Articles by Amrit Desai
From the October 1986-March 1987 issue of The Kripalu Experience.
Times of crisis can be the most opportune times in our lives to make profound, desirable changes in ourselves. Within every crisis is a hidden potential‹a miracle that can turn an apparent tragedy into a blessing. Crises are crossroads in life, where breakdown opens the path to breakthrough‹on a joyous journey of transformation. Sooner or later, we all go through a crisis or major transition‹such as a broken marriage, change in career, retirement, children leaving home, death of a loved one, or serious illness. We tend to view such crises as tragedies to avoid and fear. But they actually fulfill a very positive function. To perceive the constructive value of crisis is the true art of life.
The Constructive Value of Crisis
In happy times, there is often little motivation to change our attitudes and beliefs, even if they limit us from realizing our higher potential. Usually, we are not willing to change unless we experience a crisis that shocks us out of our habitual way of thinking and living. We become too comfortable and familiar with our adopted habits that we stop questioning them. Although we resist change, there can be no evolution without change. The breakdown of the old and familiar is the necessary precondition for breakthrough into the new and unfamiliar.
For instance, when changing careers or retiring, our habitual ways of gaining satisfaction and our beliefs about what makes us productive and valuable may no longer apply. They may have been useful when formulated for our previous lifestyle, but they need to be re-evaluated and adjusted to our present situation. Letting go of concepts that are no longer relevant and opening to new perspectives allows us to develop new interests and discover hidden talents, thus creating greater fulfillment in life.
Breakdown leads to breakthrough only if we adopt constructive attitudes toward our experiences. Our attitudes toward life create and mold life. As attitudes change, life changes. So, during serious illness, adopting an attitude of gratitude (for the messages the body is sending that changes need to be made) can facilitate the healing process. A heart attack can be a blessing in disguise, leading someone on the road toward developing a healthier lifestyle. Breakdown is painful only if it is not used as a stepping stone.
Expanding Our Expression Through Transition
The flexibility to change with life¹s changes is the secret of life. Adjusting to changing circumstances can be an opportunity of discovering new and creative expressions in life. Transitions can help us go beyond habitual ways of expressing ourselves that may be good, but limited.
For example, it is wonderful for a mother to care for and love her children. But if her sense of identity and self-worth are dependent on caring for others, a mother may feel like she has lost her identity or value when her children leave home. Rather than resisting this change in her life, she can view her "identity crisis" as an opportunity to discover who she is beyond her habitual roles. She can take the time she used to devote to cooking, cleaning, and caring for her children, and spend it in activities that more directly nurture her own health and well-being. She can also expand the roles through which she expresses love, energy, and creativity by taking care of herself and others in new ways.
Who¹s Breaking Down?
A crisis is not a breakdown of a person, but of a person¹s old, adopted attitudes and beliefs. Because attitudes and beliefs are so ingrained and because we identify so strongly with them, we may imagine during crisis that we are losing identity or losing control of life. But nothing is happening to us; it¹s happening to our old concepts. The pain of breakdown is purely personal‹perceived through individually adopted concepts. Various people going through a similar transition will experience different degrees of pain or no pain depending on their systems of belief. When we realize this, and are willing to change our beliefs and attitudes in response to life¹s changes, then we can confront crises much more easily‹without feeling like we are losing control of life.
Taking Control of Our Lives
During crisis, when major sources of security (such as relationship or career) fall apart, the initial reaction may be negative emotion, such as fear, depression, rejection, or anger. To learn from the situation, we need to accept such feelings, without believing them to be true, and then let go of them to regain objectivity.
For example, a divorced woman who depended on her husband to support her and her children, and who now has to find work, may feel abandoned, fearful, and hurt. She may blame her husband, saying: "Look what he did to me." Accepting that she has such feelings is the necessary first step in breaking through. But the more she continues to blame, the less capacity she has to become self-sufficient and to realize her innate potential. She also may fail to see how she is hurting herself by blaming the other person. Blaming gives away control to the other person and implies that only they can solve the problem, because they created it. By blaming, we lose the opportunity to look objectively at our own part in creating a situation and to learn from our mistakes.
Many people discover a new sense of freedom when they let go of blame. They realize that avoiding responsibility by blaming others prevents them from discovering their full potential. By taking responsibility for the choices they make in life, they find new inner strength and personal power. Letting go of the belief: "I¹m a victim" frees up tremendous energy that is then available for positive, creative application to life¹s challenges.
To take responsibility is to take control of life. Taking responsibility allows us to see the internal attitudes and beliefs that create our problems, and to change ourselves‹instead of depending on someone else to change. Rather than trying to find the right person or the right career to fulfill us, we become "right" ourselves; we become flexible, accepting, and aware. And when we are right in this way, we automatically attract to us the people and situations that are right for us.
Gaining Victory in Life
Learning from crisis and taking responsibility for life creates a shift in our consciousness. New insights emerge and creativity expands, as old attitudes and beliefs dissolve. Many people think of creativity only as it applies to creating art forms, such as music or sculpture. But in a larger sense, we are all artists, creating our lives according to our attitudes. The true art of living is in creating new life out of apparent failure and suffering. Until we learn to apply our creativity in this way, we may view ourselves as victims in life. But, every time we perceive and use a crisis as an opportunity for transformation, we achieve a victory in life. And every such victory develops the inner strength that allows us to face life without fear and to create life full of love and joy.
From the April-September 1986 issue of The Kripalu Experience
In 1970, I had an extraordinary experience that revealed a new dimension in the practice of yoga postures and meditation. One morning, my controlled, willful yoga practice suddenly became a flow of spontaneous, automatic movements guided from within. These movements were accompanied by a state of ecstatic meditation deeper than anything I had ever known.
To understand my experience, I reexamined ancient, esoteric yoga texts and consulted with my guru, Swami Kripalvanandiji, a Kundalini master. I learned that my experience was an early manifestation of the awakening of prana (the primal life force). This insight supported my intuitive knowing that I had spontaneously rediscovered the original essence of yoga.
Prana: The Essence of Yoga
Through attunement with prana, I accessed deep stillness of mind not only in seated meditation, but also while performing yoga postures.
As I re-created this experience day after day, I began to conceive Kripalu Yoga, a radical new approach to the practice of yoga. In which movement and meditation can happen simultaneously and complement each other. Because of my experience, all my concepts about yoga were revolutionized. Until then, I had believed I needed to study yoga intellectually and work harder at my practice to expand my experience and reach deeper meditative levels. Now I saw that although there was some advantage to such externally acquired knowledge and effort, they were incomplete without access to prana: the inborn wisdom of the body and the innate intelligence that goes far beyond all mentally acquired "knowledge."
In the spontaneous posture flow, the wisdom of my body made perfect choices and then flowed with it own awareness effortlessly, without any intervention or disturbance from my mind (which did not need to know how or why this was happening, any more than it needed to know exactly how to digest food or circulate blood).
My body¹s inner needs were the only criteria by which prana choreographed the movements. Some movements were not even traditional yoga postures but various stretching or twisting motions that released inner tension. As I reached a certain depth of relaxation and sensitivity, my inner urges naturally guided specific body movements that were a response to my subtler, unrecognized needs for tension release.
This is the function of awakened prana. Ordinarily the only spontaneous, automatic body movements with which we are familiar are reflex tension-release actions, such as yawning or stretching or a sudden urge we feel to crack our knuckles or to twist our back while we are in the midst of doing something else. It is our body¹s wisdom that takes care of those urges; such activities are not thought out. If the mind allows, the body responds to its own needs without our conscious control.
As prana awakened, I was able to draw on this intuitive knowing, which had so far remained dormant within me, as often as I allowed my mind to trust the wisdom of my body. Prana even knew what postures I needed to bring about healing in my body. For example, at one time I had severe back pain and was going to consult my chiropractor. Although I had tried to relieve the pain with postures that I knew to be good for the back, I succeeded only in irritating the condition. But when I relaxed totally and allowed the wisdom of the body to take over, it spontaneously performed movements I hadn¹t thought of and quickly released whatever was causing the pain. Later I had several such healing experiences by trusting my body to heal itself.
Letting Go of Technique
As practice revealed new aspects of body wisdom, my trust in the body¹s ability to make the right choices grew steadily. Paradoxically, I was becoming more limber and flexible as I gave up trying hard to "achieve" a posture. In fact, relaxation‹not effort‹was the key to activating prana. Letting go of effort and mentally acquired technique allowed the creative spirit to be expressed. Previously, I had done my postures exactly as I had seen in a book. My body might have complained about such regimentation, but I hardly paid attention to it except when it was in pain. I gave it no chance to intervene in my mental plans. I had no idea what I was missing.
Now, I realized that the dedicated, willful practice of postures is intended to lead eventually to freedom from all technique. Most yoga systems stay within the limits of controlled performance. In my new approach, yoga practice became a tool for transcending limitations and going beyond reliance on external, learned technique into the newfound freedom of prana awakening.
Deeper Levels of Relaxation
Even though I had enjoyed my yoga practice before the flow experience, now as I followed inner guidance, I enjoyed my practices even more because I was progressively entering into deeper and deeper states of relaxation. I realized that what is normally referred to as relaxation is a very superficial phenomenon, mainly concerned with releasing muscular tension. I discovered progressively deeper levels of relaxation, both in the physical body and in the subtler levels of the mind. As I practiced Kripalu Yoga, I gradually penetrated deeper and subtler levels of tension and relaxed more and more until the most subtle physical, mental, and emotional blocks and tensions were released. As prana flowed more and more freely, I attained the deeper states of meditation.
Sharing My Experience With Others
After I was well-established in this new way of entering into Meditation-in-Motion, I wanted to share my experience with my advanced yoga class and the yoga teachers I was training. But since my experience was uncommon, I found I had some difficulty in explaining to my students that there was an intelligence within their bodies that could perform miracles if only they could learn how to allow the free working of this energy. So I began by demonstrating my own posture flow. And just from watching my flow, my students had some amazingly deep meditative experiences.
Most of them had difficulty believing and expressing their responses, as is often the case with meditative experiences, which are mostly right-brain, nonverbal, and noncognitive. They saw visions and lights and experienced spontaneous body movements, crying, and feelings of deep joy and oneness. These were totally beyond the scope of reason and logic of the left brain. The following are some of the reactions I received from them:
"My experience was one of observing pure energy flowing, changing and intensifying during the movements. Although there was no musical background, it looked like the flow followed a musical pattern. It seemed that each movement was naturally designed to occur in the sequence in which it happened. It was a radiant play of energy in motion."
"After watching you perform the posture flow, I realize that I am finally seeing yoga in its pure form. I feel I understand more of its true origin and beginning as it was given to the first yogis. I now feel a great love and respect for yoga."
The Birth of Kripalu Yoga
Amazed by the profound impact that merely witnessing my posture flow consistently had on viewers, I continued to experiment with this new approach both on myself and on my students. I knew that I had entered into this consciousness as a result of the awakening of prana. But I wanted to discover how to teach yoga so that anyone could have beautiful meditative experiences of heightened prana activity from the beginning of their yoga practice. Then they could gradually move toward the complete freeing of prana within themselves.
Thus began my development of a new way of presenting the ancient teachings of yoga so that they could be easily grasped and practiced by Western students. The secrets of prana had been consciously used by spiritual masters in other parts of the world. But this tradition had not been developed enough in the West to establish scientific and practical techniques for tapping into the unlimited wisdom that lies hidden within each of us. Kripalu Yoga makes this wisdom available in a systematic, scientific way so that it can be used in daily yoga practice and in daily living for well-being, peace of mind, health, and self-mastery.
The disciplines of yoga, such as postures, breath awareness, concentration and meditation, are designed to enhance the absorption and storage of prana by improving our digestion, respiration, metabolism, and natural immune system, and by removing the restlessness of the mind. The ability to consciously increase the levels of prana enhances the working of our vital functions, the clarity of our mind, and the balance of our nervous and glandular systems.
By practicing Kripalu Yoga, anyone can access this inner source of wisdom. Just as awakened prana was the source of the birth of yoga, yoga can become the source of prana awakening, leading you to realize your highest potentials.
A Kripalu Experience Interview with Amrit Desai is from the May - October 1994 issue of The Kripalu Experience.
Kripalu Experience writer: Gurudev, I¹ve been impressed by the number of helping professionals who come to our programs; we attract many psychotherapists, social workers, educators, counselors, holistic health workers, nurses, and doctors. What they write on their "program reflections" reveals to me again and again that they are powerfully impacted by their experiences at Kripalu. Many report a profound shift that affects how they relate to those they serve.
Gurudev, what do you see as the reason Kripalu has such an impact on professionals in their lives and careers? Particularly since those who direct our programs, for the most part, have not been professionally trained in the conventional sense.
Gurudev: At Kripalu, the values and principles of yoga are practiced as a way of life that can transform, not only those in the helping professions, but everyone who wants to realize their highest potentials. These values and principles include much more than the practice of postures‹what is usually referred to as yoga. What yoga can offer is an entire system of evolutionary growth.
Those who teach here have the ongoing intention to integrate what they have learned and practiced into their everyday lives, and so they act as models for what they teach. This kind of teaching is, in large part, non-verbal. It is transmitted energetically to those they interact with.
K.E.: What, exactly, is transmitted?
Gurudev: Their whole attitude toward themselves, others, and life itself‹an attitude of openness and acceptance, trust and love. It is this modeling that is missing today in the western systems of higher education. The professional training received in universities is primarily intellectual. The emphasis is on gaining skills and information. Professors do not have to integrate into their own lives the values they are imparting to the student. And the professionals who receive such training are not necessarily required to demonstrate growth in their personal stature, integrity, or maturity in order to receive their degree.
K.E.: Often in our competitive educational system, the higher you go, the greater the pressures become just to survive. What you are becoming in the process is often, out of necessity, pushed aside or not even acknowledged.
Gurudev: This basically comes from the widely held cultural belief that our capacity to serve others comes from gaining skills and knowledge, rather than from who we become in the process. What is excluded is the spirit of that education, which must include enhancement of the integrity of any professional who uses the knowledge.
K.E.: When that spirit is missing, then we often have psychotherapists, doctors, teachers, or even priests who violate the trust placed in them.
Gurudev: That can result from a false emphasis on judging the value of someone according to the degrees they have earned. The yogic perspective, on the other hand, emphasizes that your own internal growth is fundamental and central if you are to serve, not only with integrity, but in an in-depth way‹in a way that is more than merely superficial. Helping professionals make a meaningful impact to the degree that their service to others deepens their own growth and unfolds their own higher potentials.
For service to fulfill its true function, it must fulfill both the giver and the receiver. If you only serve others and do not serve yourself, the service is incomplete. If your service is all giving‹if the energy is going in only one direction‹then, in time, you become bored, depleted, and burned out.
In the ancient system of yoga, serving others and the renewal of the server are not two separate processes, but a single, indivisible one. The source from which we draw to serve others must be revitalized and renewed every time we serve. We should be enriched and transformed through service.
K.E.: Are you saying that, instead of looking to entertainment or a vacation to renew ourselves, we can renew ourselves through our work?
Gurudev: Exactly. If you are not using your service to learn about yourself and grow in the process, you begin to create internal stress and tension from trying to deal with all you encounter. So, in spite of your great ideals to serve others, you progressively deteriorate in your capacity to help.
That is why most people get disenchanted with their own profession by the time they are in it for four or five years. All the glory and enchantment they anticipated is gone. They may continue for reasons other than receiving fulfillment and satisfaction in their work. They may enjoy the social status it confers or the money that enables them to satisfy material desires. Or they may continue working because of the responsibilities they have in raising a family.
But if their reason for continuing is anything other than using every situation to explore and enhance their own growth, their giving becomes stressful instead of fulfilling. When we are lacking this intention for inner growth in every circumstance, then helping others can leave us highly vulnerable to the negative impacts of those we are trying to serve.
K.E.: How can we use negative, upsetting experiences for our growth?
Gurudev: When something happens that triggers a negative reaction in you, recognize it as an opportunity to pay attention to some part of yourself that you haven¹t accepted. Shift your focus from the event to what is happening inside of you. Check in with your body: feel where you are holding tension; notice your breathing; and notice the judgments you are making about what is happening. If you can witness this process‹if you do not judge or try to change anything that you observe‹then your real feelings will begin to surface. By simply allowing them to be as they are, without rejecting or trying to change them in any way, they will reveal to you the true cause of your upset. This recognition will begin to dissolve the feelings. Through this process, you learn to open to yourself with compassionate self-awareness. Instead of rejecting your experience‹the root cause of negativity‹you begin to integrate what you have denied and experience a growing sense of wholeness.
Learning to be with your own negativity in this way is what gives you the ability to deal with the fears and problems of others. As you learn to open your heart to yourself, it enables you to open your heart to others. And serving with an open heart is what nourishes and fulfills both the giver and the receiver.
That is the core of the yogic system: your own personal growth is central to all the growth you provide to others. It is simply that the only way to continue to serve at progressively deeper levels is to become progressively more receptive and open to yourself.
Self-acceptance is crucial in situations in which you¹re confronted by reactions in others that mirror what you resist in yourself. Suppose a counselor, for example, has not learned to accept her own anger, then she would feel threatened by the anger of her client, particularly if it were directed toward her. She would tend to judge him, and that would close her heart and separate her from him. She may not reveal this through anything she says or does, but energetically, her withdrawal will be felt. And she, in turn, will feel uncomfortable and frustrated. Even though she may temporarily maintain the façade of dealing with the client objectively, she cannot really deal with his anger if she does not simultaneously work within herself to accept and clear up her own.
If, on the other hand, she recognizes this as an opportunity to work within herself, both she and the client will experience new levels of trust, acceptance, and intimacy, both in themselves and with each other. The therapist¹s work becomes self-fulfilling, because her own growth is directly related to the service she is providing. She doesn¹t have to be perfect, but her intention and commitment has to be clear; the priority to grow has to be clear.
We all have an "ideal me" and a "guilty me." The way any professionals‹doctors, therapists, or teachers‹deal with their "guilty me" begins to show up in the manner in which they treat their patients, clients, or students. Areas in which they are fearful, self-critical, or full of shame or guilt, invariably will be revealed in some form. If the professional¹s conscious awareness has not been developed to integrate these "shadow" aspects of themselves, what they have denied will leak out, no matter how much they try to prevent it. They may use all the right words, but somehow, energetically, they will be communicating something else‹some lack of ease, withholding, perhaps a subtle message that their client should be something that he or she is not.
Resisting the negativity we perceive in others is what makes us most vulnerable to stress and dissatisfaction. I cannot receive from my work with others unless I keep my heart open and turn every situation into an opportunity to help myself. Serving myself must be the major, the primary, the highest priority I have in serving others. This has nothing to do with being selfish. It is simply that, only as I grow and am continuously renewed in my ability to serve, can I gain the insights that light the path for my clients‹not by getting them free, but by getting myself free from my own blocks and limitations.
If I choose my profession in an area in which I want to grow, then I continually serve with renewed enthusiasm. As I learn from those I serve and apply the insights I gain to my own life, my potentialities are continually actualized, and I am perpetually recharged. My communications carry unmistakable conviction and impact.
K.E.: What you¹re saying explains why, for example, recovered drug addicts can be so successful in helping other addicts.
Gurudev: Yes, they embody a powerful message. The changes in their attitudes to model what is possible for others. And each time they help another, they themselves are renewed and strengthened in their own healing process. In such circumstances, giving is receiving.
K.E.: So, whether giving brings exhaustion or renewal will depend on where we¹re coming from inside ourselves.
Gurudev: Yes, whether we have a material or a spiritual intention for our life.
K.E.: Isn¹t the intention to help others always spiritual?
Gurudev: Superficially, yes. But the intention of spirituality is undermined when the emphasis shifts to material goals‹gaining greater knowledge, more skills, more power, or more money for the approval, validation, recognition, or love from others. If that is my intention, then I will not hesitate to betray myself to get it. Nor can spirituality be fulfilled simply by "doing good" or sacrificing myself for the sake of others. Spirituality is fulfilled only when I have learned to look inward to resolve my unfinished business and negativity at its source.
Yoga begins with being honest with yourself, being true to yourself, because that¹s the main vehicle for getting in touch with the source of ultimate power that you are. It teaches that freedom from fear and suffering lies within. When Jesus said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven within," he spoke to the same Truth. This does not exclude external success or prosperity or even living a healthy, joyous, fully participating life in the world. All it says is that your world, your inner growth, is central to everything that you do, and that everything else is secondary.
This wisdom of yoga is gained through experience rather than through speculative thinking. It grows out of recognizing the value of accepting life as it shows up, rather than as I think it should show up‹accepting it as it has been, rather than how it should have been. This fundamental approach to life enables you to work with everything you encounter in a whole new way. It teaches you how to simply be with what is there, now, in front of you, moment by moment. And from this you learn all you need to know.
K.E.: It¹s the yoga of continuing education.
Gurudev: Yes, a lifetime of continuing education.