Updated: Feb 15, 2020
Stepping into the Power of Your Dharma
I often used to puzzle over why, after periods of intense yoga study in India, I would return home and make a huge life change. Resolutely and without a moment's hesitation, I would end a toxic relationship, change my job or move house. These actions would invariably plunge me into a mixture of exhilaration and uncertainty – the two faces of freedom. Making radical changes to my life did not always appear to work in my favour materially but the alternative – not living my truth – was unbearable to me.
What is it that makes people voluntarily relinquish material advantage and social complacency? More often than not, it is because they are following their dharma. This little word carries a lot of weight in the yoga world. “Dharma” can mean “path”, “law” or “purpose” and is applied in various spheres of Indian society to describe moral, legal and social organisation. However, on the introspective path of yoga, it refers to one's purpose in the world.
Dharma is said to be the universal law which keeps all things in order. The ancient yogic text The Bhagavad Gita teaches that every one of us has our unique dharma (purpose) and to fulfil your dharma is to keep the Universe in balance. According to Krishna, a central character in the Bhagavad Gita, “It is better to do one's own dharma imperfectly than another's perfectly”.
Your dharma may be as a protector, a healer, a carer, a fixer, a facilitator or any role on an inexhaustive list of roles you may fulfil within the community. You do not have to save the world single-handedly - your dharma might be to raise your children and care for your family, tend a garden or feed the homeless. No-one can tell you what your dharma should be, that is something only you can know, but yoga can give you the tools to discover it.
In a world full of seductive images of material gain, we are encouraged to seek satisfaction by rising above others to achieve wealth and high social status. The influence of this input can be coercive, leading us onto a life path that does not align with who we are and causing us to thwart our own heart's desire, and live in “adharma” (against dharma). The paradox is that, although you may be able to display the outward symbols of success and power, living adharmically is ultimately disempowering. If you have not yet found your true purpose, don't worry you are not alone. Following your dharma is, for all of us, a process that lasts a lifetime and requires regular inquiry and it almost always involves periods of “stuckness” where inertia gathers energy to move us onto the next phase.
Signs that you are not following your dharma are: you feel unfulfilled you use alcohol or other substances to cope you are bored or restless you lack a sense of purpose you spend compulsively your inner narrative is over-critical.
In the yogic worldview, it is believed that we construct our own reality with the thoughts we have. For example, if you don't think your project is good enough, you are not likely to show it to anyone and it will never come to fruition. If you think people don't like you, you are less likely to seek out the company of others, leaving you isolated. Perception is creative, and the world we experience emerges directly from our state of being. This means that you have the power to create your own reality by altering your own perceptions.
Sustained yoga practice trains you to turn inwards, observing the mind's machinations and the heart's longings. It helps you filter out the helpful thoughts and beliefs from the unhelpful ones. If we think of the mind as a garden, yoga and meditation are a way to tend that garden, to water the good seeds (true intentions) and pull out the weeds (self-limiting beliefs). The good seeds will grow into empowering action in the world and will eventually lead you to step onto your true path and into your dharma.
However, in truth, change can be scary so before you rush out and put your house on the market, remember that the journey is a lifelong one and change can sometimes take years to come about. Sometimes one dharma comes to an end and another one begins with a new phase of life. The systems of yoga practice (postures, breath work, mantra, meditation) give us stability and structure so we can engage in the process of freely learning about ourselves, in order to create our own reality and our own future. Yoga is a discipline designed to lead us to find meaning in various elements of our lives and enable us to experience freedom. Here we find another yoga paradox – in following the system (dharma) of yoga, we become liberated.
And how do you know when you've found your dharma? You'll know it because you'll feel like you're in the flow, life will seem meaningful and you'll be walking along with a secret smile on your face. So, next time you're on your mat, ask yourself, “What am I here to do?” - don't wait for an answer, your left brain can't help you with this one. Instead, make your yoga practice an inquiry, always questioning, always seeking because every moment on your mat is a step towards your truth. Your yoga is your journey to self-empowerment in a powerful world.