Yoga & The Meaning of Life

This morning a fellow teacher posted on Instagram about how a student recently asked her, “How does my yoga actually help with the conditioning that makes daily life difficult? And why does it matter how I do the yoga, exactly?” It’s a great question, and I thought I’d attempt to answer it based on my own experience.

On one level, a regular yoga practice can help to relieve the physical tension and mental-emotional stress that causes so much unnecessary suffering for many people. At this level, it’s a matter of basic self-care that everyone can benefit from if the practice is adapted to their particular needs.

On a deeper level, much of our suffering is due to a lack of meaning and purpose in life. Psychologists and philosophers are even saying that we’re currently experiencing a “meaning crisis” that’s responsible for the rise of anxiety, stress, depression, addiction and suicide in our modern world. But what do we even mean when we talk about “the meaning of life”? When I think about the question, “What is the meaning of life?” it seems like an intellectual exercise. It’s all in my head. And I don’t think the answer can be found in thoughts and concepts.

In Spanish, instead of “meaning of life” they say, el sentido de la vida — the sense of life — which gets us closer to understanding how practicing yoga in a particular way offers an answer to the meaning crisis. It’s something that is felt rather than understood. When I practice yoga by moving in unison with my breath, my awareness merges with the breath and my movement becomes an expression of the breath. I am fully embodied and at one with the pulse of life as it enlivens my whole being. At that point, the question “what is the meaning of life” simply dissolves. I am filled with el sentido de la vida, the felt sense of being fully alive. There are no more questions, and my mind settles into an alert and restful state. I am open to the fullness of life.

I think in our culture we’re conditioned to believe that life isn’t meaningful unless we’re suffering. Even the Buddha said, “Life is suffering”. No wonder so many Buddhists I meet are so solemn! Indian philosopher UG Krishnamurti said, “The plain fact is that if you don't have a problem, you create one. If you don't have a problem, you don't feel that you are living.” Sadly, I think this is true for many of us. Suffering = meaning.

A daily yoga practice, when approached with an attitude of non-striving and care, makes us more sensitive to our own condition and to the condition of others. We become more empathic to the joys and sorrows of life and realize that we only suffer when we become too attached to either pleasure or pain. We learn to relax into the flow of life and take things as they come. We find meaning in simply living life to its fullest. As my teacher Mark Whitwell would always say, we stop looking and start living.