emotional, physical, and/or intentional.”
I was very pleased to be able to relate with someone battling the pursuit of perfection, particularly someone who has found effective means of rejecting perfection in pursuit of making peace with the body, inside and out, and accepting the vulnerability that accompanies opening the heart and mind to emotions. The idea of self-acceptance and being able to accept everything as it is a powerful message and tool that is not only applicable to yoga, but to life in general: “Sometimes if we are having difficulty accepting an aspect of reality the best we can do is accept ourselves in our non-acceptance” (page 98).
Yoga from the Inside Out is such an appropriate title, and one cannot really appreciate the deeper meaning and the components of understanding the meaning until after reading the book. In fact, in a way, I regret not reading it earlier in the semester before beginning my practice in hatha yoga – I feel as if I would have more fully understood the philosophy as it applies to practice. I would have begun as a more attentive learner, and my 19-hour semester would probably have begun much more peacefully and stress-free. But as I begin to make a major transition from college life to the post-grad world in December, I feel that the lessons I have taken away from this book are still applicable to my practice in yoga for the remainder of the semester, and will remain valuable in the career world.


  1. Sydnee, I realize that I don't know you that well, but your honesty in this post is refreshing. Your reflection says a lot about the book, but what caught my eye when I was scrolling down your page was your comments on weight gain. I can empathize in that a lot of people can't understand the impact that weight has on tall people, because usually all they can see is our ability to carry weight more easily over our long frame. Amazing how numbers can shake up your world, isn't it?
    Anyways, I guess the point of this comment is to say that I understand on many levels where you are coming from - tall, doctors and family getting all over you for every detail, etc. If you ever want to chat, or talk nutrition, I am always willing to talk about my passion and major!
    Keep going girl, you will make it!

  2. Thanks Kelsey! I appreciate your response - and it is so good to hear that someone else understands. I will surely keep your expertise in mind!