Why yoga can't be mass action: the core essence explained
- The purpose of yoga is to unify body, breath, and mind.
- The goal: to achieve a calmer mind; be able to control one\'s thoughts and direct them.
- Yoga is a constant process. Once you move from point A to B, you need to stabilise and move forward.
- The first principle of the Yoga Sutra is Atha: \'I am ready\'. Ready to take responsibility for my well-being.
- Yoga is not an external experience: we must not create something for others to look at.
- Yoga is a deeply personal practice. It should be tailored to fit each individual\'s needs.
- Applying for trademarks, expecting people to conform to one style contradicts the essence of yoga.
- Through yoga, we can look inside ourselves and understand how to reduce suffering.
- Transform our reality.
More in the story
- Key concepts of the Yoga Sutra.
- Why the breath matters.
- Why yoga must always be an individual practice.
- What is the nature of perfect action.
It's not unusual to begin a Yoga practice session by chanting Om. There are many ways to begin but the goal is to prepare oneself to have a meaningful practice.
Om is a wonderful way to quieten the mind and to come into the present moment.
The word Om is not exclusive to any religion. It's really beautiful actually. It is a sound that is meant to signify all the sounds of the universe and to use the entire palate.
Om is made up of 3 letters - 'A' 'U' & 'M'. 'A' is produced at the back of the mouth, 'U' is produced in the middle, and 'M' is produced in the front of the mouth; using the entire mouth to represent the cycle of the birth, continuation and completion of the primordial sound.
It is also a symbol for a higher intelligence. We chant Om to surrender our egos to that highest intelligence that exists inside all of us, and to prepare the mind for learning.
Having these thoughts at the beginning changes the nature of my yoga session.
Just a short practice of chanting or humming (Brahmari Pranayam) has the potential to put you in a better frame of mind for practice and make you more receptive.
This small change from outward to inward, from one state to another, is one of the definitions of Yoga: Apraptasya praptih yogah - meaning to obtain that which you previously did not have, intelligently moving from point A to point B and stepping towards a better state of mind.
The mind looks for big changes, but can we recognise the subtle changes and celebrate them, see the progression, the vinayasa karma?
Vinyasa may be the name of a brand of yoga today but the meaning of vinyasa krama, is to take steps in a special and intelligent way, in the right direction. In the practice of yoga, the right direction is towards a calmer mind. If you're not moving toward quieteninng the mind, then it isn't the right direction.
It's also not a one-time effort from A to B. Yoga is an on-going process. Once you have moved from A to B, not only do you need to stabilise at point B, you must continue to move forward.
This requires a steady and continuous effort. Yoga is action, in the direction of growth. Yoga is ultimately a philosophy that must be lived and experienced. It is not an intellectual practice but an experiential and deeply personal one.
The multi-fold path
There are many ways through which people come to yoga. Some study the Yoga Sutra, some start with meditation or with breathing practices; many start with the postures.
You may begin from any starting point, depending upon your interest and need. The beauty of correct practice is that, gradually, the interest in one path will lead you to another.
When you begin to look closely at the philosophy, you realise that it recommends that we explore all aspects of our being.
The Yoga Sutra, the most authoritative text on yoga - systematised by the sage Patanjali in the 2nd-3rd century - emphasises growth in all areas of human life, including our relationships with others, our behaviour, our health, our breathing, our meditation path.
The philosophy itself says it isn't enough to only study the texts or work with the physical body.
So you may begin from any starting point, but in order to be a 'complete' human being, the more you progress, the more you must become aware of the connection between the mind, the breath and the body. You must become attentive in your actions, be present in this moment. You must feel in control of your emotions, your health, your life. And not just that, you must also unite with other beings on this path, and help them along the way.
If these are some of the goals of yoga as prescribed by the Yoga Sutra, then we must question: how many are teaching in this way? And how do I approach my personal practice?
Yoga is personal
I've done a lot of TV work in India. One show in particular became quite popular. On that show, I allowed myself to push myself to my limit - physically, mentally, and emotionally - disrespecting my being.
This went against some of my beliefs and the basic principles of yoga: that of non-violence and of yoga being a highly individualised practice. The show became a visual extravaganza of beautifully executed advanced practices. Actually, I didn't want people to practice the postures at home, so I purposely made it more difficult.
It was meant to inspire; and it did. But though I talked about the philosophy a bit and even said in every episode that yoga must not be learned from TV, eventually it only added to the incorrect understanding of yoga.
Acrobatic television shows make it seem as if the body is the centre of all activity. But if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath and mind, we can hardly claim that we are doing yoga.
Individuals don't need to adapt to yoga. It is yoga practice that must be tailored to fit each individual
What is yoga after all? It is something we experience deep inside. It is not an external experience. TKV Desikachar said 'we must not create something for others to look at'. Instead, we must observe what we are doing and how, so that we may know ourselves better.
Also, these shows make people feel that there is only one solution for everyone. But there are as many solutions as there are people.
I learnt a lot from that show. I learnt that I could write a TV show and how hard I was capable of working. I wouldn't change that experience. The show was an essential step in my growth. But eventually, I got injured on that show.
Of course, it was the biggest blessing because today I'm a yoga therapist. I specialise in one-on-one practice so that I can address the unique needs of each student. I want to help my students take responsibility for their well-being and to give them the perspective of the Yoga Sutra to help them deal with their suffering and illness.
I want to empower them to learn the techniques and eventually apply them on their own in an intelligent and gradual way.
Unique starting point
For me to be able to give in this way, I must constantly work on my own practice and study. My teachers follow the teachings of Krishnamacharya, one of the greatest yogis of the modern era. BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and Indra Devi, all studied under him in their early years.
Though Krishnamacharya's teachings are known, his fundamental teaching - 'it is not the individual who needs to accommodate her or himself to yoga, but rather the yoga practice must be tailored to fit each individual' - is not emphasised as much as it should be.
Naturally, this means the starting point is different for each person. There are so many techniques to choose from.
The possibilities are infinite. Nowhere does it say the same technique be applied to every human being. That would be like trying to fit the same sized shoe onto every individual, which is tantamount to himsa, or violence.
It certainly doesn't say anywhere that we all have to be perfect in our physical bodies and look exactly the same as each other. The question to ask is: what is the purpose of this particular technique? The function is far more important than the physical form.
There is no symmetry in nature. Anything that is symmetrical is man-made. Think about that for a moment. My teacher gave us the example of a tree. No branch or leaf is the same as the other. There is only uniqueness. There is beauty in that.
A teacher needs to work with the constitutional peculiarity of every individual - one, to protect what is already there and two, to enhance the functioning. If the branch of a tree is bent in a particular direction, but it is healthy and able to perform all the functions of life, and you try and straighten that branch beyond a certain limit, it breaks.
The state of mind can control the breath, so if we learn to control the breath, we can control the mind
There is no outside reference point as to who and what you should be.
The sage Patanjali and other great masters recognised the differences in people, but also within the same person at different points in their life.
The word viniyoga is used in the Yoga Sutra to describe the approach to utilising the tools that are presented.
Viniyoga means proper application based on the level of the student and the situation, taking into consideration time, place, age, activity and strength. Yoga techniques have always adapted to the times. But the tendency to standardise techniques of yoga, apply for trademarks and expect people to conform to a particular style is not consistent with the essence of yoga.
It is an undesirable reality that we must change. I sense a growing readiness for this change.
Mind-body-breath: first principles
Let me now take you back to the Yoga Sutra and explain its first principles.
The first word of the Yoga Sutra is 'Atha'. It means I am ready. Ready for what? Ready to take responsibility for my well-being. I recognise there is an unwelcome reality that is creating suffering and I accept that there is something I can do about it.
It is from this active mind space that we begin, with a teacher, the practice of yoga.
The second sutra, Chitta Vritti Nirodha, is a statement of purpose, describing the state of yoga; revealing the goal of yoga to the student. It tells you what the mind is capable of: clarity, tranquility, and complete focus. It is capable of suspending thoughts and also directing thoughts.
How we perceive things can cause a lot of suffering. Our perception can make us act unconsciously or not act at all. This in turn can be the cause of more suffering for us or other people.
The Yoga Sutra literally says that our perception of reality is always distorted. If you try and accept this statement as a truth, it can really help you deal with life.
For example, suppose you've had a fight with your partner because he/she didn't act in the way you expected. Your sadness, your anger, your disappointment are real.
But if in that moment you take a step back and say to yourself, maybe there is more to this situation than I can see, you might prevent a lot of suffering for both yourself and your partner.
With the practice of yoga, we want to be able to clear the mind, so that we can see reality as it is. If we see the reality, we will take the right action; if we take the right action, it will reduce suffering.
The lived life: breath and action
The Yoga Sutra pays a lot of attention to the nature and quality of our actions. Actions define our life. There are two things that distinguish a live body from a corpse - breath and action.
TKV Desikachar, Krishnamacharya's son, says, 'the more we can direct our attention to the activity in which we are engaged right now, the more conscious our actions become and we can perform the action better. The possibility of making mistakes becomes smaller'.
This brings me to yet another definition of yoga - the perfect action. This perfect action - completely present, efficient, not attached to the fruit of one's labour, and which does not cause suffering - can lead to the state of yoga I mentioned earlier, in which the mind is capable of suspending thoughts and also directing thoughts.
The essence of the Yoga Sutra is in the first four sutras. There are 195 sutras. We have just talked about the first, which describes the state of mind that is required to begin the practice (with a teacher): an active mind that recognises, 'I can do something to have a better life'.
The second describes the goal of yoga: a state of mind not ruled by thoughts; also able to direct thoughts to make life more meaningful.
The third and fourth statements describe what happens when the mind is not quiet, how our perception of reality, ourselves and the world around us is always distorted; and how that affects our actions. Only a quiet mind can see its true nature, see reality as it is.
If healing and quietening the mind were our goals in yoga, how would our approach and attitude toward our asana/practice of postures, pranayama/breathing practices and meditation change? There are many definitions of yoga. I've mentioned some of them. But the important thing to note is that, as Desikachar says, a lot of the definitions have one thing in common: the idea that something changes. This change is, of course, in the direction of greater physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being.
You must have an intelligently designed practice such that you feel light, relaxed, and alert at the end of a practice; not tired, sleepy, agitated or in pain.
If you don't feel these, you must cultivate enough self-awareness to understand why, so you can change your approach next time or even within the same session.
The perfect triangle of control
This brings me to my final point and to one more definition of yoga: the union of body, mind and breath. Theoretically, it is possible for the body to move without complete coordination with the breath and for the mind to be a passive observer.
If you practice postures in this way, it is possible you may achieve more flexibility and strength, improve your breathing and even feel healthier. But the practice remains incomplete, for, the purpose of yoga is to unify the actions of the body, breath, and mind; and the potential of yoga depends upon this union.
Yoga is something that we experience deep within our being. It is not an external experience. Much more important than the outward manifestations is the way we the postures and the breath.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutra describes an asana or a posture as having two important qualities: sthira and sukha. Sthira is steadiness and alertness and sukha refers to the ability to be gentle and comfortable in a posture. Both qualities must be present to the same degree when practicing any posture.
Dr NC Chandrasekaran, from the Krishnamacharya tradition, says even though we may not have these qualities in a posture in the beginning, we must approach the posture in such a way that, over time, we make less effort and create new patterns of being gentle, steady and alert, at the same time. This means that you should never be in pain due to your practice.
But, often what comes in the way of making a practice meaningful is the mind; not the constitutional peculiarities of the body. It is the mind - a seemingly uncontrollable and inaccessible 'thing' - that tells us that we should be able to do a posture or look a certain way; it is the mind's lack of attention that can cause injury and suffering.
Breath is the key
There is one way to reach the mind and bring it within our control. It is through the breath.
The breath is the intelligence of the body and the link between the body and the mind. In the ancient text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it is said: "If the breath is agitated, so is the mind; if the breath is calm, so will the mind be calm."
Have you ever noticed your breath or someone else's breath when you're really angry or upset? It can be very agitated, short and shallow. Sometimes people aren't even able to breathe. The opposite is also true when you are reading a book or cooking; involved in an activity that you enjoy. The breath will be deep and calm.
So if the state of mind can control the breath, it's not difficult to believe that if we learn to control the breath, we can control the mind.
Consciously linking the breath and the body is the first step. It is possible for each component of the breath and every second of our breathing to be under our control. In the Krishnamacharya tradition, we do this by allowing every breath to lead the movement, not the other way around.
The breath does not lie; the mind is constantly rationalising and justifying, but the breath does not lie
We initiate inhalation and then move; pause the breath, creating a distinction between inhale and exhale; then initiate the exhalation to complete the movement; pause the breath to create a distinction between exhale and inhale. The breath and the body become one movement, one process.
This linking is the key to accessing the mind and to clearing it - like polishing a mirror to be able to see your true self and reality as it is. Focusing on the quality of the breath can reveal so much. My teacher Saraswati Vasudevan says the breath does not lie; the mind is constantly rationalising and justifying, but the breath does not lie.
If we are in pain, it shows in our breathing. If we get distracted, we lose control of our breathing. It is the breath that will reveal to you your personal starting point and what your limits are. It is the breath that will tell you if you are in sthiram-sukham, that is, if you are steady, alert and gentle.
When we are able to stay with the breath, the breath is no longer an automatic, involuntary process. It is a conscious process. Conscious breath can lead to conscious actions.
Breath is what gives us life. Almost 70% of the body's toxins are released though breath. Breathing efficiently helps improve muscular action, calms the nervous system, facilitates rest and repair and gives you energy. It can also help release pain, help you focus. The breath is what helps you savour the present moment.
There are techniques and rules for linking the breath and the body; and we should learn and teach them, one-on-one if possible. It is not enough to understand intellectually. We must experience the practice in our bodies.
The Yoga Sutra tells us that the practice of yoga for the householder should include practicing postures, breathing practices, meditation. It also includes self-study: studying texts, studying with a teacher, and study of the self.
Since we can never be sure of the fruit of our actions, it also recommends a certain detachment from the outcome. It recommends, instead, a greater attention toward the quality of our actions.
All of this is so we can effect a change for the better in all aspects of our life and move toward a quieter state of mind. It's important to be mindful of this goal when we come to the practice of yoga. You want to know where you're going and why, before you venture out. So it all begins with Atha - the first word of the Yoga Sutra - a state of readiness to take responsibility, to make our life and the lives of others more meaningful.