What is Yoga? Do you, when you think of yoga, conjure up an image of a class where you do exercises, stretches, and focus on your breathing? Well this is one part of yoga, and for most of us the most accessible and practical form of Yoga. But, is this all there is to Yoga? And for that matter, why do we do asanas (postures) at all?
Yoga has many forms, including the three classical forms of Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga , and Karma Yoga. These three branches of Yoga don’t necessarily have structured techniques, practices or training sessions; in fact no mat is required. These classical forms of Yoga are less about a technical practice, and more about a whole life path of devotion, study, and service, respectively. Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion, and is practiced through ritual, prayer, cooking, chanting, offering and meditation. Jnana Yoga is the yoga of study and is practiced through the dedicated study and contemplation of writings, scripture, texts, stories, self-study, and meditation. Karma Yoga is the yoga of selfless service and is practiced through being of service to others as a volunteer or service provider in your community. The common thread in these three forms of Yoga is the practice of meditation – both meditation as a technical practice, and also meditation as a way of living your life in a state of awareness, present-moment-ness, and reflection. So, how do these three classical forms of Yoga relate to the sweat-inducing lycra-requiring classes we attend?
In the west we are more familiar with what is often called “Hatha Yoga”, which is a broad term covering most yoga forms that employ a physical practice. One related form of yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, could be considered a part of this Hatha category of practice, but it is much more than just a physical Yoga. Ashtanga, or Eight Limbs dates back thousands of years and was first (and perhaps best) compiled into a set of teachings by the philosopher and yogi Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. Patanjali described a system of study that includes a variety of practices, techniques and philosophies that are designed to progressively lead the practitioner along the path towards personal evolution, and spiritual transformation. But with all these techniques, philosophies and layers of practice, at its heart, Ashtanga Yoga is about finding a state of meditation in all that we do.
The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are logical steps towards self-exploration and self-actualization. Like all good systems, they begin with simple basics. The first two limbs contain social and personal ethics like honesty, cleanliness, non-violence and contentment. These first two limbs are practiced in everyday life in relationship to yourself and in relationship with others. The next two limbs are the training ground of asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breathwork) which help us to purify, contain and refine the body/mind through consistent and systematic practice. The next four limbs get a little harder to define, as they are subtle practices that require the earlier work of the first four limbs. They include control of the senses, focus of the mind, meditation, and Samadhi – the state of absorption. We could think of the second four limbs as “results” derived from the earlier work. Without the daily practice of limbs 1-4, the second more subtle and more potent limbs remain unavailable.
So, these first four limbs of Yoga are what we “do” in a Yoga class – this is what we are familiar with as “Yoga”. We move, breath, bend, stretch, focus and relax all in an environment of awareness, self-observation, and kindness towards the self. We aim for a practice that cultivates responsiveness rather than reactive-ness to the ebbs and flows of body, breath and life. The fruits of this labor are a settled mind and a settled body and this, in essence, is what Yoga is all about. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the fundamental nature of Yoga is the settled mind, and when the mind is settled we can realize our true nature. To experience this state of Yoga, we must first move the tension and restlessness out of the body and mind so that we can sit still, observe, reflect, and then find the settled mind that lies at the heart of meditation.
The physical practice of yoga is not about being fit, flexible, strong, toned, or able to twist the legs behind the head. All the physical work is designed to do is to help us to learn to focus and be present in the body, to create enough flexibility and relaxation so that we can sit easily in meditation, and to learn how to approach our “work” with effortlessness and grace. When Pantanjali describes Asana in the Yoga Sutras, he advises that our postures should be “steady and comfortable” or in other translations we see the meaning as “steady and joyful”. All that we do in our yoga classes is designed to bring us to a sitting position where we can be steady and comfortable so that we can venture inward in meditation without distraction.
Leaping forward a few thousand years from the writing of the Yoga Sutras, the issue that many modern yogi’s face today is that the physical practice of Yoga can be very distracting. The pain or tension in our bodies is distracting. The desire we have for a certain pose or a certain body is distracting. Our competition with other people in the room is distracting. The ideas we have about the “right” practice are distracting. The ups and downs of the practice are distracting. But, this has all been worked out for us already. The path is laid out in 8 steps – keep moving through the distractions, the pain, the pleasure, the attainment and non-attainment. It will come.
With all of this being said, can there possibly be a “right” kind of Yoga? Our access to yoga classes in the West has never been so abundant. Yoga participation has never been higher, and yoga schools and studios, local classes and even classes in the workplace abound. How do you choose the right class? What is the best kind of Yoga to practice? I would suggest that any yoga is the best yoga. The class you can get to is the right class. The teacher who invites you in is your teacher. And whatever happens in the class, this is your business, no one elses. When we look at the practice as being a gateway to an experience of observation, awareness, and meditation – it matters not what postures we are doing. It matters not if the style of practice is in vogue. What matters is that you have an opportunity to be in your body, to move the tension and restlessness out of your body/mind, so that you can have an experience of the settled mind. And that, nothing more, is why we do asana.
I hope that this piece has been informative, and perhaps – dare I hope – even inspiring. If you would like to read more on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, I would highly recommend translations by Chip Hartranft, George Feuerstein, Alistair Shearer, BKS Iyengar, and the wonderful technical and philosophical study by Gregor Maehle called Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy.
Mind Body Messenger Newsletter 2010