Yoga Is Not What You Think
Many years ago Ed lived at the renowned Bihar School of Yoga in India where he became a Swami, a yogic monk. He spent time in silence and trained in many various aspects of yoga. He soon realized that yoga is far more than just a series of postures or mental exercises but is a system that guides every aspect of life, from the way we walk and talk to a state of inner freedom.
In other words, yoga is not just learning how to stand on our head but is, as Swami Satchidananda taught, actually learning how to stand on our feet. What was most profound was seeing how, without love, yoga is dry; that unless we have an open heart and compassion then there is no true yoga. We can know and read all the teachings, the sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita, but that is not enough to fully awaken.
When we complete the journey to our own heart, we will find ourselves in the hearts of everyone else —Father Thomas Keating, in Be The Change.
Last year we considered writing a book called Can Yoga Save The World? But when we discussed it with other people many were quite puzzled and asked: how can physical postures save the world? Which made us realize that modern-day yoga has, to a large extent, lost touch with the magnificence and breadth of its original teachings. As a fellow Yogi said, “Unfortunately in the West it does seem that yoga is forgetting its roots and becoming just another cool new exercise.”
Isaac, the manager at our local 24 Hour Fitness told us that people think yoga is just sitting in a room and humming and, more importantly, that men won’t go to a class as they think it is a woman’s thing. This reminded Deb of when we were teaching in India and the participants were all men. They were very surprised to find a woman teaching the class, as in India there are far more men who practice.
There are various forms of yoga, just as there are different aspects to our nature, with a wealth of teachings for each form. Here we describe the five main branches of yoga, as well as Tantra yoga, which little is known about and is the most misunderstood. The purpose of all the forms is to enable the practitioner to develop a balanced life through a healthy body and mind, deep inner peace and, ultimately, to realize their true nature. For instance, through Bhakti yoga we awaken universal love and compassion; Karma yoga is the path of selfless action, where we surrender our own needs to the joy of service; and Jnana yoga is the path of philosophy and reflection, where we use the intellect in order to transcend the intellect.
Raja yoga, also known as the King of Yoga, is the most comprehensive and experiential path, and the one that can be most proven scientifically. Founded by the legendary Indian master Patanjali, he outlined eight steps. In the first two steps, yama and niyama, are clear instructions on how to live an ethical and caring life through practicing harmlessness (ahimsa), being truthful, not being greedy nor indulging in addictions. It outlines the importance of having a healthy lifestyle, and the need for self-reflection so that we become more aware of our own habits and mental tendencies.
The third step is the practice of physical postures or asanas, which literally means seat. The idea is to practice different postures so that our body is able to sit comfortably without tension in meditation. In ancient times Hatha yoga was a separate science, with strenuous and challenging postures and austere purification through cleansing techniques or hatha kriyas, as well as the purification of the mind. Within the last 30 years many different types of Hatha have appeared that mostly focus on asanas, with pranayama and relaxation, which are steps three, four and five of Raja yoga.
The fourth step is pranayama, working with the life force or prana, with a variety of different breathing techniques that calm the mind and body while increasing the inner energy. The fifth step is the withdrawal of the mind from the senses, as practiced in deep inner conscious relaxation (see Ed’s CD, Yoga Nidra). Here we turn the mind within and do not identify with the objects of the world, our desires or senses, but develop inner clarity.
Having gained some control over the body, released tension and developed calmness, the sixth step teaches concentration, bringing our attention to the fluctuating mind with its constant chatter, dramas and daydreams. By focusing on just one thing, such as a candle flame (tratak), the mind is able to rest and become one-pointed. Next we can enter meditation, where the mind becomes quiet and still. As the attachment to the ego lessons, so our understanding of truth deepens.
Samadhi, or the highest happiness, is the final step of Raja yoga. This is a state of consciousness where the individual self merges with the universal self, like a drop of water merges with the ocean. The ultimate purpose of yoga is in order to awaken to this state. Samadhi is the unconditional, omnipresent, omnipotent reality. It is our true, authentic nature.
Tantra yoga is a systematic way to make every aspect of life sacred, yet it is mistakenly thought of as being primarily about sex. Sexuality is only a small part of tantric teachings, as tantra also deals with very powerful and often negative emotions, such as fear and anger, that are used to awaken the practitioner’s dormant potential. What is being taught nowadays is not traditional tantra. The original purpose, as with other forms of yoga, is to transcend the individual ego to attain Self Realization.
We hope this has given a taste of the vastness and magnitude of this ancient teaching. Hatha is certainly a fundamental part of yoga, but so also is meditation, doing good and being good! May you enjoy this most wonderful gift handed down to us from the Yogi’s and Yogini’s of ancient times.
What does yoga mean to you? Do comment below.