What the Himalayan foothills taught me about dharma bhava

Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra, son of the founder of The Yoga Institute (and today it’s President) tells students, “Sit quietly for 15 minutes every day. It will change your life.”

These words encapsulate the practice of dharma bhava (an attitude or state of being related to the concept of duty). We can cultivate dharma bhava by sitting in any meditative posture and observing our breath. The aim is to turn inward and fulfill our highest duty in yoga, the duty to ourselves, by experiencing quietude and preparing ourselves to carry out our duties in the world with equanimity. Dharma bhava also has to do with discipline and self-direction as we seek to continually pull the wandering mind back to the breath during the practice.

Dr. Jayadeva’s words come to me as I sit for meditation in the mornings. Unlike in Mumbai, the day dawns quiet in Iowa City, only the sound of an occasional passing car or perhaps a snow shovel to distract me. No excuse of barking dogs, no racket of crows, no man ringing his bicycle bell to announce that he’s arrived with the day’s quotient of eggs and freshly baked bread.

Still, my mind is not quiet. It is running forward to the day’s to-do list and back to replay a conversation from the day before and again forward. But then there are moments – sometimes it’s hard to tell how long they last – where it is just the breath. Just the feeling of inhalation and exhalation, the whisper of air on the inner edges of my nostrils. Sometimes I feel energy vibrating throughout my body. Sometimes I feel my body dissolving and melting into the atmosphere, while all that exists is the breath.

And for what? The biggest clue to the effectiveness of this practice is not how I feel when I do it. It’s what happens when I don’t. Here’s a story to that effect.

Each year we lived in India we escaped Mumbai’s heat and humidity for a week and traveled to the cooler climes of the Himalayan foothills. In 2012 we decided to do a 4 day, 3 night trek and contracted a local company to supply us with a guide.

Things went awry. Our bus broke down before we even reached the starting point. On our first night, we were subjected to the most ferocious lightening and hail storm I’ve ever experienced. It was so windy that our tent would not stand. Fortunately we were able to take refuge in a simple shelter nearby. And, we kept losing the trail. To my increasing frustration and disbelief, this didn’t seem to bother our guide. He even seemed to relish the occasions when he deemed it necessary to take out the ax used for firewood and chop down someone’s fence in an attempt to find our way back to the trail.

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Evening storm rolling in over the mountains

There were glorious moments on that trip, a field of alpine flowers and ladybugs, colorful birds singing the morning after the hail storm, simple but delicious meals and stunning views. Yet my enjoyment of the sublime nature around me was marred by irritation at our guide and fears of slipping down the steep hillside as we ventured on to yet another “short cut”.

I also became increasingly frustrated with myself. Why couldn’t I let go of my anger and take in the views? Why couldn’t I just roll with the punches and enjoy the adventure? What had happened to the unflappable person I thought I’d become after all that yoga training? I realized later that a lack of grounding was at the root of my disgruntlement. I was so consumed by what was happening around me that I neglected the daily duty to turn inward and find calm.

I have to remind myself that practice of dharma bhava doesn’t happen only at 6:30 am on my yoga mat. I can slow down and breathe whenever I feel my heart creep up into my throat with anxiety or my respiration increase with anger. The whole point is to reach a state where dharma bhava is the default way of being, a place where I can face life’s challenges with balance and poise. And  there are certainly greater challenges than getting lost while hiking on vacation. So I keep practicing.

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I did smile a few times on that trip, in spite of myself!