So what exactly IS yoga? Many people claim to practice yoga, or at least go for yoga classes, but do they really know what it is? Life today, with its emphasis on financial survival means that people have to work more in order to earn more, or at least not see their earnings lose value because of demons like rising prices and inflation. This of course automatically comes with added pressure to perform. So for many, yoga is a means to managing stress. So, like taking a pill, some dutifully turn up for yoga class regularly in hopes that this will give them some peace of mind.
And what a beautiful reason to practice yoga. If this works for you, I say keep it up! Indeed, dedicating that time to yourself and returning to your body through asana while maintaining your breath is perhaps one of the most effective ways of relieving stress from your day. My only advice – do it more; once or twice a week is not sufficient to achieve this goal. Even ten minutes of yoga every morning will help.
But back to the question that spawned this thought process; IS that all that yoga is?
In Sanskrit, the word yoga literally translates to ‘union’ or to unite or to yoke. Its main purpose is to unite practitioners with our truest, deepest and highest selves. A lofty ideal indeed! This re-integration can be achieved via four yogic paths.
I like to think of yoga as means to self-realization. Everyone’s highest nature is already within them. They just have to realize it before they can tap into it. In other words, it is a method of unleashing your full potential. A bit like the ancient version of NLP!
Self-realization can be likened to a mountain summit. And for those of you who have climbed an actual mountain, you will know what I mean when I say it is a monumental effort. Not just of physical strength, but mental and emotional resilience too. Conquering a summit takes everything out of you and still demands more. You will have to dig deep into your reserves to keep going.
Yoga offers you four routes to the summit. Each is suited to a different temperament or approach to life.
KARMA YOGA – The yoga of action/duty/selfless service.
This path encourages us to undertake our duties in life sincerely, skillfully and selflessly with no attachment to their outcomes or any expectation of reward. The pleasure is derived from the doing, NOT the end result.
What IS my duty?
That would depend on the stage of life you are at and your life circumstances. It could be following in your father’s footsteps and becoming a farmer, blacksmith, fisherman, or a priest. It could be running away to join the circus. It could be encountering a severely injured stray and nursing it back to health and realizing these animals need you and you volunteer at the animal shelter. Or it could simply be being a devoted parent, child or spouse. It really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you do it with heart. Because no matter how big or small, an action/duty done well, makes the world a better place. It helps us to live unselfishly and successfully in the world with a sense of purpose.
A stellar example of karma yoga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-S74HuDIRa4
BHAKTI YOGA – The Yoga of Love and Devotion
It can also be defined as cultivating a personal relationship with the divine, in whichever way one perceives the divine. At the heart of bhakti is surrender; surrender to something larger than yourself and trusting that this force/essence will guide you to your destiny. One does not necessarily have to focus these feelings on the divine but rather, simply opening your heart and cultivating the qualities of love, gratitude, wonder and humility is bhakti.
Various religious traditions have their own forms of bhakti yoga. In Hinduism, there is devotional chanting called kirtans. The mystic Sufis of Islam also engage their form of ecstatic prayer known as zikir. Yet other mystics known as the whirling dervishes perform a mesmerizing whirling dance as their zikir.
Beginning each day by recognizing the love you have for yourself and then expanding it to the rest of your world is a great way of observing bhakti all day, every day. Setting a daily intention to do your best and then following through with sincerity is another.
RAJA YOGA – The Yoga of Physical and Mental Control
It is also otherwise known as classical yoga of Patanjali or Ashtanga yoga. Raja yoga has evolved to be accessible to everyday people, who contribute to family life and community, while wanting to attain a spiritual goal.
According to Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, “Yoga limits the oscillations of the mind“. Rāja yoga is concerned with the mind and controlling its fluctuations. This process, it is said, leads to a state of quiet detachment, in which there is mastery over the senses. It is believed that gaining control over the mind allows one to experience one’s true self, with full clarity and without doubt, fear or anxiety.
This method lays out an eight-fold path towards self-realization, hence the term ‘Ashtanga’. It offers a systematic and methodical roadmap of sorts on how to achieve one’s true potential.
The eight-limbs of Patanjali illuminate the way to achieve this. They are;
1) Ethical conduct towards others
2) Relationship with the self in view of self-improvement
3) Physical postures designed to prepare the body for sitting meditation
4) Breath control, to stimulate and control vital life force within the body
5) Sense withdrawal
6) State of concentration or maintaining a single-pointed focus
7) Meditation or sustained concentration
The Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system of Sri K Pattabhi Jois aims to closely mirror the ideals of Patanjali. It incorporates not only asanas, but also focused breathing, sense withdrawal and one-pointed focus, all of which are designed to achieve a state of sustained concentration. In addition, the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa requires a level of discipline and devotion. Guruji always emphasized the importance of observing a certain moral conduct towards other and towards ourselves. Even the asana sequence is laced with a logical wisdom where the mastery of one set of postures helps the practitioner prepare for the next set of postures.
Back in the day when Guruji was but a young apprentice of T. Krishnamacharya, yoga was not ‘mainstream’ and was practiced either in the privacy of the home or by renunciates (individuals who have given up worldly pleasures in pursuit of self-realization). But Guruji believed that yoga was for everyone. So he created a system that was suitable for the householder (individuals with responsibilities such as families and jobs) who wanted to achieve both worldly and spiritual success.
JNANA YOGA – The yoga of intellect and contemplation
It is also known as the path of the sage or scholar and will appeal to those more intellectually-inclined. A yoga of knowledge, wisdom, introspection and contemplation, it involves deep exploration of the nature of our being by systematically exploring and setting aside false identities. The attainment of true knowledge is the recognition that there is no distance between the self and the universe.
In order to gain these realizations, a jnana yogi needs have tremendous strength of will and intellect, which he uses to investigate his own nature. The yoga needs to listen, learn, reflect, contemplate and meditate to learn the truth and attain liberation or moksha from everyday suffering.
Deep stuff? I think so too! Jnana yoga is considered the most direct but also most challenging path towards self-realization.
I hope this little tour has given you a bird’s eye view of how vast yoga really is. I hope that it will motivate you to wonder where your path lies. I have indeed found that the incorporation of Ashtanga (Raja yoga) into my daily life has left me with many benefits, the least of which, but most apparent of which, is being physically fitter. While I always hear, “You’re so strong!” on the outside, on the inside, I am hearing, “Thank you for making space for ‘me’ time”. It is my body thanking me for taking time out to attend to it and at the same time bringing my mind back into where it belongs, my body. My practice has taught me to pay attention to the cues that my physical body gives me, for it has its own innate wisdom and warnings and solutions and cures to just about any issue I might be facing.
And that is just on the physical level! Ashtanga has given me the space and time to ponder and realize many things such as the interplay between strength and flexibility and how it applies to all areas of life. In short, I fully believe that my path towards my self-realization lies in the pursuit of Raja Yoga.
While asana does play an important role in yoga, there are many other aspects that can and should be appreciated. It stretches beyond than just, well, stretching! See you in class J
3 July 2014
Ashtanga yoga teacher
Art of Yoga