What would you say are the most important things in life? What is your zeal? God? Helping to alleviate poverty and suffering? Making the world a more beautiful place?
Now consider what, in your actual day-to-day living, you pursue with the most fervor. What do you spend your free time thinking about and talking about? What really interests you most? Decorating your dream house? An exotic vacation? The newest, hippest happy hour spot? Attaining that hot body and perfectly “you” style? (These are just guesses based on my experience with Pinterest…I have definitely spent hours scouring pins for my boards in these categories).
Or maybe you concern yourself with more serious matters: the ideal education for your children? Achieving perfect health? Taking your business to the next level?
Do you, like me, find that what you want to care about most are virtuous, high-minded things, but what you seem to care about most are decidedly more self-involved?
At the beginning of the summer I attended a fascinating conference called the Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR). It was a gathering of people interested in using yoga for healing, and there were presenters and attendees from both Eastern and Western healing backgrounds. I heard inspirational stories about yoga transforming people’s physical and mental health, I learned why yoga techniques have the effects that they do, and I learned how to use pranayama, asana, and diet to purposefully manipulate the body and mind. In the yoga business, we pursue health and healing with fervor– not only physical health, but the health of our intellectual and emotional bodies too.
Health and healing are not only important in the yoga community; they’re important to the masses. We read about it, talk about it, strive after it. On social media we share countless variations of: “10 foods you should be eating but probably aren’t”, “10 foods you should never eat again”, “My story of learning to love myself”, and “Strong is the new skinny” (ads for athletic wear that, ironically enough, always feature models who are both strong and skinny).
But to what end do we so avidly seek after health? Is perfect health an end in itself? Is it one of the things we would say is the most important in life? And can we even achieve it?
Yoga helps our bodies to move and function the way they were designed to do. Yoga helps us manage stress and be more aware of ourselves. These things greatly improve our quality of life, and it’s on this point that our culture generally stops: Do yoga so you can feel better. Pursue health in all dimensions so you can enjoy life.
Most days I stop there too. I would never tell you that I would feel like my life had been well-lived if I only achieved optimal health. To be sure, I am of the opinion that having bodies, minds, and emotions that function the way they are meant is good and worth pursuing. But I would never tell you that having a strong and flexible body and perfectly balanced emotions are on the same level of importance as serving God and serving the world. This is easy to say on an intellectual level, but on a practical level I often live as though attaining my perfect health is the point of living.
Feeling good and enjoying life are wonderful byproducts of physical, mental, and emotional health. Indeed, seeing improvements in my students and hearing how yoga has helped them is easily the most rewarding part of my job as an instructor. But what if we didn’t stop there? What if we pursued health and healing in order to look beyond ourselves, toward loftier things?
The less I have to address pain, the less I have to fight disease in my body and mind, the less I am controlled by anxiety…the more I’m able to forget myself. It is worthwhile to pursue health and healing in this life, but not merely in order to enjoy our own lives more. Health is worth pursuing because it allows us to do more fully what we are meant to do: contribute to the goodness and beauty of the world and serve others.
Thankfully, this is not a “first this, then that” situation. You don’t have to have lived long to know that there is no perfect health in this world. Even those who enjoy excellent health suffer injuries, emotional hurt and confusion, and the deterioration that comes with aging. It helps me in my efforts if I’m not always having to direct my attention to my health problems. But I do not have to attain any standard of health before I can begin to turn my focus outward, toward the things I believe are the most important in life. I do not have to be strong before I can serve God and the world; in fact, there is an undeniable divinity when we serve in our weakness.
“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” so the saying goes. How are you uniquely equipped to serve others? In what ways are you gifted to make this world better and more beautiful? What are the most important things in life? As you pursue health, set your mind on these things.