Recently the concept of “following a path” came up in discussion with someone at a church I attended, and no wonder, it’s a very common metaphor in the spiritual and self-help communities. I tend to bristle a little at this idea however.
When I think of a path, I think of a trail forged by someone else that leads to a certain destination. In the spirituality marketplace the path itself is often defined by a doctrine or set of rules that when followed will lead you to any number of goals, from happiness to better sex to full-on enlightenment.
“When you are directing your own course, the “path” can only be seen by looking behind you since the way forward is uncharted and untraversed.”
Rather than follow a path laid out by someone else, I think it’s much more effective and liberating to develop your own navigational system that will enable you to find your own way, which in the end is what yoga is all about—freedom from all doctrines and “paths”. When you are directing your own course, the “path” can only be seen by looking behind you since the way forward is uncharted and untraversed. The question then becomes, how do I know where to go? What course to take? Since pre-Roman times, navigators have relied on the “pole star” to direct their course. Historically, the pole star changes with the movement of the earth, but it is chosen for its clear visibility and relation to the Earth’s poles.
My own pole star isn’t some future goal that I’m trying to work my way towards, but rather a state of being that is readily attainable. I might describe it like this: a lightness in body and mind that allows for mental and physical agility; mental clarity; a calm, steady nervous system; and general positive outlook. This state is what I align myself to and it guides my course of action on any particular day.
My yoga practice is the way that I check in with my pole star. It’s a daily mental, emotional and physical reality check, within which, the consequences of my past actions will be made apparent. For example, if I indulge in a big dinner and a couple glasses of wine the night before, in the morning during that time set aside for my yoga practice—a time of deep focus and awareness of my present condition—I’m likely going to feel physically and mentally sluggish, tired, maybe even a little depressed, my thoughts veering towards the dark and negative.
With this knowledge and awareness of the consequences of my actions, I can then easily decide what the course of my actions will be today. And I can do it without dwelling on the past or beating myself up, because I know that I’m completely in control of certain aspects of my life and I have the power to choose (to a certain degree) how I’m going to feel tomorrow. So, you could say, the way I like to feel is my pole star and my yoga practice is my compass that allows me to steer my actions toward the desired state.
“If you aren’t following your pole star then you’re either lost at sea or someone else is captaining the ship.”
Like the literal pole star, your own point of reference may change with the passage of time. Your “pole star state” when you’re 20 versus when you’re 60 will likely be different. It may be impossible for you to feel the lightness and agility in your body that you had when you were young, but certainly you’ll have other qualities that you can align to. Maybe your pole star when you are an elder is having gratitude for every breath, for the challenges of being alive, for being around to see your grandchildren grow and thrive.
The point is, is that your yoga practice allows you to tune into what it is that allows you to thrive and feel more alive—and the practice itself moves you toward that state! It is both the compass and the wind in your sails, and every day is an opportunity to get back on course. If you aren’t following your pole star—the bright spot in the sky that you’ve seen for yourself and know to be true and reliable—then you’re either lost at sea or someone else is captaining the ship.
This post was originally published in 2015.