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What determines how we respond when a stressful situation arises in our lives? Are we influenced by past experiences, current needs, or the opinions of those close to us? Is our thinking shaped by deeply ingrained messages from our culture? Or are we free to act with full awareness in the present moment and in harmony with our true nature, our interconnection with all of life?

The residents of the institute decided to practice choosing freedom for the month of March. For us, this implies responding to life free of the “shoulds” we may have residing in our psyches from childhood. This can be harder than it sounds, since we are easily compelled by habitual beliefs and thought patterns that are so entrenched and familiar that we may not be able to see them.

For example, do I find it difficult to be honest about a mistake that I made because of what others might think about me? I may find myself spinning the truth to protect my self-image if I am unconsciously in need of approval to feel good about myself. I might rationalize taking advantage of someone else financially, swayed by a deeply rooted need for security.

Our Yoga practice is a good place to begin cultivating greater self-awareness of the ways we react to life. Even here, we may find ourselves trying to look good, comparing ourselves to others or to some image we have, or judging our practice as good or bad by some unintentional standard. Instead, we can cultivate approaches to practice that free us from past conditioning.

During Hatha Yoga sessions, we can practice moving freely by tuning into the raw sensations of the body. We can train ourselves to act with non-judgmental awareness and in caring response to our capacity in this moment. We cultivate this same kind of experience during meditation, disengaging over and over again from the stream of thought that we normally identify with. A mind that thus becomes focused, quiet and open can truly perceive and respond to events as they are, without looking through a colored lens or projecting onto things our hopes or fears.

In this way, we train ourselves to pause and discriminate between the anxious reactions that may be triggered by stressful situations, and the deeper, neutral voice of our Spiritual Consciousness. This occurs over time with steady effort, patience and without expectation for how and when results will come.

When we repeat such a practice and experience moments free of habitual thought patterns, we begin to see ourselves and our relationship to the world in a fresh way. We begin to feel our connection to each other and all of nature. A natural compassion and wisdom arise in our hearts. Over time, a regular practice of this kind will gradually restructure even the subconscious mind so that we are no longer compelled by old beliefs, and approach life with a sense of deep belonging, inner contentment and wonder.