We all live in the Real World.
We all have jobs to do, families to take care of and social lives to squeeze in to our busy schedules, each of them a drain on our limited our time and energy. As we tick off one task after another, we can lose touch with what is important in life. We can even lose touch with ourselves.
At time like these, the practices of Yoga can help us bring balance and clarity into our lives. Yet, many modern approaches to Yoga fail to go beyond the physical realm to meet our deeper needs and truly tackle the stress of modern living. As Real People, our bodies and our minds need care and attention that simply aren’t met by the intense workouts and gymnastic routines that are so commonly labelled as Yoga classes.
Real Yoga has the tools to help us stay healthy at every level of our being—physical, mental-emotional and spiritual. Beyond the benefits of movement and posture practice (asana), the breathwork (pranayama), meditative (dhyana), sound (mantra) and gesture (mudra) practices of Yoga will help you bring positive change into every aspect of your life.
What is Yoga?
Let’s take a step back and ask what Yoga really is in the first place? There are many different answers to that, from ancient texts to 21st century opinions, but somewhere in it all is a common thread. We can clearly see from texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that Yoga is actually a practical philosophy that tells us how to live life without suffering. In this case, suffering is a very specific term that can be defined as our typically reactive and malcontent mental-emotional state in 21st century life, which we create through the way we use our minds. It is perhaps what we think of nowadays, in its strongest manifestations, as our cultural habit of living in a manner that makes chronic stress almost inevitable.
Yoga proposes that we can find freedom in our lives, and that freedom will come from the relief of mental-emotional suffering. It says that you make such a shift through the practice of transformational Yoga training, which changes our usual mental-emotional habits (known as samskaras). These activities are many, and include a broad variety of conscious practices such as posture and movement practices (asana), breath control techniques (pranayama) and a range of meditation practices (pratyahara, dharanam, dhyanam and samadhi). By repeatedly changing these habits, we enhance our life at every level of being (physical, mental-emotional and spiritual).
It is worthy of mention that long before approaching this grand goal of freedom (often referred to as enlightenment or realisation), regular Yoga practice gives us a number of smaller but worthwhile benefits along the way. These include improvements in strength, mobility, flexibility, circulation, energy, relaxation and the ability to deal with stress and many other health benefits. These benefits are very helpful indeed, and are often of much more importance to students at the earlier stages of Yoga practice than the lofty goal of enlightenment, due to the level of suffering they cause.
So before tending to the bigger goal of total freedom, Yoga first seeks to improve overall wellbeing in order to create a strong foundation from which the deeper work can begin.
Foundations of Yoga
The ground of my own approach to Yoga comes largely from the teachings of Indian yogi, Sri T. Krishnamacharya. A renowned healer and scholar, Krishnamacharya taught such modern greats as BKS Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) and Indra Devi. It is worth saying that there are many other teachers with many different approaches, but few of them had as great an impact on the evolution and proliferation of Yoga during the 20th century. Krishnamacharya died in 1989 and his work was continued by his son and closest student, TKV Desikachar, the staff at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, and a few other students internationally.
Krishnamacharya’s fundamental belief is expressed in his oft-quoted saying: “Teach what is inside you, not as it applies to you, to yourself, but as it applies to the other.” He insisted that the practices of Yoga must be adapted to meet each student’s individual needs (Viniyoga), so that Yoga could be truly accessible to all. This is the underlying principle that pervades every level of our teaching, as without it Yoga is in danger of becoming impotent through standardisation, or worse a manipulative effort to change people beyond their true nature.
The Pathless Path
It is important to point out that Krishnamacharya’s personalised approach to teaching Yoga is at the opposite end of the spectrum to most modern schools or lineages in Yoga. It doesn’t even represent a style or tradition in fact, as the very concept of fixing your approach to Yoga as belonging to one school or lineage or style has an inherent flaw.
If you choose to adhere strictly to any given style, you immediately (and unnecessarily) limit your options, and thereby restrict the potential of the resulting Yoga practices. In any given style or tradition there are things that you do and other things that you don’t do. The realm of Yoga practice is vast, and we should always go beyond such restrictions and openly consider the full spectrum of tools presented by all Yoga traditions—and may non-Yoga traditions—to further our personal evolution and that of our students. In that sense, I have found that the way of Yoga is a pathless path, open in all ten directions.
We should always be open to drawing inspiration and gaining understanding from many of the world’s wisdom schools, even if our approach is contained within the guiding principles of a great teacher such as Krishnamacharya. A variety of experiences with many different wisdom traditions can only help us to open and broaden our perspectives on the complete Yoga journey.
If we are discarding boundaries of what we do and don’t, then is there any guidance to help us on our way? Within the many tools and systems, we can take direction from a core group of principles that apply to all Yoga practice. I have found these simple functional attitudes to be not only useful on my own journey (without being prescriptive), but also helpful in guiding others along the pathless path, and I will go into them in detail in Part II of this article.