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Change Yourself, Change the World

When I teach yoga asana (posture) classes, they all begin with the opportunity for the student (and myself) to take a moment and consider offering up that day's yoga practice to… something… anything.

What you offer your practice to can vary on any given day, but I usually recommend that it be something "outside" or "higher than" ourselves. This can be a person, a group of people, an idea, a cause, or even God. If it is one’s self, I suggest that it at least be the "higher" self ("not the you that was upset when they saw the weather this morning"). Sometimes people offer their practice to a person that they know is in need of their attention that day, or to a person with whom they're having some difficulty. This past weekend as I taught yoga at the New York Farm Sanctuary Hoe Down, I suggested that we offer the practice to the animals, who were not born into bodies capable of enjoying a yoga practice quite like ours. The options are wide open. But what happens on those days that WE need our own attention? Is a practice based on bettering our selves pure narcissism? Well, it can be, but I guess that depends on your motivation.

In life we have many choices to make about how we treat ourselves. We can disregard our well-being entirely, we can fixate on ourselves to the point of obsession, or we can find some middle ground. Knowledge of yoga and its postures and other exercises is wonderful, but when devoid of Jnana (wisdom), it can lead one in the direction of self-obsession. We spend all of our time thinking about this posture and that posture, about the effects of the yoga practice on our bodies, about our perceived accomplishments and short-comings, and we mistake the postures as the goal. In short, we miss the point entirely. Jnana is necessary in order to point us on the right path and to remind us that our growth in yoga practice is subtle, not perceptible through outward appearance. There are many people incapable of more than just a little movement who are living life with an enlightened mind, and in contrast, there are also those performing gymnastic-level yoga postures who are truly miserable inside.

So, we practice yoga for a greater good. With the attention and efforts of our practice dedicated to something or someone else. We renounce attachment to the fruits of our actions (as is stated in the Bhagavad Gita). And yet, there are still days that we come to our mats depleted, struggling, suffering, or in need. Anyone with a regular yoga practices knows that there are benefits from the practice. We show up in need and we leave refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to contribute more meaningfully in the world. And this is where the magic of the practice lies. Instead of this acquisition of energy being selfish, our attitude of giving changes everything.

So, we know that benefits come through practice. Better health, better mood, better life. If we are practicing with an open heart, with devotion to the process, and without attachment, yes those benefits will come. Ultimately, in addition to being in our own best interest, this increased positivity is also in the interest of the world. When our troubles leave us and our hearts lighten on the mat, we return to the world with a changed energy. Every action that we make from there forward will send out ripples of our own energy. Remember that the way that you interact with others can affect the way that they interact with the next person and the way that person interacts with someone else and on and on and on. Your bad mood (or your uplifted one) could be multiplied across humanity exponentially in the course of a day, affecting people that you will never even know exist. And in the case of a bad mood wave, I ask, what did they ever do to you?!

We have all had the experience of someone being unkind to us and having it "ruin our day." Do not inflict this pain on others, in the interest of practicing Ahimsa, or the yogic principle of non-harming. Choose your actions carefully.

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If you find that a regular yoga practice is your best bet for making your positive impact on the world, then keep it up. You are better for it, but ultimately, the world is also better! For when we make the effort to better ourselves, those around us are bettered in response. We are kinder to our partners, our children, our friends, our pets, and others who we don't even know. And the people who are around those people are bettered. Our energy is contagious.

Nicole Nicole Sopko is a Chicago-based yoga teacher who has been living a vegan lifestyle for the past 15 years and views that transition as her first yoga practice. She is also a dedicated student of Sri Dharma Mittra, who encourages students to recognize the light in all beings. A believer in the power of yoga as a lifestyle, Nicole feels that a playful yoga practice enables a person to approach the more mundane aspects of life with a lighter heart and a more accepting attitude. Her yogic journey has played a big role in her life and she feels lucky to have the opportunity to share that journey with others.

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