Along with the introduction of modern physical practices, a lot has been lost in the world of breath control practices as they were documented through yogic texts for many hundreds of years. Pranayama is most easily translated as breath control, but “prana” means one’s life force. Pranayama is therefore, the control of one’s life force as accessed through the breath.
There are many benefits to controlling the breath. These benefits continue to be brought to the forefront through scientific study. Benefits range from relaxation to potentially suppressing tumor growth in the body. While the studies are magnificent in their potential, the most powerful reason to cultivate the breath in yoga is because of its intermediary relationship to the body and the mind.
When we access and manipulate the breath, we use two different parts of our brain. We also can access the two parts of our autonomic nervous system by changing how we breathe. If that wasn’t enough, we can also choose which nostrils we breathe through and stimulate our olfactory nerve which has a direct relationship with our brain. Many of us might question the necessity of these types of practices since our breath is an automatic function. However, it is easy to make the judgement that breath manipulation is unnecessary when we have not experienced the results. Once you realize breathing can reduce stress, focus the mind, and possibly suppress cancerous tumors, it seems an obvious practice to undertake.
When we strengthen our awareness of the body through asanas, we are mostly concerned with our muscles, bones and structural tissues. We get stronger muscles, and ease muscular tension. The benefits often translate into other systems of the body which result in things like better circulation or digestion. However it is not until we get into pranayama that we experience the body on a deeper plane.
The awareness we get from breathing is the awareness of our nervous system. It is a deep and profound level of awareness that leads us to a level untouched by most: experiencing the mind.
Most of the time we experience our thoughts. We never think about thinking, we only react to our thoughts. We get lost in the result of our thoughts, but not in what caused them to begin with.
A very common example of this phenomenon involves the idea of a movie and the screen on which the movie is projected onto. When we watch a movie, we know it is not real. The screen is blank before the movie begins and is blank after the movie finishes. We just accept this.
However our minds are no different!
They are blank before a thought arises and blank after the thought finishes. The problem is that we mistake the thoughts for reality. Through stillness, we can learn to identify the “movie screen” of our minds as reality, not the fleeting thoughts that project onto our mind.
Pranayama, and working to still the breath, is the gateway into stillness of the mind.
There is a common belief in modern yoga that we are all one on the deepest level. It has the impact of making us feel more connected to each other while also empowering us. It comes from a tradition of belief in which the highest element, called Brahman, permeates all forms of existence including ourselves.
But there is a problem when we---ordinary people going about our lives of work and family---take this belief literally and apply it to ourselves. We live in a world ruled by our body and senses: we get hungry, we respond to emails, we watch movies and cute cat videos, we take vacations to warm beaches, we drink alcohol, etc.
While the belief that we are all one or I am divine may be true on the essential level of existence, it does not apply to the gross body or the minds (like ours) that are attached to it. It only applies to those beings who, as Ramakrishna said, have "overcome the consciousness of the physical self." Otherwise, "'I am [divine]'---this is not a wholesome attitude...He deceives others and deceives himself as well."
The problem is that we associate our self with our body and mind. This association is in our mind, where we imagine our identity and closely relate it to our physical existence. If we then add on the belief that I am divine, the complete meaning is actually My physical existence is divine.
The difficult distinction that we must make is recognizing that our true self does not lie in the body or mind. It is this self beyond the physical realm that is referred to in the phrases we are all one and I am divine.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are known as the fundamental text for the system of yoga. They are brief and dense, only 195 short verses, and they can be difficult to understand by themselves.
The sutras are not really intended to be understood without the explanation of a knowledgable teacher, and there is a long tradition of great teachers writing commentaries and explanations of each individual sutra. "Our understanding of Patanjali's text is completely dependent on the interpretations of later commentaries; it is incomprehensible, in places, in its own terms." (1)
The first and best-known commentator to explain the sutras was Vyasa, from around the 4th or 5th century CE. Vyasa's commentary is practically inextricable from the sutras themselves and known as the bhashya, which means "commentary." "It cannot be overstated that Yoga philosophy is Patanjali's philosophy as understood and articulated by Vyasa." (2)
It has been about 1600 years since the Yoga Sutras were created. In just the past 100-200 years, the understanding of yoga and the sutras themselves has changed somewhat, mostly due to modernization and recent philosophical developments. But in the prior 1500 years the Yoga Sutras were "remarkably consistent in their interpretations of the essential metaphysics of the system." (3)
Modern yoga has gotten far from the values of the Yoga Sutras, which focus on the concentration of the mind and emptying its constructed identities to find its underlying reality. Modern interpretations of the Sutras can be shaded by Vedanta---an old Indian belief system that is separate from the Samkhya system of the Yoga Sutras---new-age philosophies and Western modalities.
As yogis, the Yoga Sutras have a lot of insight to offer, and the accompanying commentaries are vital to understanding the sutras themselves. So when you pick up a copy of the sutras, try to find one with a traditional commentary. It will help you understand the intended meaning of this important text.
1. Bryant, Edwin. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, North Point Press, New York, 2009, p.xxxviii.
2. Ibid. p.xl
3. Ibid. p.xxxix
Knowledge is power. Our understanding of the world around us and our place in it directly affects our ability to function effectively and attain happiness or success (or both), or whatever it is that we seek. As a teacher you pass information and the ability to think to your students, making them more powerful. The better you are as a teacher and the more knowledge you provide, the more powerful your students will become.
This power dynamic can create tension between the teacher and student. Many teachers are afraid of the power that the student will gain if they offer all their knowledge. Won't the student then be equal to the teacher? Or perhaps even better? So the teacher limits the knowledge they offer, only providing part of the information to prevent the student from rising too high. Or they may belittle their students, criticizing and insulting them to remind the students how low they are. This keeps the student---in the teacher's mind, at least---below the teacher.
How do we avoid this? By embracing the possibility that our students will become greater than us. Hoping for it. The value of our students is not in the way they build us up, looking up to us admiringly as all-knowing gurus. The value of our students is the way they are individuals with unique experiences, minds and ability to think. Their value is the same as ours, the same as anyone's, to recognize the things that need to be done to make the world better. To have the knowledge and courage to pursue them.
One of our favorite quotations is credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The greatest way to honor one's teacher is to obliterate him." This contains a great lesson for the student and the teacher. The goal of both parties is the transfer of knowledge and understanding, which is not to be confused with doing things the way they've always been done.
A successful student will be able to think independently of the teacher. A successful teacher will embrace and encourage that independence.
As the year turns over, we quickly shift from looking backward---"what happened this year?"---to looking forward. I have mixed feelings about New Year's resolutions because they encourage us to be dissatisfied. It would be better to focus on contentment, as Ida writes in a new blog.
The more I practice, teach and study I am shocked by the way my mind changes. I see things so differently now than I did when I started learning about yoga years ago. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. How could we possibly have clear vision or intention when we are beginning on a new path? Each bit of practical experience and insight necessarily changes our perspective.
Lately, I have been studying the Bhagavad-gita, and it is so clear which passages are speaking to my present situation: Actions should not be undertaken for the benefit of myself or my ego. When I say this out loud, it seems obvious and silly. But which of our actions are not designed to benefit ourselves?
When I say things so people understand my intelligence, I am serving my ego. When I eat the food I "like," I am serving my sensory desire. Even when I study and learn, am I doing it just to develop my sense of accomplishment and my ability to excel in the world?
It is increasingly important to me to recognize and subvert these thoughts and actions. Instead, my actions should be directed toward the service of others. The difficult part for me to understand is do I do this for the benefit of myself or other people? Even that dilemma is addressed in the Gita. One who performs apparently selfless actions for his own benefit is ignorant, while one who takes no credit and accepts no personal benefit is wise.
This is my goal: to serve with no agenda. To recognize the emergence of my ego and discard it, so my actions build the good of the world at large instead of just myself.
The holiday season is here and that means lots of gatherings, food, drink and gift-giving. So many cookies and cakes, rich meats and huge meals. Not to mention the relatively high level of stress that comes with the responsibility of gift-giving, being friendly for long periods of time, lack of sleep from late nights and travel.
How do we avoid losing ourselves during this time when the routines are so different and the discipline that we cultivate during the rest of the year gets discarded for a few weeks of cultural tradition? The answer is non-attachment.
Non-attachment can seem like a strange and complicated concept, but its essence is simply a knowledge of who we really are. We are deep, calm beings at the core, unswayed by the constant changes of the outside world. But we are constantly drawn outward into the realm of our senses where we latch onto sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and even ideas. We become absorbed in these sensations and activities and think that that is who we truly are. Ok, enough philosophy for now...
Next time you are having a cookie (or something delicious), notice the pleasure you experience in the taste. This is a reaction of your senses and does not impact your true self. When you get a great gift, realize that it may bring you pleasure or make your life a little easier. But it does not impact your true self.
Yogically speaking, the detriment in eating rich foods and accepting gifts is not in the way that our health suffers or we need to buy more batteries. It is the way in which we derive pleasure via the senses---which everyone loves!---and then think that our truest self is there in the senses. That mistake is the essence of all yogic practice.
So this holiday season take a moment or two to separate yourself from your senses and your experiences of pleasure. Recognize the pleasure and then recognize that it is not who you truly are!
One of the essential---and I mean ESSENTIAL---elements of yoga is humility: searching for and recognizing the true nature of who we are. As such, ego is a fundamental enemy of yoga. This isn't necessarily ego as in: "he or she has a big ego", but rather mistaking our true identity with our body and mind.
So any action or practice that encourages us to think of our body or mind as our true self is going to take us in the wrong direction. The same is true for any entity that we create, a brand, a product, a philosophy or a system of yogic practice. Confusing our accomplishments with the true nature of our being is a mistake and leads us away from contentment. (This is admittedly difficult because we want to build up our egos to create a worldly sense of security and value.)
CREATING A YOGA METHOD
There is no problem at all with developing or revising a method of yoga. Each culture and time period has its own language and tendencies, so the methods of communication and practice necessarily change, even if the goal is the same. Great teachers are usually ones who can communicate clearly to a population that others have failed to reach. It is of course vital that the goal of yoga---recognition and experience of the true self---remains regardless of the practices to achieve it.
So...what should one name a system of yoga?
Many name their systems after concepts or terms from yogic history or philosophy, like Ashtanga Vinyasa or Kundalini. These names have the benefit of referring to concepts that are bigger than the originator and any individual teacher, but have the drawback of being misleading, especially if you understand the meaning of the terms.
Others name their systems after their teacher. This is a sign of humility and respect while also recognizing the uniqueness and specificity of the teachings. The drawback here is that each teacher will inevitably put his or her own interpretation on the teachings, so they will naturally evolve even when the name suggests that the teachings are from a specific teacher in the past. A good example of this is Sivananda Yoga, which was developed and named by Swami Vishnudevananda, a student of Sivananda. Sivananda's own organization is called the Divine Life Society. (We at Ghosh Yoga fall into this category, teaching a yoga system named after the teacher of our teachers.)
Some name their systems after themselves, including Iyengar, Bikram, Forrest and Baptiste. This has the advantage of being quite specific about the practices and beliefs therein, even with the implied statement that "this is yoga as I see and teach it." It is very personal. The main problem with this is not in its clarity about the system, but in its danger to the founder. By naming a system after oneself and then dedicating years to building it up, it is almost inevitable that the name, the character and the ego get built too. This takes one very far indeed from the goals of yogic practice.
It seems that history is littered with holy men and yogis who have been disgraced by acts immoral and illegal. In their youth they may have been full of skill, insight, light and promise, but as the years passed they somehow lost their purity and path, becoming attached to fame, riches, power and the adoration of their followers.
We are left to wonder how we missed the signs of evil. Were they there all along, even when they were so young and seemed so pure? Were they hiding their true intentions, duping us into trust and faith? Is their evil misunderstood? Are they the victims of circumstance?
In truth, a yogi can be pure, realized and glorious at one point and then become overrun by worldly desires and corruption at another point. The two are not mutually exclusive, and presence of one does not mean that the other never existed or never will exist.
The mind of a yogi---or an ordinary person, for that matter---is like a garden. It begins as a wild forest, overrun with natural growth until it is cultivated by disciplined practice and study. If we practice with dedication, we can turn the mind into a beautiful, lush and organized garden. But a garden takes constant attention, tending to the plants that are growing and removing the resurgent weeds that will never stop coming.
Even a few weeks of neglect allow the wild weeds of the mind to grow and gain traction. If we neglect our practice and discipline for years or decades, even the finest mind will be overrun just as a garden neglected for years or decades will turn back to wilderness.
Regardless of how pure or holy we may be, we are never beyond the need for discipline, practice and study. We must constantly tend our gardens, because the weeds will always grow. Even a great yogi can be overwhelmed by the desires and attachments of the mind.
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.
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".
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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