Questions and arguments often arise over the spiritual and religious nature of yoga. Is it spiritual? Is it religious? Is it neither, but a physical exercise regime?
What does it mean to be spiritual?
Most spiritual traditions and philosophies address a few important issues: What is the essential nature of the self? What is the essential nature of the universe? Is there God, and if so what is God's nature? Also, what is the relationship between God and us?
Each spiritual philosophy and religion has its own answers to these questions. In essence, a religion is defined by its answers to these questions.
How does yoga fit in to this?
Many people in the West practice yoga for its physical benefits, no different from any exercise regimen. Yoga is great for balance and flexibility, and the calm nature of studios and teachers helps us feel peaceful. For the cardiovascular system yoga is on par with brisk walking, and it has been shown to improve the function of our blood vessels. For many, these physical benefits are more than enough reason to practice yoga.
Others practice yoga for spiritual insight, because there is one specific element of spirituality that is clarified by physical activity: the nature of the self.
When we control the body, we soon realize that the body is not the truest nature of the self. The self is not defined or limited by the hand or the spine or the stretching feeling in the hamstrings. Deeper still, the self is not defined by the wandering mind, our frustration or ambition to successfully perform a posture or exercise.
In this way, physical yoga practices---physical practices of any sort, for that matter---can aid us in understanding the true nature of the self and be spiritual. On the other hand, physical practices including those in yoga have the potential of being devoid of spirituality when the intent is firmly on the physical benefits.
So, is yoga spiritual? Yes and no! It depends on your goals, intention and focus.
The Dattatreyayogashastra, Dattatreya's Discourse on Yoga, is the first known text to explain a system of hathayoga. There are other descriptions of many of its practices in previous texts, but this is the first time when they are given the title hathayoga. Hathayoga is described alongside three other forms of yoga: mantrayoga, layayoga and rajayoga.
Dattātreya said: “Yoga has many forms, o brahmin. I shall explain all that to you: the Yoga of Mantras (mantrayoga), the Yoga of Dissolution (layayoga) and the Yoga of Force (hathayoga). The fourth is the Royal Yoga (rājayoga); it is the best of yogas." - verses 8-11
The sections on the other three forms are brief, but Dattatreya writes in depth about the practices of hathayoga, the yoga of force. Not only that, but the text describes two separate forms of hathayoga: "the yoga of eight auxiliaries known by Yājñavalkya and others" (29), and "the doctrine of adepts such as Kapila" (131).
THE YOGA OF EIGHT AUXILIARIES
Yajnavalkya's yoga of eight auxiliaries is closely related to the well-known eight part system of Patanjali. It begins with Rules (yama) and Restraints (niyama) and proceeds to Posture (asana), Breath-control (pranayama), Fixation (dharana), Meditation (dhyana) and Absorption (samadhi). It is interesting the Dattatreya references Yajnavalkya but not Patanjali.
Of the rules (yamas), "a moderate diet is the single most important, not any of the others. Of the restraints, non-violence is the single most important, not any of the others" (33). Posture (asana) is afforded a healthy couple of paragraphs, mentioning the sacred "84 lakh postures" (34) but describing only one: the Lotus Posture.
Breath-control gets the most attention with more than 30 verses. The section describes alternate nostril breathing, advising 20 breath retentions in the morning, 20 at midday, 20 in the evening and 20 at midnight. The final three auxiliaries get relatively brief treatment before the text moves on to the second form of hathayoga.
THE WAY OF KAPILA
Separate from the above methods are the methods of Kapila, also called hathayoga. "Adepts such as Kapila, on the other hand, practised Force [hatha] in a different manner" (29). "The difference is a difference in practice, but the reward is one and the same" (131).
Kapila's methods entail several mudras and bandhas, which involve the combination of physical position---"He should stretch out his right foot and hold it firmly with both hands" (133)---with breath-control---"he should hold [his breath] for as long as he can before exhaling" (134). The purpose of these practices is to move the winds and sacred fluids around the body.
It is not stated explicitly if the two forms of hathayoga can be practiced together or whether they should be kept separate. Over the ensuing centuries hathayoga became consolidated, combining the practices of the eight auxiliaries with the mudra practices of Kapila. In modern decades, hathayoga has evolved into a non-specific term meaning "the physical practices of yoga".
We will leave you with a final thought from Dattatreya:
"[If] diligent, everyone, even the young or the old or the diseased, gradually obtains success in yoga through practice...the wise man endowed with faith who is constantly devoted to his practice obtains complete success. Success happens for he who performs the practices - how could it happen for one who does not?" (40-42).
- All quotations are from: James Mallinson, Dattatreya's Discourse on Yoga, 2013.
In a yoga class there are many complex and interesting postures to put the body in. They challenge our strength, flexibility, balance, concentration and coordination. It is easy to get lost in fascination with this complexity and lose track of the simplest, most fundamental things our body should be able to do: squatting; sitting up and its opposite; pushing up with the arms; and pulling up.
The opposite of a sit-up is also important. You may call it a back sit-up, back extension or Cobra Posture as it is often named in yoga (pictured at the top of this article). Either way, it involves lying on your abdomen and using your back muscles to bend your spine backward. The combination of these two motions---sit-up and back sit-up (cobra)---will strengthen and stabilize the spine.
These are 5 simple and important movements that every healthy body should be able to do to some degree. If we lose our ability to do these basic movements but still cultivate more complex ones, we are increasingly likely to develop imbalance and injury. Since the physical practices of yoga are about balancing the body more than anything else, it is always worth visiting and revisiting these movements. Without a balanced body, a balanced mind is almost impossible.
On our recent trip to India we visited Kaivalyadhama, the oldest yoga research facility in the world. It was founded by a yogi named Kuvalayananda, who dedicated his life to the three-fold mission of healing people through yoga, teaching the next generation of teachers and researching the scientific impact of the practices.
The Kaivalyadhama campus now covers about 200 acres. It has grown from its humble beginnings as a small room for conducting research. As we walked the grounds, we were struck by a quotation from Kuvalayananda:
"I have brought up this institute out of nothing.
If it goes to nothing, I do not mind,
but Yoga should not be diluted."
It is a bold statement that shows clear values. Success---in terms of reach, money acquired or people reached---is not important. He goes so far as to say that he doesn't mind if the whole thing disappears!
What was vital to Kuvalayananda was the integrity of the teachings: "Yoga must not be diluted." It takes a strong vision and a strong will to carry out this mission, because it is far too easy to compromise our goals when survival or popularity enter the picture.
This shows the intent of a yogi who's thoughts and actions are not swayed by worldly desires. Money comes and goes. Popularity comes and goes. Happiness comes and goes. Even our lives come and go. But knowledge and truth remain. We must not dilute knowledge for the sake of temporary things, even if our institutes go "to nothing".
Cuando regresamos de nuestro primer entrenamiento, nuestros buenos amigos y mentores---David y Ken--- nos dieron un consejo importante: Cuando tomes una clase, toma la clase. Ellos explicaron que al progresar como maestro(a) de yoga, tu idea de lo que es correcto, bueno, efectivo, etc., crecerá. Será más y más difícil tomar clases sin ser crítico, o mas peor, arrogante.
Esto se volverá más difícil, porque claro, tenemos ideas de lo que una clase debe de ser. Aunque nos seamos un maestro(a), sabemos lo que nos gusta y no nos gusta. Mientras que nunca deberías sentirte inseguro en una clase, no es apropiado decir ninguna objeción a la clase verbalmente o con tus acciones. Si el maestro(a) te pregunta por tu opinión, es diferente. De otra manera tú eres el estudiante y el maestro(a) es el maestro(a). Al estar en la clase, aceptamos las responsabilidades del estudiante: aprender, escuchar y practicar.
Al progresar como yogis, esto se vuelve más importante, no menos. Aprendemos que todos tenemos ideas que hemos construido, y parte de la práctica es notar y tratar de silenciar estas ideas. Durante una clase de yoga, no es nuestro trabajo educar al maestro(a) sobre los errores que han cometido. En ese momento, todo lo que haría es llevarnos bajo el camino incorrecto al faltarle al respeto al maestro(a) y hacer crecer nuestro propio ego. Claro, no es lo mismo que no tener opiniones. Más bien es simplemente una oportunidad para practicar la humildad. Todos tenemos opiniones, incluso opiniones fuertes que forman la fundación de la que enseñamos. Cuando escojamos tomar una clase, debemos tomar la clase.
We often get questions about namaste, a word that has become practically ubiquitous in western yoga classes, where most teachers will end class by saying it.
As you may already know, namaste involves placing the palms together in prayer in front of the chest. Often the head bows and the word namaste is spoken. The literal meaning is "I bow to you". It is a greeting and a display of respect.
Namaste in Western yoga culture has been imbued with high meaning: that there is a divine being in me which recognizes a divine being in you. This belief comes from a spiritual philosophy called Advaita Vedanta, which argues that all the world is one; that any perceived separation between entities, including between you and me, is a misperception.
This may seem like a lot of meaning to squeeze into one little word, and it is. In its most common sense, namaste simply means "hello" or "greetings". When deeper, more spiritual meaning is desired, you might be more specific by naming the entity to whom you bow: "Teacher, I bow to you", "God, I bow to you", "Highest self, I bow to you".
It is easy to overlook the cultural reasons for the hand gesture. In the west, we shake hands or even hug when we greet. In India shaking hands is quite uncommon. It is impolite to touch other people, since the hands are used for other activities like eating and washing the body. The hands are of questionable cleanliness, so we keep them to ourselves when we greet one another. What happens instead is we touch our hands together in greeting, forming a prayer or namaste gesture.
HOW & WHEN DID IT BECOME SO POPULAR
The word namah is common in old Sanskrit texts. Like mentioned above, it is generally accompanied by something more specific, naming the entity to whom we are bowing with respect and devotion.
What we often overlook is that namaste is a common modern Hindi word that has been used in recent decades by Indian yoga teachers and public figures who speak Hindi. There are many examples of Ghandi, Nehru and Osho stepping onstage before a large audience and assuming the namaste hand position. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s this captured the imagination of the Beat and Hippie generations in the West. They were quick to adopt the respectful and peaceful gesture.
Over the ensuing decades, namaste has evolved from a respectful greeting to a full-on spiritual statement, which is perhaps overblowing it.
We don't say namaste at the end of practice, nor do the Indian teachers we know or the Vedantic swamis with whom we have studied. When we're in India, we say it all the time as a greeting to people we meet. When we're in Kolkata, we say nomoshkar, which is the Bengali equivalent.
There is, though, a word which carries significant meaning and history. It is what the swamis say at the beginning and end of every lecture, class, meditation and mantra: om. Om is a word that is present in the Vedas (there's even an entire Upanishad devoted to it) and the Yogasutras, explained as containing the sound and meaning of all creation. In our estimation, om is a more appropriate word to remind us of oneness, humility, respect and devotion.
Palmstand is an unsung hero for the body, directly helping two of the most common physical ailments: a tight neck and a weak abdomen. These two problems lead to all kinds of issues in the body, nervous system and mind, making us uncomfortable, unhappy and perhaps even injured.
Palmstand is accomplished by sitting, placing the hands by the sides of the hips, and then lifting the butt and legs off the floor. It can seem impossible at first, but you can begin by lifting only the butt up and leaving the feet down. It can also help to put blocks under the hands, giving a little extra height.
NECK & SHOULDERS
In our culture we spend lots of time in front of computers, with our shoulders hunched up and forward. Over time this leads to a tight neck and tightness on the tops of the shoulders. This is exacerbated by the infrequency with which we push (or pull) things down with our shoulders. What ends up happening is the top of our shoulders and neck become overly engaged while the bottom of our shoulders, which act to counterbalance the top, are weak and underdeveloped.
The way to remedy this problem is to develop strength underneath the shoulders by pushing them down strongly. This is where Palmstand comes in. The action of the posture requires a powerful downward push. When you do it, you may notice that your neck becomes long, as do the tops of your shoulders. If you do the posture regularly, you will develop strength under the shoulders, balancing the joint and releasing the neck and shoulder tops!
It is well-known that most of us have weak abdominal muscles, and that this weakness can lead to all sorts of problems like poor digestion and back pain. This is why "core strength" has become so popular and exercise regimes like Pilates are making a comeback.
In Palmstand the legs are held aloft by the abdominal muscles (along with the hip flexors), making them quite strong. If you find yourself struggling to lift the legs, know that your effort is strengthening your abs and that in time you will get them up.
The posture ends up being quite engaged, with your muscles so tight that breathing is difficult. This is okay. Hold the posture strongly for a few seconds before relaxing and breathing. Then do it again. With practice, Palmstand balances the body and remedies two of the most common physical issues in our culture.
The Ghosh Yoga Mentorship program officially begins today.
At the beginning of practice, when we know very little, it is enough to learn in a group setting like grade school or yoga class. In these situations information can be dispersed efficiently to a lot of people, so we can learn the basics and decide if we want to pursue a subject in depth.
As we progress in our lives and yoga practice, it is increasingly important to get unique, individual instruction and feedback. It is said that the paths are many even when the goal is one. The more specialized we get, the less appropriate a classroom experience is since the lesson that is perfect for our neighbor might miss the point for us, and vice versa.
The Ghosh Yoga Mentorship addresses the needs of yoga students and teachers who are ready for individual attention. You will have direct one-on-one communication with Scott and Ida via email and telephone, and they will help guide you on your path.
- Ask the questions that come up, whether in your practice, teaching or study.
- Get homework assignments, readings and tasks customized for your goals and needs.
- Feedback and instruction on your postures or breathing.
- Specific, individual meditation or mantra guidance.
- Instruction and feedback on your teaching.
- Advice about students, class structure, sequencing, etc.
- Much, much more...
It is impossible to predict your path and questions. What is important is having access to someone who can offer insight and support. Click here for more info about the Ghosh Yoga Mentorship program.
The world outside calls the mind,
with voices, horns, billboards and email alerts,
until the mind emerges
and comes to reside in the world.
The assault on the senses
is like a day with no night.
We become disoriented from stimulation,
insane but unable to rest.
Still, we think the key to relief is somewhere outside.
Peace, rest and happiness
do not lie in the world outside.
They can not be found
by sight, touch, hearing or taste.
This is the first realization:
that happiness lies within.
Only with this can our journey
toward actual peace begin.
Start listening to the discussion around food; the words we use to describe it. You will hear little aside from comments about taste and satisfaction. "Yum" or "this is so good" or "tastes ok" or "definitely worth the calories."
What all of these have in common is their reference to taste, something that has become increasingly dominant in our idea of what makes good food. You may even hear healthy food---food that serves a useful propose to the function of our bodies---described with derision: "Ugh, this tastes healthy."
Even though we occasionally pay lip service to the value of eating healthy, we drift farther and farther from the understanding that we eat to keep our bodies alive. Instead we eat to simulate our senses with aromas and flavors. We eat what smells good and what tastes good. We go to restaurants expecting a delicious experience. Even if we go to a health food store or eatery, the measure of value is most often in the taste.
This relationship with food is bad for our minds.
(It is almost inappropriate to call it food since that's not why we put it in our mouth. We should call it "flavor swallow" or something that signifies its true use.) Every time we stimulate the senses, the mind is drawn outward, causing it to seek satisfaction externally. But this ends up making us eternally unhappy, because the senses can never give satisfaction. They only bring more sensory craving.
The way to happiness lies through resisting our sensory cravings until they become quiet. When our senses are quiet we can perceive things more clearly.
With food this means that we must resist our cravings for tasty food, at least in their disguise as "good" food.
Once we do this, our consumption of food becomes so much clearer. We understand eating as a process of nourishment, not of sensory simulation. We don't need to avoid all tasty things, we just need to recognize what they truly are.
P.S. We do our best to not offend. Really, we do. And we know the sensitivity of this issue. If this article strikes a tender spot in you or brings up emotion or anger, take just one millisecond to recognize that, and that is enough for today. We are on your side!
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
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- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- When You Take a Class, Take the Class
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- The Yogi Becomes Invisible
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth
- Yoga Should Not Be Diluted
- The Art and Skill of Teaching