There are many different ways to describe the goal of an authentic yoga practice.
Personally I like the term Self-Realization. It promises that through the discipline of your yoga practice you can realize who you really are, and I think that’s a worthy pursuit.
But it seems to me like the term Self-Realization has come to mean something else. I think the average yoga practitioner today has been led to believe that Self-Realization is Self-Actualization, which is a completely different thing. And by striving to become Self-Actualized they are instead becoming hopelessly Self-Important.
Wikipedia defines Self-Realization as the “fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one’s character or personality.” I humbly disagree. That isn’t what yoga had in mind at all.
Self-Actualization is the desire for self-fulfillment, not Self-Realization. To seek out that which is truly unique in oneself and to express it in all its wonder. This idea resonates with the inner spirit of all that is to be a modern American. Be all that you can be, right?
But that’s not a yogic concept. Yoga wasn’t interested in enhancing your personality but giving you a vehicle to transcend it.
Two thousand years ago a wise sage named Patanjali defined yoga as the cessation of the agitations of the mind. He was indicating that there is an experience to be had when the mind moves to stillness.
The sensations of your physical body, the quality of your breath, and every other aspect of a well-designed yoga practice intentionally funnels your attention inwards and quiets your mind.
As thought stills you have the unique opportunity to discover that you are not your body, not your breath, not your emotions, and most importantly, not your mind – which includes your personality. You are that which witnesses these things, and if you can witness something, it can’t possibly be who you are.
In this state of stillness you discover that you, at your innermost core, are pure perception and bliss. And in this present moment, you are divine, whole, complete and perfect.
Once grounded in this experience, you become a Self-Realized being. You have realized your true nature.
A Self-Actualized being is not necessarily Self-Realized. A Self-Actualized being is one who lives their life expressing their fullest potential. Rather than working consciously to detach from their personality, one who seeks Self-Actualization through their yoga practice risks glorifying it, and cultivating something else entirely, Self-Importance.
Self-Importance is anti-yoga and Wikipedia nails it on this definition, “an exaggerated sense of one’s own value or importance.”
As your body opens to the beauty and the grace of the postures you may falsely assign a sense of value to the aesthetic expression itself AND to your ability to demonstrate it.
Once you concern yourself with the outward expression of your physical practice and how it appears to an observer, the direction of your attention is moving in the opposite flow intended by yoga. Instead of moving inward towards a state of stillness, your attention moves outward and becomes scattered.
With all of the opportunities that modern mass communication presents to the average yoga practitioner (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube), and with so many yoga studios covered floor to ceiling with mirrors, it’s really no wonder why Self-Important people are far more common in the yoga industry than Self-Realized ones.
I think it’s important to examine your own reasons for practicing yoga to discover if they are truly in line with the original intentions. You can use movement to create many different things. Postures can be a form of exercise, a means of gaining attention, or a pathway to discovering spiritual truths that have the power to radically transform your life.
Which do you prefer? And why?