Yoga for change
The power of yoga to embrace change in an uncertain world. By Jane Macpherson
If you wish to improve your ability to cope with and embrace change, it’s pretty hard to find a better solution than yoga. That’s the view of Campbell Macpherson, international business adviser on leadership, strategy and change (and who also happens to be my husband!).
As a yoga teacher myself, I couldn’t agree more. And so I asked him a little more about the subject of embracing personal change, which forms the basis of his new book, The Power to Change. The edited transcript of our conversation later went on to become a complete chapter in the book (chapter 22, The Power of Yoga), which I co-authored.
He’s the outcome of our chat about using yoga to embrace personal change.
We are living through such uncertain times: full of stress, anxiety and change. And yoga has an essential part to play in helping us to cope with, and accept, all of it.
Parinama, the knowledge that everything is always changing, is one of most fundamental concepts in yoga. In Sutra 11.15, Patanjali details the potential causes of suffering, or duhkam, and a primary cause is change (parinama). We suffer when change doesn’t go our way. Of course, the degree of suffering will vary depending upon the severity of the change, but even ‘good’ change is a net gain, involving a loss of some kind.
Yoga teaches us to observe that things are always changing and then make choices that enable us to accept and embrace the change.
Earlier this year, we all had to adapt the way we work and live suddenly, without knowing the full consequences of these new ways of life. My yoga classes and private yoga therapy sessions switched to Zoom overnight – which was a steep learning curve for students and teacher alike!
Almost nine months on and there is no sign of the uncertainty abating. We are starting to fear that our future may be dominated by new waves of this virus with hospitals filling once more, bars, restaurants and gyms emptying, and unemployment queues continuing to lengthen.
Even before the onset of any ‘second wave’ of Covid-19, an underlying feeling of anxiety was in the air. This has now been amplified. We are worrying about the health of our parents; either that they may catch the virus or that another lockdown will be disastrous to their wellbeing. We worry about the mental health of our young adult children, many of whom have arrived at university to be locked in their rooms or are entering a crumbling job market. We worry about our own jobs, our businesses, our livelihoods. We worry about our partners. We worry about not being able to see our elderly relatives, about whether the family will be able to get together for Christmas this year, about when we will be able to see overseas friends and family again. We worry that the government may not know what it is doing. We worry about the inevitable increase in homelessness and the accelerating demand for food banks over what could be shaping up to be a very bleak winter.
Fuelled by a media that loves to catastrophise, all this worry can be overwhelming. But there is a powerful antidote, and it is a simple one: Get on your mat. Yoga is based on two core principles:
1. Abhyasa: the need to practice and become adept at achieving a state of complete tranquillity, and
2. Vairagya: non-attachment; the letting go of aversions, fears, false identities, the need for material things and worries – as these provide a veil over our true self.
While the physical benefits of yoga can be life-changing, the mental and spiritual benefits can be even more profound. The purpose of the physical poses, the asanas, is actually to help us to become strong and free from physical distractions, so that we can calm our breathing, calm the ‘chattering of our minds’, to use Patanjali’s words, and reach a state of tranquillity.
Only once we calm our mind can we then start to step back from our negative thoughts, our worries and our fears — and simply observe them. This simple act of calm and quiet observation is so powerful that it can lead to an outpouring of emotion and relief. It is the first step towards accepting and embracing change.
Simply observing these emotions instantly begins to separate us from them. Detaching ourselves from our worries helps us to realise that they are not us; they are simply emotions; they are just thoughts. Creating that space can make all the difference. Because if they aren’t us, they don’t need to become part of our identity; they don’t need to define or control us.
Negative thoughts thrive on attention. The more attention we give them, the larger they loom, the more importance they assume in our minds. Pretending they don’t exist is no good; it only serves to fuel them. The only way to disarm them is to stay detached and observe them – without any judgement whatsoever. After all, they aren’t us; they are just thoughts.
World-renowned mindfulness master, the ever-smiling Tibetan Monk, Mingyur Rinpoch, has suffered from panic attacks all his life. His father taught him how to meditate, starting with focusing on his breath and then eventually moving on to observing his thoughts and fears. In an episode of Netflix’s ‘Mind Explained’ on mindfulness, Rinpoche describes how he has learnt to face his panic:
“Don’t fight with the panic. You have to say welcome to the panic. I’m not going to get rid of my panic. I use my panic, I watch my panic. I say, “Hello panic, welcome.” So in the end me and my panic become good friends.”
Note the lack of judgement. He doesn’t think he is weak because he panics. He takes a completely different approach. He simply observes his panic and this simple act diminishes the hold it has over him.
As it states in The Power to Change, yoga helps us to come back to the fact that change is inevitable, and it is how we react to the change that is important.
If we are consumed with anger, fear, resentment, worry or negative thoughts, we are going to erect our barriers and reject the change, perhaps even saying and doing things that we shouldn't in the process.
Yoga helps us to take a little step back; take a couple of deep breaths, pause, and then take a different look at the situation from a state of calm. Maybe this change isn’t all bad. Maybe some good will even come from it.
Yoga helps us to view our thoughts and emotions objectively and see the bigger picture. It helps us to approach the change as an independent observer; not as someone who is a victim of it.
It gives us the power to change.
Jane Macpherson is a yoga teacher and yoga therapist who has been helping her clients embrace change for more than 15 years (janemacphersonyoga.co.uk)
The new book, The Power to Change: How to Harness Change to Make it Work for You, by Campbell Macpherson, is out now (Kogan Page) £14.99