Who is the yoga teacher? Every breath, every interaction, every single life experience whether forgotten or grand offers a lesson in existence. Everything we know or need to know is inherent. We experience what appears to exist outside of ourselves to learn that the teacher we seek is within ourselves.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
On and off the Mat: What is Yoga?
What is the most common thing people think of at the mention of yoga? Several immediate responses come to mind:
A) Yoga is an exercise for people who are really flexible. B) People who do yoga like to chant "om" and say "namaste".
C) Yoga is a big mystery: what do they do in that yoga studio?
Yoga, being fairly new to the west in terms of actual length of existence (Yoga is at least 3000- 5000 years old. Some people believe yoga is as old as 40,000 years) is full of mystery, tainted with stigmas, and also appealing as a means to become a healthier and happier person. To ask the question "What is yoga?", is to begin understanding this ancient practice. But buyer beware: The answers to that query are so vast, so full of rich detail. The answers are charged with passion, opinion, history, lore and mysticism. For me, asking the question "what is yoga?" is a vital action in my daily practice as I study, observe and experience what yoga means in my life. Answering the question from a personal perspective is like explaining what a peach tastes like, why stars matter or what love is. Those types of questions are the reason we have poetry. So to start this little journey of explaining yoga, I'd like to share my favorite poem by Rumi, the 13th century Sufi pet who had a serious knack for speaking heart and spirit through his poetry. This translation is by Coleman Barks and it is from the book Birdsong.
There is a desert
I long to be walking,
a wide emptiness
peace beyond any
understanding of it.
What does this poem speak of and how does it pertain to yoga? Well, when I first read this poem I was a new yoga student. In my practice I was just beginning to understand a new hunger of peace in my life. I read the poem and there was such a strong resonance of its meaning that it instantly became a theme for me. Life is full of turmoil and conflict. Humanity exists in a general state of unfairness. But there is also beauty, wisdom, joy, vitality and the generosity of human spirit. Between those states of existence there are ways to discriminate and choose the latter. I want to participate in cultivating a world of health and happiness for all of humanity. When I read this poem, something big clicked for me; that the best possible way to cultivate that world wellness was to live it. The poem feels silently deep. It may seem passive in attitude but for those on a path of awakening, stillness in the surging waters of the self, a single clear pool among our own raging rivers is where we view reflections of perfect truth. Reflections of perfect truth that can be discovered in each and every human soul show us what and who we are for real.
"Well, how the heck is doing poses going to create world peace? And if there is more to it, then what is it?"
Darn good question.
Second question first:
There are many many ancient and modern writings on how to do yoga. A notable and widely embraced text is The Yoga Sutras as comprised by the sage Patanjaliapproximately 2000 years ago (this is subject to debate). The sutras are 196 aphorisms stating how to practice yoga in order to become enlightened. In the yoga sutras the type of yoga called Raja, or "Royal" yoga is described. The practice of Raja Yoga is described in Pantanjali's eight limbs, commonly known as Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga means "eight limbs" and is recognized mainly as a style of yoga practice presented by (the now late) Sri K PattabhiJois, but practicing Ashtanga yoga is not limited to this specific style. One who follows the eight limbed path might not be a student of PattabhiJois' Ashtanga yoga, but it can be identified as Ashtanga nonetheless.
What are the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga?
The yoga student gets a lot more than the mat and and abs they bargained for when they look more deeply into what a yogi practices. For me this was such a huge delight! Learning that yoga addressed not only my body, but my heart, my soul and the soul of the world sealed the deal. The eight limbs are as follows:
-Satya, truth all encompassing
-Asteya, non-stealing/ non-covetousness
-Bramachaya, sexual virtue (literal translation is celibacy)
-Aparigraha, non-hoarding/ non-greed
-Svadhyaya, Self study/ study of God
-IsvaraPranidhana, Self surrender/ faith/ dedication to God
Asana: Postures, meditative physical practice
Pranayama: Control of the breath
Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses from external stimuli
Dhyana: meditation on a singular focus
Samadhi:Superconsciousness, awakening, knowing singularity of self and the world
Over the next few weeks I will elaborate on the eight limbs, exploring each limb individually as well as interconnectedly. Keep an eye out for The Eight Limbs series of posts.
Now to answer that second question about how doing yoga postures or asana can be a force to change the world.
You've heard the saying, "If you want to change the world, change your mind". The saying is true in many ways, especially in reference to our perspective of the world. What we see is what we experience. In many instances (and the deeper teachings of yoga tell us in ALL instances) we can change how we see life therefore affecting the meaning of life as well as the quality of our lives. If this is true, then sign me up. I have control over my experience? I can affect the world for the better? Sold! I am lucky to be an American and afford this luxury of time, space, comfort and health to explore how yoga can be a seed of world improvement. As someone with those luxuries, I consider it to be my responsibility or more appropriately my dharma, my path as well as my karma.
Does changing the world seem daunting?
Not if we view the path of change as just that: a path. One can not complete a journey of a long path in one big step, nor just by looking at the map. We must step on to the path, then begin walking. I like to do it nature hike style, enjoying the scenery and observing it's intricacies. So if the path is yoga, the steps might begin with any of the eight limbs. My first step, like many Americans was yoga postures. I was attracted to the movement and the breathing. I loved the way it made me feel. But one cannot live in a single step for to long. The next step is always one footfall ahead. For me that step was to learn that yoga was also a spiritual practice. From there I felt the urge to run, to feel the wind on my face, my heart racing with excitement. Asana got me on the path and has since fueled me to run, walk, saunter and rest along the way.
But wait, there's more!
I don't want to acknowledge asana as a mere starting point though. Asana is an intense practice if you let it be. Here's the deal: you're focusing entirely on your breath, creating as much depth and awareness in breath as possible. The teacher is offering instructions, giving guidance on how to move and manipulate the body in ways you thought only the most fit and flexible could, but your doing it! Meanwhile you're asked to pay attention to your thoughts! Dog-gonnit, if there was one thing I wanted to avoid it was my mind-voice. But here, in my yoga practice I have learned that the only way to quiet the mind-voice is to listen to what is says...without...(drum-roll please) judgment. How is this even possible? In my practice I am judging my body, my abilities, my level of competitiveness. I am judging the fact that I am judging myself. I am telling myself how great I am, how much I suck. I am telling myself that I need to practice harder, learn more, be better! But once upon a time I would not have willingly admitted to those thoughts. Not in step aerobics, not in running, not in any of my attempts to become a more valuable person by creating a better body would I have even entertained the idea that I was judging who I am. In yoga, when the teacher reminds us over and over to observe our thoughts and feelings we resist at first, but then the True Self obeys. In those observations of thought we see not what we really are, but what the mind thinks we are and should be. Thoughts and beliefs are dis-empowered, and we see that they are creation of ego. How powerful is that?
We live in one place only, through our whole lives.
This place is our individual bodies. Think about it. If you are in Yosemite and looking at a waterfall, you feel blissful and amazed. You might think "I am feeling this in Yosemite." But you are only feeling it in your sense of perceptions and that exists in your body. You feel it through your sight sense, and what you sense through your vision when you watch the cascading movement of water over magnificent stones creates peace, pleasure and awe. Peace, pleasure and awe are not in that waterfall, they are in you. You may feel a misty breeze as your skin senses movement of air and coldness. This is because of your touch sense. Your sense of touch is yours and yours alone. What you feel when moisture comes in contact with your skin happens not in those drops of water, but in you. You may hear the sound of water gushing, splashing and flowing. Then you might feel energized and invigorated. Invigoration is something that happens in your body and you respond to it because you recognize it. And only what is already known is recognizable is it not? If you want to know, "if this only happens in one place, my body, why does my experience change because of where I am, what I am doing and the event surrounding me?" One obvious reason is that we are constantly choosing different experiences for the sake of feeling different things. Another is more like going back to the question "Why does a peach taste like a peach?" When we experience the delight of a waterfall and think the waterfall is an experience that we are separate from , then we cannot experience the interconnectedness of the universe. When we realize that the energy and invigoration that seems to come from the waterfall is actually our own, we can then understand the waterfall to be an aspect of ourselves. The body moves and that gives the illusion of going to and being in different places. But can you not see the waterfall in your mind's eye? Can you not feel it in your heart? Wherever you choose to be at any given moment is where you choose to be in your body. How you experience life is a reflection of what inherently exists within you already. All this I have learned from my asana practice.
There are of course very sensitive and hard questions that must be asked about this conclusion: What about people who suffer severe poverty, disease, starvation, unclean living conditions? It is because of yoga that I feel I can explore these facts of life without judgment. If I am aware of and affected by these realities, that means that they are a part of my own disease to be healed. It is as much my responsibility to practice yoga for those who suffer deeply as it is for "myself".
So we circle back to the eight limbs.
The eight limbs are a guide for virtuous living. Virtuous living is better for the whole planet, for all people, for all living things. When we practice ahimsa, we recognize the importance of loving kindness, of gentleness of keeping anger and hatred in check. In bramacharya, sexuality is not so much of a distraction from the rest of the world, rather a sacred aspect of who we are. It is revered rather than abused. when we practice pranayama we recognize the profoundness in our choice to be alive, to make a decision to perform the life-sustaining action of breathing. In Dhyana, we acknowledge the need to understand who we are through meditation. For how can we know our children, our neighbors or our global community if we do not know our own minds?
There are endless benefits to this practice we call yoga. All of that and yoga still does not judge or decide what is more or less important. Start with something. Do that one practice forever or learn other practices as well. It does not matter. It is nice to know that here in the west, where there is lots of ridicule for the way we practice, the deeper lessons of yoga are unfolding as naturally as waterfalls pour over cliffs. And it is in large part of the practice we started on our mats: yoga asana.
Weather these things are of big or little interest to you, I hope that you have a better understanding of yoga. If you find that your are even more intrigued, join the club! Yoga is described in the Yoga Sutras by Pantanjali as sarvabhauma, meaning "all world". It is described as a practice fit for anyone who is interested. Today I want to thank you for sharing your interest by reading this! Tomorrow, look for more as I delve into the meanings and practises of each of the eight limbs of yoga.