For example, what about our assumption that the healthier we are the happier we are? Is it possible to be happy and not healthy? Sorry for throwing a wrench into your mind’s gears, but according to the Yoga teachings, we can be happy regardless of the state the body is in. My teacher, Swami Satchidananda, would say, “We are happiness personified. We are Mr. and Ms. Happy. “
Happiness – better yet, joy – is our essential nature. We don’t feel that joy when we are caught up in the business (and busy-ness) of the mind. Instead, we have identified with our thoughts (see Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book I Sutra 4), which limit our world to the body, the senses, and all the desires that flow through them into the mind.
There’s a great story about Ramana Maharshi, an Indian saint, who had a cancerous tumor on his arm. He had a number of surgeries to try to remove the tumor – always without anesthesia. During one surgery, he famously said, “Poor arm,” showing compassion for his body, and total non-attachment as well.
That level of non-attachment seems superhuman – and perhaps it is. It might even reflect an unhealthy lack of body/mind connection. Ironically, the Yogis weren’t that concerned with the body/mind connection, rather they were looking for the ultimate connection between the individual and the Divine.
If our happiness isn’t based on our health – or for that matter on any external thing – that means that we are the ultimate source of our own happiness. That is to say, our Divine essence is the source of our joy, and our job is to remember that it’s there.
Many years ago, I had a student named Zelda who taught me this lesson. Zelda had advanced Multiple Sclerosis, (M.S.), with only limited movement in her face and hands, yet she was a very joyful person. She used to come to a weekly Yoga for M.S. class that I taught even though it was very challenging for her to get there. She lived in a residential hospital, and had to wait long hours to get picked up by the public paratransit van.
She would often be waiting for me when I arrived for class, and would be waiting long after the class had ended. One day she approached me after class and asked for some advice with her meditation practice. We had been practicing meditation on the mantra, “Om Shanti,” which means peace. She said, “I can’t seem to keep my mind focused on ‘Om Shanti.’”
In my mind, I immediately jumped to my well-worn script about meditation for beginners. (Concentrate on one thing, if the mind wanders bring it back…on and on…) Then Zelda continued, “I try to repeat ‘Om Shanti’ but my mind keeps going back to the Lord’s Prayer, which I’m constantly repeating.” Needless to say, I was amazed. I gained my composure and said, “Don’t worry about ‘Om Shanti.’ You’re doing great.” Clearly Zelda’s meditation on a mantra – in this case the Lord’s Prayer – worked to keep her mind peaceful and allowed her to connect with her joy even in a very challenging body.
A few weeks later, Zelda’s doctor said she couldn’t come to class anymore because she was getting bedsores from sitting in a wheelchair for so many hours waiting to get picked up and dropped off. I told her that I would try to organize a Yoga class at the hospital where she was living, and although it took a few months, I did.
The students in this class at Zelda’s residential hospital had very limited movement, and challenged me to be creative and come up with new ways to practice. My assistant, Jai Bezaire, did a beautiful job teaching this group, and eventually took over the class. But, there was one problem: Zelda never came to class.
After each class, I would go visit her and ask why she hadn’t come. She always had one excuse or another. Finally, one day she said, “I don’t come because I just don’t want to be with all those sick people!”
Zelda didn’t identify as a sick person, and she wanted to be surrounded by other ‘healthy’ people who didn’t identify that way either. She taught me that sickness is a state of mind, and that no matter what condition the body is in, we have a choice in the condition of our mind.
Ultimately, the power to feel joy is in our own hands, and yet we don’t realize it. We’ve given our power away to anyone and anything that we become attached to. Yoga shows us a different way – rather than seeking joy and happiness outside – we can turn our awareness within and find what we are seeking. Yoga is empowerment.