Does Yoga make you a better person?
Yoga is frequently seen as a method of self-transformation and self-improvement, and this is not incorrect. When you begin to live and practice yoga with consistency, the way that you experience life is transformed. The way you experience yourself and perceive others, the way others perceive you, the choices you make in life (and life is really just a stream of choices and experiences), and your relationships with others will all transform. Your understanding of life will become more clear and rational. You might experience a period of emotional turbulence when you begin on the path of yoga, but that will settle, eventually, into a more equanimous state of emotional stability and emotional intelligence. And, of course, your body form, body image, and your physical health will most likely improve with regular practice of asana (poses) and pranayama (breathwork). These are all valid and rational reasons for starting and maintaining a regular yoga and meditation practice.
What we sometimes miss or misunderstand is that yoga is not really a method of self-improvement. Yoga is a method of Self-Realization. Central to the teachings and methods of yoga is the journey to discovering what you already are, not what you should or need to become. There is an aspect of you that transcends all of these other aspects that are regarded as being "you", an ethereal aspect beyond physical form, beyond thought and mind, beyond character traits, experiences and memories, beyond relationships, ambitions, accomplishments, acquisitions, dreams, losses, and emotions. Beyond all of the transient things that are tied to life as we understand it with our five senses and analytical mind is the eternal, unchanging aspect of you called Soul, Self, Atman, or "Witness." This aspect is the part of ourselves that we experience and remember through the tools, methods and practices of yoga. The realization of this aspect, through the experience of Yoga, is what we often refer to as enlightenment. Enlightenment is already within each of us. It is not a destination you arrive at once you have become "good enough." It is an experience we have through the methods that we call yoga and/or meditation. It can only be experienced. You cannot understand by reading about it, by hearing about it, or by hanging out with someone who experiences it. This bliss state, referred to as Samadhi in yogic terms, is the natural state we are in when our body is peaceful and our mind is quiet and illuminated. In this state, we access our Higher Self, that which is connected to all and beyond the little character we cling to, in daily lives, as our little self. When we visit this state of transcendence, we return to our daily lives with a deeper sense of meaning, purpose and understanding. We are "transformed." This transformation doesn't change us into someone new. It teaches us about who we already are and what has been covering our true nature. We become more authentically ourselves and begin to understand what has been getting in the way of living from a place of authenticity, peace, clarity, confidence, and connection. We begin to peal back the layers that are covering our true nature, and we become more of our true selves, not a different self, not a better self. Removing the obstacles that obscure our blissful, peaceful, loving state, and practicing the methods that help us to remember, becomes our work in our daily practice. The obstacles are more than likely internal, and so the methods of yoga and meditation are a form of self-inquiry and self-study in order to understand what we are doing, thinking, saying and believing that is keeping us from remembering our true nature.
What seems contradictory and can be confusing is that we have to stop clinging to the smaller aspects of self, in order to have the experience of the Bigger Self. When we do, our smaller self is naturally improved by a deeper understanding of our connection to the greater whole. We become less selfish and self-centered. We become more loving, open, patient, and giving. We find joy and fulfillment in our service to the greater whole. Approach your yoga practice with the intention of improving little you, and you become smaller still. The more we cling to this transient form and thought, hoping to make it last indefinitely and to make everything "go our way", the more we suffer. Connecting to our eternal, unchanging aspect is true peace...no struggle...no suffering...deep understanding. It is Yoga.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying, for the moment, the fruits of your labor. Savor the sweetness of the fruit, knowing that it is just a moment and an experience, no different than the moments and experiences we hope to avoid. It all makes up the journey and grand experience of life, as we know it. But, remember, also, that there is a sweeter nectar that is within you, a well of truth you can access when you stop grasping for the fruits around you, even if just for a moment. Even a small glimpse, a fleeting moment of understanding this, will shift your perspective for good (and for better).
with Love and in Service,