Yoga Off The Mat (Guest Writer)

These words published with permission from Swami Ambikananda of The Traditional Yoga Association:

In an age when all kinds of Yoga are on offer ~ from Hot Yoga to Goat Yoga; from people being given tequila shots before their ‘yoga’ to ‘Harry Potter magic spells yoga’ ~ it becomes important for us to question what we make of Yoga and whether we are living up to or distorting it.  As Yoga on the mat is often reduced to postures and breathing exercises, I am, first of all, exploring Yoga beyond the mat. 


Swami Ambikananda



In ancient tradition the student Yogin seeks the truth of her or his identity behind all that is encountered between birth and death.  Finally, commitment to practice (abhyasa) brings the Yogin to the moment when the guru affirms:  ‘Tat tvam asi’ ~ ‘You are That’ and the Yogin confirms, from his or her own personal experience of self, ‘Aham Brahmāsmi’ ~ ‘I am That’.

This is the culmination of Yoga: the moment in which the ‘I’~ situated as a being in this world ~ realises itself as more than the individualised, socialised ‘I’.  It is the moment when ‘I’ and ‘That’ ~ which until then is seen as ‘other’ ~ are recognised as the same thing.  (I hesitate to use words like ‘God’ because it evokes different images for each of us ~ which is perhaps why the Yogins used the term ‘tat ~ ‘That’.   Possibly the Vedic sages described it best with their ‘ekam sat’ ~ One Being; one not as a numerical value which says ‘only this one is true’, but as a negation of multiplicity, an affirmation of our oneness with all that is.)

In that glorious moment of realisation, of recognition, the ancients told us, we finally arrived at ‘sat-chit-ananda’ ~ Truth, Consciousness, Bliss.  Until that moment, they said, we are caught in the polarities that multiplicity implies: joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, love and hate, tranquillity and rage, etc.

Yoga was offered as a way in which we, day-by-day, take responsibility for arriving at that moment of recognition ~ sat-chit-ananda ~ even while we acknowledge that it is not ultimately in our hands!

The practice and process of Yoga cannot therefore be confined to whatever we do on the mat ~ we must step it off the mat and into our lived lives for it to be Yoga.  There are a number of things involved in this and the very first one is:  the realisation that choice comes with responsibility.

Abhyasa ~ The Practice

There is a modern trend that asks us to think of human beings as almost ‘predetermined’ ~ being driven entirely by the biological agencies of our birth, the social forces we are born into and/or the unconscious drives we have developed along the way.  Yoga ~ right in its origins ~ denounces this mechanistic view of human nature, be it the view of the biologist or the psychologist.  The very first teaching we have of Yoga as a practice is in the Katha Upanishad.  In it the young seeker learns the philosophy and practice of Yoga from his teacher, Death, and the very first teaching Death offers is that we always choose:

anyat śreyo’nyad utaiva preyas te | ubhe nānārthe puruṣaṁ sinītaḥ ||
tayoḥ śreya ādadānasya sadhu | bhavati hīyate’rthād ya u preyo vṛnīte || १ ||

Yama said, 
   There are two paths: one leads outward and the other inward.
   You can walk the way outward that leads to pleasure
   Or the way inward that leads to grace.
   Of these two it is the path of grace, though concealed, that leads to the goal.  (2:1)

sreyaś ca preyaś ca manuṣyam etastau | samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ |
śreyo hi dhīro’bhi preyaso vṛṇīte | preyo mando yogo kṣemād vṛnīte || 2 ||

Both of these paths lie before each person eternally.
   It is the way of things.
   Day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, the wise must distinguish one from the other ~ and for the sake of Yoga choose which one to walk.
   The foolish, grasping first at this and then at that, choose to walk the outward path.(2:2) 1

It is quite clear and unambiguous: we can go with our unconsidered, knee-jerk reactions and basically stay where we are, or we can walk the inner path of awareness ~ the inner path of Yoga.  Each of us chooses ~ and the choice is made many times throughout each day.

In the Katha Upanishad the seeker chooses to take responsibility and the teaching of Yoga follows and flows from that.  But what does ‘taking responsibility’ mean in our world?  After all, we are born into a world not of our choosing ~ one that offers each of us a different set of challenges and influences.  The concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl put it beautifully and succinctly when he said, “… human freedom is in no way a freedom from conditions but rather the freedom to take a stand toward conditions.”2  That is exactly what Yama (Death) was teaching his young student Nachiketas (the seeker) approximately four thousand years ago.

Choosing Yoga

Nachiketas, we are told, was disillusioned by the world, he sought truth from something beyond it.  That is perhaps the first responsibility: to accept that this world will not ever bend itself to our needs, wants or wishes; that each of us is called to a different response from one in which we persistently try to impose our will on it.

The next responsibility is to decide to stay or go.  We can go with the status quo and be corrupted and corroded by it, or we can transcend it by taking responsibility.  If we choose Yoga, we pick up the enormous task of self-determination in the sense that our inner orientation and terrain from then on is our own responsibility.  This inner terrain will determine what we do next as a ‘being in the world’.

From the moment we do this our gaze moves beyond the initial reaction to any situation (in which we hold someone else responsible for how we are thinking and feeling) to our own responsibility.  The attention ceases to be involved and cluttered with what should or shouldn’t be said or done in any given situation, and instead we direct an unflinching gaze towards finding our own involvement in it ~ because only then can we see that which is beyond it. 

When we do this, we know that whatever stand we take to change the status quo, it would have been incomplete if we had not first taken responsibility for the inner terrain.   In the Bhagavad Gita the warrior Arjuna, faced with the enemy who is also his family, falters on the battlefield.  He offers sound reasons for his faltering, avoiding the inner gaze and refusing responsibility.  Kṛṣṇa, avatar and friend, refrains from offering comfort ~ which will soothe.  Instead the avatar seeks to stir Arjuna’s individual  consciousness (jiva)  ~ dismissing the rationalisations and directing his friend’s gaze inward, where the real battle is taking place.

He points out that peace cannot be claimed before the battle is engaged.  And throughout the Gita’s eighteen chapters the avatar keeps repeating this message: that we must choose the battle, unsure that we will ever arrive at the peace, but with the sure knowledge that not engaging is an illusion of peace.3    Like Arjuna, we too have to embrace this Yoga that calls on us to take responsibility.  The alternative is to remain ignorant: of ourselves, the world we live in, and the mystery that is the ground of our being.

It is a teaching which upholds this truth: our seeking always vacillates unless it is done for something beyond our self.  This teaching is affirmed in another ancient text, the Yoga Vaśiṣtha .  Rama, the young prince and first human avatar, having discovered pain when he ventured outside the confines of the palace, faces the Sage Vaśiṣtha with a heart filled with disillusionment and distress.  The Sage did not offer him comfort in the form of soothing, kind words.  Instead he affirmed that the world is both painful and pleasurable, a constant flow of both, and the only way to deal with it is the Yoga practice of vicara : constant awareness of the inner terrain ~ because only by seeing where we are can we transcend where we are.   It is not an escape from our situation because it is, first of all, a painful acceptance of the situation ~ which includes the choice of transcendence.  This teaching affirms that the primary feature of our humanity is our amazing ability to rise above our conditions4 ~ what is required is an awareness that encompasses responsibility.  When we embrace this responsibility we create new possibilities for ourselves and for all.

Off the Mat ~ Into Life

Vicara (pronounced veechara) implies taking responsibility for our inner terrain, for our own responses to this world, because whatever our external circumstances, our responses are entirely our own.  Recognising this requires a constant, courageous and uninterrupted awareness.

Accepting this responsibility I might not be in a position to determine where to go when I step off the mat, but the choice of the kind of person I am as I make my own personal journey off the mat, is always mine.  Holding that truth within each cell of our being offers others we are engaged with a wholly new way of relating to us. Whether they take it up or not is, of course, their choice and their responsibility.

Swami Ambikananda Saraswati


Katha Upanishad translated by Swami Ambikananda, published by Frances Lincoln, 2001.
‘Psychotherapy and Existentialism – Selected Papers on Logotherapy’ by Dr. Viktor Frankl, published by Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1967.
In ‘Strength to Love’, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. would repeat this message in the 20th century when he said, “There is a civil war raging in each one of us.”
In the above book Dr. Frankl writes about the concentration camps being an environment set to turn people against themselves and each other. However, there were always inmates of the camps who rose above their circumstances “with a good word here and a last piece of bread to spare there.”  He goes on to say of them, “They were the living witness to this fact: that it was in no way predetermined what the camp would make of one.