Drasta – The seer, the observer, the one who sees clearly.
Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam –[through the practice of yoga] The observer can see his own true being. (From: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)
It is a good skill to have: the ability to find stillness, no matter what. The Yoga practice is offering us improvement in this skill, alongside many other benefits. The practice of stillness in Yoga happens both on the physical level (for example, holding a balance or remaining still in shavasana, full relaxation) and on the mental level (maintaining a still state of mind).
I often start my Yoga classes by encouraging my students to find in their minds the space of the observer, drasta. The observer uses the practice to learn himself better and not to judge his own flaws or to get too attached to his success. Observing and not reacting is exactly what staying still is all about.
This space of the observer is both detached from the self -ꟷor more accurately: from the dramas of the egoꟷ- and deeply connected; only when we step outside the ego and observe without attachment, we are able to identify our own true being. Through observance we find stillness, or clarity.
But what exactly I mean by stillness and why do we need it in our daily life?
Stillness means, physically: not moving and mentally: not being distracted. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are really happy while being still or content or within agreement with what is going on around us; it just means that despite everything, we choose to stay still and commit to it.
It is now a common knowledge that we can’t always control the way other people treat us, or the circumstances we find ourselves in, but we can control the way we react to them. I believe that some of us can follow that proudly, however, I must admit that I am rarely feeling in complete control of my reactions to the hardships life throws at me. Coming out of a major rollercoaster in my personal life this past month, I look back at my reactions and many of them I consider rapid, dramatic or even hysterical. And yet, if faced with the same situation again I believe I would react similarly. No, I don’t think I always in control of my reactions; I am still not there. For example, if now I will be faced with a nasty break up, a really mental reaction is most probably to be expected, and this is after ten years of Yoga practice… So if you are like me, don’t be too hard on yourself. There is another solution except choosing our immediate reactions; it is choosing to maintain still, and not react at all.
We don’t have to be superheros and transform our minds into a state of stillness as our immediate reaction to a conflict; it will still help us to find this space after the catharsis happened. Sooner is of course better than later, but later is better than not at all. It doesn’t matter as much if you commit to your stillness before, during or after a rough edge. What matters the most is that you eventually stop and let things happen. You observe, even if you don’t always like what the lance of your mind project. You observe in order to get to know yourself better, to learn. Eventually, even if it will take a thousand moments of stillness like these, you will one day wake up and move on.
On our yoga mat we practice the tools to find stillness. We try and reach the space of the observer through a demanding physical practice. In a flow the mind is so busy with the movement of the body and with following the teacher’s instructions that it inevitably stops and commits to a meditative space of clarity. Thus I tend to call the Vinyasa flow practice, ‘a moving meditation’. A similar effect on the mind happens in a more static practice like Hatha or Iyengar Yoga. The constant movement of the mind is lost in its quest to be attentive to all the details that each posture demands, this time focusing on each posture at a time and not on the flowy movement between them. Stillness happens when we completely commit to a challenging pose and losing our mind in the effort to hold it. It happens as well in shavasana, full relaxation, where we mindfully choose to let all thoughts go and resist movement.
Our practice also trains us to get better at stillness. We are challenged in our ability to remain still when we are confronted with distractions such as: outside noise, our own laziness or our neighbour’s sweaty odour. Our postures are structured in a way that they require physical awareness and balance in order to stay still; it does not happen automatically, it is a hard work. Yoga offers us a little ‘boot-camp’ for stillness and then as we get better in staying still in practice we are more prepared to finding stillness in real life. We practice finding stillness no matter what distractions surround us, no matter what traumas and challenges life throws at us. When we conquer it, the space of stillness is always there for us. It comforts and supports us on the way to move on.