(surprising truths about the real power of yoga)

illions are practicing yoga these days, and as a result, legions are living happier, healthier lives all around the globe. 

But as good as this news seems, it could be a whole lot better.


That’s because the yoga that is so often being practiced in today’s world turns out to be but a faint shadow of the full and mature science of mind that yoga truly is. That is to say, people could be getting five, ten, or a hundred times more out of their yoga, if only they were being taught about some of the lesser-known secrets the ancient yogis taught thousands of years ago.


The three Lost Secrets of Yoga offered below, are designed to provide some insight into how our yoga can offer us much more possibility than we ever imagined.


For best results, read slowly and take the time to absorb each secret. Be interested and take the attitude of a scientist, curiously experimenting with the ideas in your own practice. And don’t forget to enjoy.


Secret #1: Yoga has nothing to do with yoga



It happens all the time, people practice yoga—sometimes for five, ten, or more years—as if the goal was to get good at yoga, as if perfecting a yoga posture was some sort of holy grail, as if somehow, when they are able to do the perfect triangle pose, the perfect headstand, or perfect elbow balance, then their lives will be magically improved.


The fact is that there was a time when I couldn’t even touch my toes. Now, I can touch my toes, stand on my head, and whip out a whole library of fairly impressive yoga postures. The number of problems this has solved in my life? Precisely zero (although, in truth, trimming my toenails has gotten a bit less awkward).


Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that performing yoga postures has no value—on the contrary. There are inarguably benefits to be had from folding and bending and balancing and such. But what I am suggesting is that our physical practice of what in today’s world has come to be known as yoga is an opportunity to do much more than merely improve your yoga practice.


This is why around Yoga Pura we like to say yoga isn’t about yoga, it’s about your life.


More specifically it’s about understanding and transcending the unexamined limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging mental tendencies that have been poisoning your life for years.


The truth is that somewhere on the upside of 80% of life’s misery is self created. It’s misery that is generated not by circumstances, but by our dysfunctional relationship to those circumstances. And striking at the heart of this dysfunctional relationship, forging a new and harmonious way of relating to our life, in all the glory of its ups and downs, is where the true power of yoga really begins to shine.


The good news about this kind of misery is that, because it is self-created, it is also optional.


Great frustration, anguish, and anger don’t necessarily follow right along with all of life’s challenges. Just look around you. We all know people who seem to be masters of surfing easily over the waves that are life’s difficulties; and others who are completely bowled over by even the tiniest of ripples.


This leaves the only question as: Who do you want to be? A world class surfer smiling as you carve down the face of the day’s challenge? Or a hapless clod with a swimsuit full of sand and a belly full of seawater?


Best of all, contrary to popular belief, the ability to surf through life in this way is not an innate gift reserved only for a chosen few; it’s a skill that can be developed—and your yoga practice, artfully conducted, is your training ground.


They key is in understanding how each piece of yoga’s technology is designed to work to keep you balanced and smiling, no matter what wave you’re riding.


Surf’s up!


Secret #2: Yoga is not about getting what you want.

Bummer of a secret, right? While I know it seems so, before you fold up your yoga mat and use it to prop up that wobbly workbench in the garage, let me explain.


While your yoga practice is not about getting you what you want in the conventional sense, it is about getting you what you want in the ultimate sense.


You see, for almost all of us, there’s a significant, yet overlooked, difference between what we think we want and what we really want:


  • You may think you want to go on vacation, but what you really want is to be relieved from the feeling of boredom.

  • You may think you want a big, fat promotion, but what you really want is to be liberated from the feeling of fear of poverty.

  • You may think you want to find your soulmate, but what you really want is for that nagging feeling of loneliness to go away.


Yes, what we want, in every case, is to be relieved from some uncomfortable internal feeling. And that’s true whether you’re chasing after a shiny, new car, a sexy new body, or a pod of saved whales. What we really want is to feel better.


The problem is that we’ve been sold on an overly complicated and ham-handed solution to get there. When all we really want is to feel better on the inside, we’ve come to believe that we need to do all manner of difficult, expensive, and time-consuming things on the outside to accomplish it.


We’re confusing the means with the end, and more alarmingly, we’ve adopted an unnecessarily difficult and circuitous route to achieve that end.


But, what if there was an easier way? What if we could change our internal state directly—at no cost, with little effort, and in almost no time?


I’ll tell you what would happen, it would be a life-changing event (and I know, because I speak from experience).


When you are able to change your internal state independent of your external circumstance you become blessed with a kind of super-power, a portable happiness that armors you against the unpredictable ups and downs of life; one that leaves you feeling more in control, more energized, and more optimistic than you ever imagined possible.


Yes, I know, many will say that “it sounds boring not chasing after my dreams.” And while it may be true, it’s also a colossal misunderstanding.


Because feeling happy and fulfilled and free from angst, worry, and craving doesn’t mean you can’t chase after your dreams, it just means that you’re free to do so when and as you wish. Maybe more importantly, it means that you can chase them while feeling happy, fulfilled, and enthusiastic all along the way.


And this is why your yoga, rightly understood and practiced, can by such a transformative force in your life.


Yoga is the technology of managing our internal state directly. It’s a system of tools, techniques, and wisdom that enable us to minimize internal disturbances like worry and fear, desire and inadequacy, while maximizing the feelings of vitality and joy we crave. All without having to go to war with the people and circumstances around us.


So, while it might not be about getting you that new car that you think you want, it is about getting you that feeling of relief and fulfillment that you really want—and then you can do whatever you wish to get that car, all the while with a bounce in your step and a smile in your heart.



Secret #3: The yoga postures you can’t do are of more value to you than those you can.


So many yoga practitioners are focused on gaining the flexibility and strength and coordination to be able to master the postures of yoga. And while this might be a rewarding endeavor for the ego, it misses the point regarding some of the most important gifts your yoga practice can deliver you.


You see, while there is indeed value in achievement—it can help us feel empowered and capable contributors in the world, for example—there is also much value to be had from encountering our limitations, from coming face to face with what we cannot do. At least, when it’s done consciously and with the right understanding.


As we’ve already seen in Secret #1, the optional misery in our lives is caused not by circumstances, but by our less than helpful relationship with circumstances; with Secret #2, we saw how our yoga practice can help us to obtain what we really want, an internal feeling of ease and satisfaction, even when things aren’t going our way. Now, with Secret #3, we are invited to stop and consider how our limitations may not be limitations at all, but rather opportunities.


More specifically, to consider how the limitations that we’ve been fighting against our entire lives are the very opportunities that we need in order to increase our ability to synthesize more peace, ease, and harmony in our day-to-day lives.


Let me explain.


We all know people who remain relatively unruffled no matter what life brings. Whether they’re facing an argument with a spouse, a conflict at work, or a traffic jam that seems to have no end, they remain undisturbed and at ease. While those around them whine and cry and lament the inequity of the circumstance that has befallen them, these folks calmly carry on with a smile on their lips and a lightness in their hearts. These are the “surfers” we spoke about back in Secret #1.  


So, we must ask, what is it that allows these surfers such an evolved and harmonious relationship with what life brings? Well, a big piece of the puzzle is something called capacity.


Capacity refers to our mental and emotional resilience. It’s the trait allows us to remain spontaneously undisturbed when things don’t go our way. Think of it as a kind of armor against life’s disappointments.


I remember way back when I was four years old. I was walking alongside my parents in the Del Amo Mall in Torrance, California. In my clenched little right hand, was a string attached to a bouncing red helium balloon that I towed gleefully behind me.


As we rounded a corner toward a corridor off the food court, the balloon caught the sharp edge of a façade on the front of one of the stores and popped with a loud bang. Startled, I looked behind me and saw the remnants of the red rubber and string floating toward the ground.


I can still feel the power of the sobs that immediately overwhelmed me. Deep. Throbbing. Inconsolable.


Here’s the funny thing. Last week I had a balloon that popped, and not a single sniffle.


So what happened in the intervening half a century? Capacity.


I now, at fifty-some-odd years of age, have developed (thankfully) the mental and emotional capacity to weather a minor setback like a burst balloon. It’s my increased capacity that allows me to remain calm and relaxed despite the occurrence.


Now, to be clear, with last week’s balloon incident, I didn’t have to try to stay calm, I didn’t have to fight to hold back the tears, it was a spontaneous and effortless ease—again, even in the midst of the happening. It is this effortless ease that is the key.


Same situation, different reaction. All because of capacity.


And it’s not just me. If you look to your own life, you’ll find scores of similar examples of your own mental and emotional capacity growing over time. Capacity for disappointments, for conflicts, for challenges of all kinds. It’s part of our natural evolution as humans.


But here’s the most important piece. The expansion of our capacity can be grown and accelerated—dramatically.


Not surprisingly, your yoga practice is the perfect place to make it happen. It works like this.


As it turns out, building mental and emotional capacity is not all the different from how you build physical capacity.


In the gym, we build our physical capacity by encountering physical challenge; for example, by lifting weight. When we challenge the body to do just a little more than it can comfortably do, over time the body adapts to be able to meet the challenge. By lifting weight consciously and regularly, we deliberately expand the body’s capacity to lift weight.


The same process works with our mental and emotional capacity. And to a large degree, this is what your yoga postures are designed to do. Think about it. A well-crafted yoga practice asks us to do all manner of things we can’t do (at least not perfectly): we are asked to bend in difficult ways, stand in uncomfortable positions, balance in impossible shapes, but—and this is the important insight—we do so not to master such things, but to expand our mental and emotional capacity for such things.


In the same way that you need physical challenge to make your physical self stronger, you need mental and emotional challenge to make your mental and emotional self stronger. And when we encounter what we can’t do in a yoga posture, the mental and emotional weight of frustration, disappointment, and irritation arise. And it’s here, lifting this mental and emotional weight, where we can make our money with our practice.


So how do you lift emotional weight? Simple, you relax with it.


Once our yoga practice has created the mental and emotional weight (the so-called negative emotions), our job is to relax with them. We face our disappointment with our lack of balance, we meet our frustration with our inflexibility, we stand toe-to-toe with our irritation about our inabilities of all shapes and sizes while making space for them, while giving them permission to be.


It’s through this process that the mental and emotional weight is lifted; it’s through this process that we rewire the nervous system to relate to life’s circumstances in a new and more healthy way; it’s through this that we grow our mental and emotional capacity for life.


With this key insight, we can see how a pose done perfectly offers no mental or emotional weight—and thus no real opportunity for growth. We do the pose, pat ourselves on the back and move on. And while this may be the ideal scenario for the never-satisfied ego, from the standpoint of growing our ability to remain at ease with life’s difficulties, it’s not particularly valuable. Like lifting three pounds in the gym, it makes you feel strong, but it’s not really getting you anywhere.


So, it’s here that yoga makes the invitation for us to recognize the opportunity inherent in what we can’t do—and perhaps most importantly to notice our tendency to waste the opportunity by believing the limitation to be a problem or obstacle.


It’s through this process of creating challenging, difficult, and yes, frustrating circumstances, that our yoga practice provides us the weight on the barbell needed to grow.


Our job is not to overcome these so-called obstacles, but instead to recognize and use them to develop our mental and emotional capacity and thus find ourselves enjoying more and more of our lives, even when they do contain one of those curve balls.


As one of my first teachers told me in the chilly meditation hall of an ashram long ago: “Your yoga practice, rightly understood and maturely practiced, is the one thing that will take care of every other thing in your life. Take care to nurture it well.”

Eric Walrabenstein is a best-selling author, ordained Yogacharya, and nationally-renowned educator in the fields of yoga and mind-body wellness. His work focuses on helping people to practically apply the lesser-known aspects of yoga and mindfulness to solve some of the most urgent and immediate problems of our time.

He is the founder of Yoga Pura, one of Arizona’s largest yoga wellness centers, the creator of the BOOTSTRAP Yoga System developed for the U.S. military, and the creator of the BrightLife Method, a first-of-its-kind program to help heal addictions of every kind. Eric's work has been widely featured in the media including on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, Success magazine, Yoga Journal, and beyond.


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