How to Practice Yoga

2A) How has yoga evolved? 2B) What does the “8 Limb”
method look like today?
2C) What do beginner, intermediate and advanced yoga practices look like?


How has yoga evolved?

Yoga began with an emphasis on meditation
Recently, it shifted to physical poses

So how old is yoga? When did it begin?

The short answer is “We’re not sure.”

Some trace yoga as far back as 5,000 years ago to the Indus Valley Civilization (Northwestern India). The only evidence for this claim is the Pashupati seal:

In this stone carving, we see a figure in a seated pose. He may or may not be meditating. This pose may or may not be Mulabandasana:

One of modern yoga’s founding fathers, BKS Iyengar seated in Mulabandasana

What’s important to remember is that yoga didn’t begin as a practice. It began as a philosophy. This philosophy was trying to answer the question: “How can we let go of our worried mind?” Ancient yogis and modern yogis are trying to solve the same challenge, but have two very different approaches.

If you tell a coworker today: “I feel like my mind’s a bit overactive today,” they may suggest going for a run, going to the gym or doing some yoga.

Running for the sake of it, like the physical poses of yoga, is a relatively new concept. Back in Patanjali’s day, exercise wasn’t even considered part of a balanced lifestyle. Nobody was running 10k races for the fun of it.

If you mind was overactive and you wanted to do something about it, this often meant leaving society for a spiritual journey as an ascetic. All or nothing.

The bar for being a yogi has been lowered significantly in the last century: Start with some poses on a mat, and don’t quit your day job.

Evolution of Yoga Poses or Asanas

The Yoga Sutras didn’t list any specific poses for practice. It wasn’t for another thousand years that poses were formally established. In the 15th century, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes 15 poses for practice.

The real evolution of yoga poses began in the early 20th century. It was during this time that yoga transitioned from ascetic practice to mainstream lifestyle.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, there was one teacher we can now point to as “the father of modern yoga” – Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989). There are many styles of yoga today, yet most 60, 75 and 90 minute classes trace back to Krishnamacharya’s innovation of yoga asana.

While yoga philosophy is an expression of India’s spiritual and cultural tradition, it’s worth noting that Krishnamacharya also drew from outside inspiration when developing poses for the 3rd Limb. Specifically, he incorporated elements of gymnastics, wrestling and possibly even Royal English Army fitness routines.

Krishnamacharya developed the Sun Salutations in the 1930s. He also developed the concept of vinyasa, a key practice in yoga where we connect the movement of our body with our breath.

Krishnamacharya had many students, but two of them went on to further develop modern yoga as we know it: Pattabhi Jois (1915 – 2009) and BKS Iyengar (1918 – 2014).

Inspired by his 25 years as Krishnamacharya’s student, Pattabhi Jois went on to establish the Ashtanga Primary Series in Mysore, India in the 1950s. He documented these poses in the classic text, Yoga Mala. This specific sequence of poses is considered the foundation of yoga asana. Although the Primary Series is not commonly taught in its entirety in yoga studios today, most classes follow a similar format:

BKS Iyengar was also an innovator of yoga asana. His Iyengar yoga practice involves props and holding poses for longer periods of time. His greatest contribution to modern yoga may be his writing. His book Light on Yoga is considered modern yoga’s classic text, making yoga philosophy and asana practice accessible to the west.

Yoga is around 2,000 years old. Yet most of what we consider “yoga” today has evolved in the last 100 years.


What does the “8 Limb” method look like today?

Yoga today starts with poses on the mat
Then we develop mindfulness practices off the mat
Over time, we develop a meditation practice

“Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory” ― Pattabhi Jois

Quick Disclaimer

Sections 2B & 2C provide a modern approach to the 8 Limb method – one interpretation among many. Consider this a starting point when discussing the question: “What does the 8 Limb method look like in practice today?”

Since I’ve had a hard time finding clear instruction on the 8 Limbs (aside from 3rd & 4th Limbs), I write this in hopes of getting the conversation going. Your feedback is encouraged [email protected].

Feel free to let me know what you agree with, disagree with and why. What works for you and what doesn’t. The goal is to refine this approach so we can all practice smarter, not harder.

We’ll start by looking at yoga on the mat (3rd – 8th Limbs), then off the mat (1st and 2nd Limbs).

3rd Limb – Yoga Asana, or Physical Poses

In the Yoga Sutras, there’s only one sentence on physical poses: “The posture should be steady and comfortable.”

Asana is a Sanskrit word meaning “seat.” In other words, the “seat” (or posture) you create should feel both steady and comfortable, relaxed but firm.

We need to look to yoga’s 20th century gurus for further guidance. Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar both provide detailed description of individual poses in their books, Yoga Mala and Light on Yoga respectively.

Early yogis focused on meditation – using the mind to quiet the mind. For someone new to meditation, this is a bit like being thrown into the deep end to see if you can swim. A more beginner-friendly approach involves exercising the body to quiet the mind.

Both gurus agree that the 8 Limb method should begin with poses – the 3rd Limb:

Practicing all 8 Limbs of yoga together is perhaps too much for any beginner. So the key takeaway is this: if you want to start the 8 Limb yoga practice, stop by a local yoga studio and start taking classes. Ideally three times a week. That’s it.

To start your yoga journey, you don’t need to meditate. You don’t need to know the philosophy. You don’t need to know how it all works. Just practice on a mat. Over time, everything else will fall into place.

Asana creates the foundation for a healthy body, which keeps the mind more focused. When the mind is more focused, it becomes easier to meditate. But none of this happens without the solid foundation of a regular Asana practice.

4th Limb – Pranayama, or Breathing Practices

The 4th Limb focuses on breathing practices. These are meant to balance our energy (prana) and focus this energy for deeper states of meditation.

When we say “balance our energy,” we are referring specifically to our nervous system. What’s interesting about our breath is that we can change the length of our inhales and exhales and this directly influences our nervous system.

In general, there are three types of breathing practices. They have three specific effects on our nervous system: up-regulating, down regulating and balancing.

Yogi Lucas Rockwood refers to these three types as “coffee,” “whiskey” and “water” breath:

5th Limb – Pratyahara: Sense Withdrawal

In the 5th Limb, we begin to practice meditation – slowing our thoughts and bringing greater awareness to our body’s sensations. Our entry point for meditation is guided relaxation.

Step 1 – Guided Relaxation

Guided relaxation is also referred to as yoga nidra or “yoga sleep.” This is a “conscious sleep state,” meaning our body is resting, and our mind is gently focusing on feeling the sensation of relaxation in our body.

We practice yoga nidra by lying down in savassana (corpse pose) with a towel covering our eyes, and the option to add props like a towel or bolster. We can practice under the guidance of a teacher in a yoga studio, or by listening to an mp3 at home.

Either way, we are guided through the process – slowly focusing on different parts of our body and consciously allowing each part to relax more deeply. This practice can be as short as five minutes or as long as an hour.

This “yoga sleep” requires focus. Think of building mental focus the same as building a muscle. It takes deliberate effort to focus a bit better than your previous session. But the effort pays off.

Compare guided relaxation to getting a massage. When we are getting a massage, if our mind wanders to our daily stresses, then it’s like we’re not really there. When we can let our thoughts go and gently focus on the sensation of deep relaxation from the massage, we get a whole lot more out of the experience.

The easy part is showing up. The hard part is training our mind to focus more deeply.

Yoga nidra requires being consciously focused, but also relaxed – similar to the “relaxed but firm” principle in yoga asana.

Step 2 – Guided Imagery

From a state of deep relaxation, we can go one step further and practice guided imagery. Similar to hypnosis, guided imagery is deeply relaxed, meditative state where we can connect with our subconscious mind.

When we sleep, our subconscious mind communicates with us through dreams. We can also access dream-like images from our subconscious when in a deeply relaxed state by letting our imagination become more active.

Just like yoga nidra, this is a process we need to be guided through. And like yoga nidra, we can only get the full benefits when we are able to keep our mind focused through the process.

As Dr. Martin Rossman explains in Guided Imagery for Self-Healing: “Your purpose is not to get pretty pictures, but to pay attention to what your body/mind is trying to tell you…Imagery is a two-way medium of communication between your silent, unconscious mind and your verbal, conscious mind…Be an observer as well as a participant in the process.” “Relaxed but firm” is another guiding principle we can apply to guided imagery.

Like guided relaxation, guided imagery can be practiced at a studio or at home with an mp3. You are encouraged to journal afterwards to reflect on your experience. If you would like help interpreting your experiences, you may want to find a qualified medical professional or yoga therapist to lead your session. They will be able to help you interpret and process your experience.

To better understand guided imagery, you can check out a talk and 15 minute guided imagery session with Dr. Martin Rossman here.

6th Limb – Dharana: Intense Focus

In the 6th Limb, we deepen our focus on one point. This can be interpreted as focusing the mind completely on our breath, or anapana meditation. Anapana is a Sanskrit word meaning “mindfulness of breathing.”

The practice itself is quite simple. Focus on your inhale, focus on your exhale. If you get distracted by a thought, notice it, let it go and return to your breath. That’s it.

The hard part is maintaining focus to the point where our thoughts slow down to a stop. Our monkey mind will do whatever it takes to distract us from this endeavor.

The effect of this practice is where things get interesting. When we practice anapana successfully, we begin to look at our thoughts more objectively. We begin to move from the participant of our thoughts to the observer of our thoughts. Over time, we can experience this effect both on and off the mat.

This method is the starting point for the more advanced practice of vipassana meditation.

7th Limb – Dhyana: Deep Meditation

The 7th Limb is the deepest state of meditation. This can be interpreted as vipassana meditation. In vipassana, we focus entirely on one point of our body.

Rather than focusing on our breath, we try to notice the sensations at this one point of our body. This could be any one point of the body – the crown of our head, one point on our elbow or shin. We pick one point and focus completely on this point. We try not to be distracted by our thoughts, or other stronger sensations in our body.

Through this practice, we begin to notice that our senses also rise and pass – like our thoughts. Since they rise and pass without our control, we can logically understand that we shouldn’t become attached to these fleeting sensations. However, it is only through the disciplined practice that we can slowly internalize this concept. Over time we begin to understand it both consciously and subconsciously.

The goal of anapana meditation is to begin to slow our thoughts and observe them in a neutral way – switching from participant to observer.

The goal of vipassana meditation goes one step deeper. We practice letting go of our attachment to our own senses – something that seems fundamentally counterintuitive. While this is a highly advanced practice, it is also the most reliable method for letting go of our worried mind. The practice of vipassana teaches us to go of our attachments – physically, mentally and emotionally.

History of Vipassana

Both anapana and vipassana were taught by the Buddha as a way to attain Enlightenment. In the 20th century, these two methods were reestablished as a secular (non-religious) practice through the teachings of SN Goenka (1924 – 2013).

Goenka was an Indian businessman living in Burma. In the 1950s, he developed chronic migraine headaches. After many unsuccessful treatments, he tried vipassana meditation, which turned out to be the only effective remedy.

Goenka studied the Buddha’s teachings on meditation, and distilled them to the most essential philosophy and practice. In the 1960s, he began leading 10 day vipassana meditation retreats. His 10 day method begins with three days of anapana followed by seven days of vipassana meditation. Goenka’s method has set the standard for 10 day silent meditation retreats today.

You can find his description of anapana here, vipassana here, and find one of his 10 day retreats in many countries around the world here.

The practice of vipassana is by no means exclusive to yoga. As previously mentioned, it was part of the method the Buddha used to attain Enlightenment, and remains a core Buddhist practice today.

However, this is a very advanced form of meditation that requires training. And yoga does provide a beginner-friendly method to slowly but surely develop a successful vipassana practice.

8th Limb – Samadhi: Union

By practicing the lower 7 Limbs of yoga, we practice letting go of our attachment to our thoughts, feelings and even our own senses. By default, we have let go of our wandering mind.

Our wandering mind is still there. We wouldn’t be able to function without it. However, we are no longer persuaded by it. We are no longer moved by it. Movement in the mind is replaced with stillness. Worry is replaced by a feeling of deep inner peace. We have connected to our deeper Self, and experienced the phenomenon of “union.”

Yoga off the Mat – The 1st & 2nd Limbs

What’s interesting about yoga is that when we practice on the mat, it makes the practice off the mat easier. It creates a positive feedback loop where one practice enhances the other. In this respect, think of practicing on and off the mat as having a synergistic effect.

1st Limb – Yamas: Self-Restraints or Virtues

The five yamas are non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and non-possessiveness. In other words, restraints.

The 1st Three – Yamas – Internal Restraints or Ethics

The first three yamas can be interpreted as internal restraints – ethical practices that restrain unethical behavior. So how do we practice non-harming, truthfulness and non-stealing?

Rather than looking at these three as separate, an easier approach is to bundle them together. Look at them as three manifestations of a unifying ethical principle – the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

We’ve all heard it before. Generally speaking, every religion in the world identifies the Golden Rule as the foundation for it’s teachings on ethics. Religion stresses that ethical living is essential for a better outcome in the afterlife.

Yoga is a secular practice that makes no claims of an afterlife. Yoga argues instead that ethical living is an essential practice in order to solve the problem of a worried mind – here and now.

So what does this look like in practice? Great question! The short answer is try to find the “win-win” in each situation. This is a big topic that we’ll explore in Sections 3B & 3C.

Think of the Golden Rule as an ideal to strive for. The more we “let go,” the closer we get to it. And the easier it becomes to attain union.

4th & 5th Yamas – External Restraints

The final two yamas are more like external restraints. The 4th yamas is restraint from sexual desire. The 5th yamas is restraint from material attachment, or non-hoarding.

These two yamas are perhaps the most straightforward practices of the Yoga Sutras. They don’t require much elaboration.

We want to restrain our sexual impulses to help control of our wandering mind.

We also want to practice non-hoarding – reduce our dependence on “stuff.” After a certain point of consumption, it’s like the tables begin to turn – we don’t own our stuff, it owns us.

We want to start to identify when this is happening and how to reduce this physical (and ultimately mental) clutter. One simple reminder: the less we want, the more we have. We need to let go of any excess stuff. Not metaphorically, but literally.

These yamas are as easy to understand as they are hard to practice. What’s interesting about practicing yoga is that the more we practice on the mat, the easier it is to notice these attachments off the mat. The first step is to notice our attachments. And over time, the more we incorporate the 8 Limbs of yoga, the more we can begin to let these attachments go.

2nd Limb – Niyamas: Personal Observances

The five niyamas are cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study and surrender to a higher power.

1st Niyama – Cleanliness

The first niyama can be interpreted as keeping our body clean and space around us uncluttered. Like the last two yamas, this is a straightforward practice.

Personal cleanliness was of course much harder to practice centuries ago. Now we need to apply the concept of cleanliness to the spaces we live and work.

Keeping our space clean in the 21st century extends past our bodies and the clutter in our homes. It includes our e-spaces – keeping our calendar, email and desktop in order. It may involve less time checking our phones. The goal isn’t “perfection,” but rather having a space that’s “clean enough” so it’s not on our mind.

2nd & 3rd Niyamas – Balancing Work and Rest

One modern interpretation of the second and third niyamas (contentment and discipline) is finding the right balance between rest and work in all facets of our lives – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually:

This concept is detailed in Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr’s The Power of Full Engagement. In it, they observe that “every one of our thoughts, emotions and behaviors has an energy consequence – for better or worse.”

We need to balance our energy, creating reserves that ultimately allows for sustained high-performance. To achieve this, Tony and Jim identify several principles:

These days, we’re often overworked mentally and emotionally. We’re also underworked physically and spiritually.

First we need to identify the right “work-rest” balance to suit our needs. The principles of balancing our 4 energy domains are universal. Yet the combination of different practices is unique to each individual.

Just like practicing yoga asana first, the authors identify the physical domain as the area to focus on of first. We’ll discuss the science behind this in Section 3B.

4th & 5th Niyamas – Self-Study and “Spiritual” Study

The final two niyamas can be interpreted self-study and “spiritual” study. I put spiritual in quotes because I approach this topic from the same secular view as The Power of Full Engagement:

“Spiritual strength is reflected in the commitment to one’s deepest values, regardless of circumstance and even when adhering to them involves personal sacrifice.”

Self-study involves reflecting on and connecting with yourself. Spiritual study involves identifying, studying and connecting with something bigger than yourself. We can connect the two by embodying our values.

Self-study and spiritual study go hand in hand – you can’t have one without the other. You can’t know who you are if you don’t know your deepest values. If you don’t put your values to the test, then it’s hard to know who you really are.

Self-knowledge involves big questions like:

When you ask yourself “What are my strengths and weaknesses?”, what you are asking more generally is: “How well do I know myself?”

The best answer you can give isn’t theoretical, but rather by identifying some real-life examples that demonstrate how you sometimes succeed and sometimes fail to embody your values.

This is best communicated through stories that demonstrate a challenge you met, struggled with and what you learned about yourself in the process.

We’ll summarize self-study and spiritual study in three key concepts:

Each one of these is a big topic, so we’ll just be introducing them below.

1) We don’t find our passion by thinking about it,
we develop it through action and reflection

What are you passionate about? Why? To know this is to know yourself. It is also to know your deepest values, and the source of your spiritual energy.

If you are like 80% of the population, you aren’t sure. And that’s fine. School didn’t teach us how to find it. Nobody else is pressuring us to find it. We face lots of demands from others, but no pressure to find our passion. However, not knowing this can be a source of personal worry and existential doubt.

In other words, we don’t need to know our passion in order to survive. However, we do need to know it in order to be complete. Particle Physicist Savas Dimopoulous put it this way: “The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.”

In Designing Your Life, Bill Burnette and Dave Evans explain how “many people operate under the dysfunctional belief that they just need to find out what they are passionate about. Once they know their passion, everything else will somehow magically fall into place. We hate this idea for one very good reason: most people don’t know their passion.”

“So we’re not very passionate about finding your passion. We believe that people actually need to take time to develop a passion. And the research shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery—not before.”

2) We can’t use reason alone to develop self-knowledge,
we need intuition to guide us further

So how do I make decisions that lead me to my passion? Should I do this or that? And how do I know when I’ve found it?

These questions are also addressed in Designing Your Life:

“Remember that default response to being stuck on a decision: I must need more information! We can now see that that is exactly what we do not need…It is very important to have good information available—to do lots of homework and take lots of notes and make spreadsheets and comparisons and talk to experts, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

But once that work is done…we need access to that wisdom center where our well-informed emotional knowing can help us discern the better choices for us.”

In other words, after reason has reached its limits, we need our intuition to guide us further. We need to give our thinking, logical (worried) mind rest and connect with our deeper Self.

Intuition is unique. In a sense, it is an opposite way of knowing something compared to reason. Intuition allows us to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

Often times, we hold up reason as be the “best” way of knowing something. However, we sometimes have blind spots or prejudices that are the real source of our motivation. They just remain hidden, unconscious motivations. Rather than exploring the source of these motivations, we try to hide behind justifications that sound logical to us, like:

As Tony Schwartz notes: “Rationalization is another common defense against the truth.” Reason is important, but as Einstein observed: “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”

So how can we develop this intuition?

Design Your Life suggests that “you educate and mature your access to and awareness of your emotional/intuitive/spiritual ways of knowing…For centuries, the most commonly affirmed path to such maturity has been that of personal practices such as journaling, prayer or spiritual exercises, meditation, integrated physical practices like yoga or Tai Chi, and so on.”

In this case, yoga’s 8 Limb method offers a holistic approach for developing our intuition. Consider yoga to be one of the primary paths to developing intuition today. And we can apply our intuition when making decisions – decisions that take us on a new trajectory.

We are all unique. And the problems we face are unique. But when we look at things from a bird’s eye view, we are all trying to solve the same problem of living with doubt and worry.

Your challenges are quite different from your neighbor’s. Yet when you both practice the 8 Limb method in the exact same way, you both benefit equally from the practice.

The process of developing intuition will take each of us in a unique direction – which is exactly where we need to go. It is only through this unique journey that we are all able to find what we’re looking for. And we’ll know when we’ve found our passion as it will give us the fundamental benefit we’re all looking for – more peace of mind.

3) We can better understand self-study and spiritual study
in the broader context of the universal Hero’s Journey

So how do I make the right decision? How do I find my passion? Should I do this or that?

Good question. If we knew the answer, we would do something about it and never think about it again. But we aren’t sure, so then we begin to doubt ourselves and worry about it.

We need to gain perspective to find the right answer. But there’s an inherent problem here. We can ask other people, and they may be able to help. But they don’t understand us like we understand ourselves.

Other people can offer insight, but nobody else can answer these questions of life direction for us. If we just followed someone else’s advice, it wouldn’t take us quite where we need to go.

Also, other people won’t be as motivated to find the answer for us, nor should they be. Once we accept this, it’s like the birth of responsibility. We simply need the discipline to practice the 8 Limbs. This will help us to quiet our mind and look for the answers inside.

So how can we gain perspective and find the answers inside?

One method is to look at our own life not in literal, but metaphorical terms. We can look at our life as a journey. From this big-picture perspective, we can begin to see old problems in a new light. We can see new possibilities from this vantage point.

Intro to The Hero’s Journey & Metaphorical Thinking

To understand ourselves and connect to a deeper purpose, we need to shift our perspective. Or more accurately, we need to reframe our perspective from a literal interpretation of our lives to a metaphorical one. This is another abstract concept, so let’s examine it.

What do I mean “look at our lives in metaphorical terms?” This simply means to look at your life like a story. Rather than asking “Which choice do I make?” we want to ask “Which direction should I go?”

Most of the time, we interpret the world through our thoughts. Step 1 is to take a step back from the literal interpretation. Step 2 is to understand things metaphorically.

When we apply this kind of thinking, we begin to understand deeper, metaphorical truths. Bret Weinstein describes metaphorical truths as “concepts that are literally false…but if you behave as if they were true, you come out ahead” (From Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson’s 2nd debate here).

One reliable method for understanding metaphorical truth in our lives is in the context of the Hero’s Journey. We want to reinterpret the literal facts of our lives into metaphorical terms. We want to frame ourselves as a hero, and our life a journey.

It’s not literally true that we are a hero on an appointed journey to defeat the bad guy and restore balance to the world. To act as if this is literally true is a bit silly, and unnecessary. Yet if we can relate our challenges and goals in these metaphorical terms, it can help us better understand our experience, what’s holding us back and how to make better choices. Through this thought experiment, we come out ahead.

Framing our life in these terms won’t solve our problems for us. It won’t tell us exactly what to do next. However, it will give us better ability to understand our experience.

It will give us better tools to apply solutions. These tools are not literal tools. Rather, they are new ways of thinking.

As Yuval Harari notes: “Stories are tools…We are a story telling animal. We don’t think in facts. We don’t think in statistics. We think in stories.”

Another way to understand stories is to understand their mythic structure. Myths are metaphorical stories that we tell not necessarily for entertainment, but in order to provide instruction where literal guidance is unavailable.

Most movies today follow the general mythic structure of the Hero’s Journey. We live vicariously through these characters. As actor Christopher Waltz put it: “When we go to the movies, we go to see ourselves.” We understand our lives through these stories.

However, when we apply metaphorical thinking to our own lives, we “flip the script.” We don’t understand ourselves through another character. We rather identify ourselves as the hero in our own story.

Mythic Structure of the Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey involves:

When we return home, we are different. We have been transformed by our experience. Home is the same, yet it feels different.

So what changed? Only our mindset – our understanding about ourselves and about our world.

And we can only change our mindset through action. This is where mindfulness comes in. Rather than reacting the way we always do (and getting the same frustrating result), we can catch ourselves in this cycle of thought, set it aside and identify different outcomes – or different directions if we’re speaking metaphorically.

Breaking the old cycle of thought leads to new choices, and new actions. These actions help us get past previously unsurmountable challenges.

Carl Jung and the Hero’s Journey

In the first half of the 20th century, psychologist Carl Jung developed concepts in psychology that help us better understand the role of myths. He saw myths as tools to help us understand ourselves, our role in society and to help our psychological growth.

He understood the power metaphorical thinking has on our psychological growth. When we switch from the participant (literal interpretation of our lives) to the observer (metaphorical interpretation of the Hero), we can begin let go of our personal attachment to our challenges.

As Carl Jung notes in Alchemical Studies:

“What, on a lower level, had led to the wildest conflicts and to panicky outbursts of emotion, now looks like a storm in the valley seen from the mountaintop. This does not mean that the storm is robbed of its reality, but instead of being in it one is above it.”

From this more universal perspective, we can see insights that we couldn’t see from our typical firsthand experience. Jung believed that bringing this fact to conscious awareness and internalizing it can have a therapeutic effect.

The Conflict the Hero Faces is on the Inside

Previously, we may have blamed our challenges on others. We may have judged them as being “inherently bad” or “misguided.” We identify them as the source of our problems. We tell ourselves, “If I can just overcome the challenge this other person created, then my life will be so much better.”

At the same time, part of us knows that when we eventually overcome the problem this person “created,” then we will soon discover another person creating another problem in our lives. It’s like playing whack-a-mole:

When we take a step back, we realize that often this is simply a trick our mind plays on us. The conflict isn’t on the outside, its rather inside us. The problem is that our mind identifies us as the “good guy” and the other person as the “bad guy.” What we fail to see is that both of these labels are false. Neither exists in the real world. They are simply a reflection of our internal, subjective experience.

This is simply a trick we play on ourselves unconsciously – which can be a source of unnecessary suffering. This suffering stifles our psychological growth and distorts our very perception of reality.

When we apply metaphorical thinking, we are able to set aside the literal differences we have with others. It becomes easier to see the metaphorical similarities.

Seeing the differences in others is easy. It’s convenient. It makes it easier to blame them for our problems. We do this automatically and unconsciously.

Seeing the similarities we have with others is the hard part. It takes deliberate practice and self-reflection. Identifying the similarities we have with others begins to shift accountability from others to ourselves.

As the Hero, our greatest challenge isn’t to “defeat the enemy,” in the literal sense. Rather the challenge is to identify and overcome the prejudices we hold on to that cause inner conflict. We want to gain control over that part of our personality that thrives on the petty distractions.

When we let go of our judgments of others, we practice compassion. This is a virtue that doesn’t come easy. But when we are able to apply it towards others, then it becomes easier to be more compassionate towards ourselves. The end result of this compassion is not to defeat our nagging inner critic, but rather identify it, accept it and live with.

It won’t ever go away, but when we can identify it as the source of certain thoughts, and distance ourselves from these thoughts, then we are better equipped to overcome all the challenges these thoughts create.

Again, the problem begins and ends in the mind. However, we can only solve this problem through engaging the world around us. One method for making progress involved reflecting on our lives in these metaphorical terms.

Rising Above Tragedy and Malevolence

So all the problems we face in life are in our mind? Not exactly.

There are two notable exceptions. Jordan Peterson points out that sometimes there are objectively overwhelming tragedies in our lives. And sometimes there might be people who treat us with genuine malevolence. As a result, we may suffer a great deal through no fault of our own. So how do we deal with tragedy and malevolence?

The short answer is to try and find the strength of character to carry on and rise above these forces working against us. If you’re the victim of major tragedy or malevolence, then nobody will expect you to rise above these unfortunate circumstances. To do so is a near impossible endeavor. In metaphorical terms, it is the ultimate heroic endeavor. These are the stories that cause us to reflect, dig deeper and rise above the circumstances holding us down.

An example of overcoming a personal tragedy can be found here. Arthur Boorman was a disabled veteran who was told by doctors he would never walk unassisted ever again. Through a devoted yoga practice, strict diet and incredible perseverance, he was able to lose weight, gain strength, flexibility and balance. Over time, he achieved the impossible. He began walking – even running – unassisted.

One of the most dramatic examples of facing malevolence with heroic strength can be found in Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl provides a first person account of enduring and surviving the Nazi concentration camps. He discovered that a deeper purpose in life – to endure the unprecedented suffering of the camps, and share his story. His book is a testament to the strength of human spirit – potential we all have inside us. It teaches us that it is not only possible to endure these circumstances, but also deeply meaningful to keep the will to live against overwhelming odds and unimaginable hardship.

So how do we rise above tragedy and malevolence? We don’t do it with any literal tools. We do it with a mindset. Since this is something we can’t see or touch, we have to understand it in these metaphorical terms. We learn about it through stories and experience it through our actions.

No literal instruction can tell us how to find this strength and courage in our own unique circumstances. But when we hear a truly heroic story, it can inspire us to look at our lives in these broad, metaphorical terms.

These stories inspire us in ways no literal instruction can. The tool they give us is a new perspective, a new mindset. When we apply this mindset, we can begin to let go of smaller worries that occupy our thoughts. Subsequently, this allows us to let go of smaller conflicts on the outside. This can free up energy that was preciously stuck in ruminating thoughts.

From here, we can focus our energy on positive actions that create better results. We begin to work on bigger challenges. It is through this process that we slowly develop our passion and discover meaning – not in the result, but in what we learn about ourselves through the process.

Dreams, Myths and “Individuation”

Carl Jung’s work focused primarily on exploring our unconscious mind to better understand ourselves. Modern psychology has established that the subconscious mind is real, and that controls most of our thoughts, behaviors and actions.

It causes us to act in ways we are often not consciously aware of. Through his clinical work, Jung further established that our dreams are one way in which our subconscious mind communicates with us directly.

Over his career Jung analyzed over 80,000 dreams. He noticed in dream analysis of his patients that the different images in their dreams shared common themes. He believed these themes were similar to those found in myths past and present.

Jordan Peterson elaborates: “The birthplace of literature and mythology was the dream. They share a similar mode of presentation…Jung thought of the dream as nature speaking of its own accord.” Jordan Peterson elaborates : “The birthplace of literature and mythology was the dream. They share a mode of presentation…They share an essentially narrative structure…Jung thought about the dream as nature speaking of its own accord.”

It is as if our subconscious mind is trying to instruct us as to which way to go. It does this not literally, but metaphorically through images in our dreams. It doesn’t tell us how to deal with our conflict with our coworker, but it might be communicating in these more metaphorical and highly abstract terms. The only problem is that we don’t have any certain method for interpreting these dreams.

Peterson also explains that “your unconscious mind – that’s not you, that’s nature inside you. It does what it wants. All sorts of things you don’t want to. And there isn’t much you can do about it.”

This might sound a bit defeatist at first. We have an unconscious mind and we are not in control of it? The short answer is “yes.”

The longer answer is: “Yes, our subconscious mind is running the show. But there is a method for bringing more of it to conscious awareness.” While dream analysis is considered very helpful in this process, it is by no means the only method.

Jung created a method he called the Individuation Process – the process of confronting contents of the unconscious, bringing them to conscious awareness and integrating them to bring about a more harmonious balance in the psyche.

In metaphorical terms, the Individuation Process is very similar to the Hero’s Journey.

As Carl Jung points out:

Check back this fall for more detailed content on The Hero’s Journey, the Individuation Process and how to apply this mindset to your life


What do beginner, intermediate
and advanced yoga practices look like?

Check back in November for a step-by-step method. For now we can think of 3 levels of yoga practice as:

Beginner: Practice yoga

That’s it. Any time you develop a new habit, it takes a lot of effort. So keep it simple. Just focus on this.

Everyone’s busy. Nobody has free time. So to carve out the three hours, plus the commute, plus canceling other appointments will feel a lot like work at first.

Notice how I didn’t say twice a week. To get the benefits, you really need to practice a minimum of three times a week for a month.

After a month, you’ll begin to feel stronger, more flexible and have better balance. This is the start of your yoga journey.

Intermediate: Start meditating With our practice on the mat as a foundation, we can begin to branch out and be more mindful of our experience off the mat.

Remember, the goal is not to fill our time with yoga checklists. Rather, we want to use our yoga practice to help us get more out of the rest of our day. If you feel like you don’t have the time for all of this, then just make sure to keep your studio practice going.

Advanced: Train your mind to stay in the present moment

After developing our yoga practice, we are more present. We are more intuitive. We can now use this deeper awareness to make better decisions that create better outcomes.

In theory this is all easy to understand, but incorporating these practices is where the real work begins. This is where we begin to explore the unknown to find what we’re looking for: