What an honor it was to spend the last few days at the Yoga Journal Conference in San Diego assisting my teacher, Gary Kraftsow. Curmudgeonly Gary. He has the onerous task of traveling widely to these corporate-sponsored events—for whom poses do a better job than self-inquiry of selling— to say again and again, ‘Yoga is not simply asana.’ He says it kindly at first. And then he repeats himself. And then he take a long, deep breath when someone raises a hand and asks, ‘so should I keep my feet hip-width or not?’ His answer should be trademarked under the American Viniyoga Institute: ‘It depends.’
I don’t believe I run the risk of learning too much curmudgeonry from Gary. For this, I can thank earlier teachers, the law and a healthy few millennia of past lives. But in the spirit of curmudgeonly cooperation—curmudgeonly community?—I offer this little echo of Gary’s broken record and a hopefully helpful metaphor.
Every time I’m introduced as a yoga teacher, someone is sure to say, ‘oh, you must be really flexible.’ Or they harumph: ‘those poses are for circus freaks.’ Or maybe, ‘I should stretch more.’ Even funnier lately, when I meet fellow yoga practitioners and they tell me, ‘I just can’t get a good workout in your kind of yin class. I need to sweat and get my heart rate up.’
Okay, right. Where to start? Honestly, with a small sigh. And then a little bonk of my heart to jostle my compassion muscle. It is absolutely the case that we are all perfect souls seeking higher consciousness. Our paths need not always converge or even cross. And I’m grateful for the tension that I may practice the discipline of patience. Breathe.
So, what does yoga mean to you?
If yoga means poses, you’re not wrong. You’re just missing the forest for a tree.
(If yoga means racerback tshirts with wacky sayings—’puppies, lattes and yoga!’— you’re totally on the pulse of the Yoga Journal Conference of 2016. But you’re a little distracted. Please pay attention.)
In fact, yoga means union. And the union it seeks is within you—body, mind, spirit— and beyond you. It is you learning how to master your body and mind so that you can be you. Your best you. It is you discovering that you are infinitely connected, absolutely perfect and invested with unconditional joy.
The history of yoga is long, circuitous and complex. The tradition, however, can be viewed quite simply. For several thousand years, humans before you have sought a path to find peace. There have been masters—sages like Jesus, Buddha and Mahavira— and there have been millions of ardent practitioners. The ardent practitioners discovered from the masters that an steadfast effort toward self-exploration and discovery can transform their microcosmic power. With this greater personal power inside, they can spare a little to contribute some positive change to the macrocosm. This potential is the birthright of every individual. And yoga is simply a means of finding it.
Wow. That’s awesome, right? But how?
Around 2600 years ago, a guide book was offered. This is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It’s generally accepted that this small compendium of yoga advice brings much older wisdom into one location. And it’s by no means the only book to consult on yoga. But it’s so well-organized and this post is already going to be way too long. So. The Yoga Sutra. We’ll start there.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lets us know that yoga is a system. Followed diligently and with humility, it will quiet the fluctuations of the mind. It requires discipline and patience, deep self-inquiry and devotion. There are eight limbs that must be practiced. They are, in order, the ethical restraints, internal restraints, postures, breathing practice, sensory control, concentration, meditation and integration.
You’ll note, poses are one-eighth of the practice. And the poses we find familiar were not described in print until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika came around… in the 15th century CE. Which isn’t to say that postures were not taken to assist a practitioner’s ability to sit still for meditation. But they probably weren’t taken in conjunction with an awesome playlist, live DJ or stand-up paddleboard. Although, what do I know?
All of this is to reiterate, as Gary says, the poses have no inherent value on their own. It is the poses practiced for the purpose of self-discovery that come to mean something. The poses, like the ethical and internal restraints on behavior, like the breathing, the concentration, the meditation, all of it, serve as a mirror. These are tools that serve us as we pursue our paths of self-discovery. As tools, they are fantastic. Practiced for the sake of the tool itself, they are meaningless.
Think of it like this: if I show you a bridge between two land masses, do you immediately think of the cranes used to build it? Do you want to know more about the bolts used, the brand of cement and the grip on the wrenches? Maybe yes, if you’re an engineer. But the engineer will see the bridge for its utility, its harmony, its safety and know that its construction required more than a knowledge of nuts, bolts and the wrenches to bind them. And this is precisely how an engineer of the self must think: though we may be fascinated by some of the tools we use, ultimately, we’re building a bridge. It’ll take more than a tool or two to get there and we’re going to need to change our tools as we progress. And age. And learn.
We want to move from the chaos of our minds toward the peace in our souls. If we obsess on the wrench, we’re never going to move beyond the tightening of nuts and bolts. And there’s a lot more to a bridge than nuts and bolts. Just like you are so much more than that beautiful body containing you.
Now, what’s yoga to you?
I know. It’s about the pants.
What was I thinking?
(Please note! You may also be interested in reading up on Tantra. Which actually means system. And will be the topic of some other post, some other day. For now, I have to go balance in eka pada koundinyasana. Until I find enlightenment.)
(Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, please join me at 8 Elements West on the first Wednesday of every month at 6pm. We’ll chant the Sutra and discuss.)