“Yoga” today, at least where I live, is mainly a physical activity. That’s not to say that it can’t kick off a spiritual journey (asana classes did so in me), but if you visit a yoga class, generally you are going to be led through asanas. I think this is because it is the easiest part to learn, to teach, and to do, and instant sensory feedback is involved. Frankly, people pay money for the experience. You can do really cool stuff with your body, and you can easily get hooked on that. The rules in teaching asana class are pretty simple: don’t push into compression and don’t put people at risk of physical harm. The subtle stuff is hard. It’s a challenge to practice yamas and niyamas consistently. Heck, it’s a challenge just to find quality teaching of the subtle stuff. Anyone can google yamas and niyamas and read various interpretations, but they are easy to misinterpret even with an excellent translation and can become justifications for harmful behavior. Plus, no one wants to pay to have their ethics challenged. YTT programs that I’ve seen don’t have swamis or sanskrit scholars on staff unfolding the meaning of these. YTTs can send a group of 20 through a six month 200-hour course or 500-hour course and those new teachers can go out in the world and lead asana classes. Compare and contrast that to the system of training a spiritual teacher in the Hindu tradition, which involves several years of study and diligence before being invited by a Swami to beginning formal training, which is 12 years with the Swami as guru, memorizing scripture and learning the method for unfolding the information packed into every word of Sanskrit.
Today, I led a team building event for a department other than my own at work. Since there were to be several people new to yoga, I felt compelled to provide some context by answering the question: “What is yoga?” Often, this is answered by talking about the eight limbs, 5,000 years of tradition, etc. (Where does the 5,000 year number come from, anyway? Historians don’t have a lot of details about civilization on the Indian subcontinent in 3,000 BCE). That answer is really to the question, “What was yoga?” If I am being honest, I am not qualified to speak for all of yoga. Yoga has diversified beyond Patanjali’s codifications: Ashtanga Vinyasa, Iyengar, yin, P-90X yoga, PiYo, vinyasa, Bikram, partner, hot, restorative, and many, many more are part of the yoga scene today, as are yoga mats, yoga pants, and paying for yoga (it is considered improper in Hindu culture to receive payment for spiritual teaching because it violates some core values, including aparigraha and asteya. In truth, there are as many styles of yoga as there are teachers. Adhering to the yama satya, I answered the question, “What is yoga to me?” and a few words of introduction to the class as we started our asanas.
What is yoga to me?
Yoga is method for introspection and exploration. It is a practice by which we can learn:
- to see and accept the present situation as it is, vs. how it could have been different (i.e. playing the blame game);
- to pop out from our thoughts and feelings and understand that they are also part of the situation and can lead us astray;
- to recognize what motivates our behaviors, what is automatic, and what is conscious;
- to give rather than to take; and
- to determine how we can serve in every situation and do that rather than gratify ourselves.
Service vs. self-gratification becomes a conscious choice.
Where does stretching and balance work fit in? The body is a source of many kinds of distraction. It is fickle. It operates in its own interest: it wants food, it wants rest, it wants pleasure, it wants to go, it wants to look good to others, it wants love, it wants security, it wants pleasant experiences, it wants to avoid unpleasant experiences, it wants to perpetuate itself, it wants to draw conclusions, it wants certainty where there is none, it wants to be right. It creates thoughts and emotions that color our experiences and can lead us towards its whims. “Self-gratification” is really gratifying the body and the brain, not the self. By practicing asanas, or postures, regularly, not only can we keep our bodies fit, but we can learn:
- to calm the body through breath;
- to recognize when the body needs something vs. when it wants to be gratified;
- to recognize when we are causing harm;
- to recognize when we are being motivated by the body’s desires and when that is in conflict with the right course of action in a given situation;
- to focus our attention and bring our full capability to bear in a situation, rather than be distracted by physical sensations; and;
- to condition the body so that sitting still is comfortable and the body is minimally distracting during meditation.
Use your body to serve the world rather than be a slave to your body and its many whims.
In many ways, it is antithetical to what we are taught. Dispassion, ignoring instincts, doing what is right vs. what feels right, and not chasing external goals are assets.
Today I am going to walk you through a series of asanas, or postures, which may challenge strength, flexibility, balance, or all three.
The quality of our breathing is both an indicator of stress, but it is also a means of attenuating stress. As we progress from asana to asana, keep your attention on your breathing. If you can keep it long and steady, you’re doing it right.
- Stretch long (inhale)/knees to chest (exhale) x 3
- Rock head (inhale) to toe (exhale) to seated
In a seated position:
- Garudasana arms, each side
- Twist and hold 5 breaths, each side
- Cow (inhale)/cat (exhale), 5 – 10 cycles
- Baby dog (hips over knees, walk fingers ahead)
- Extended child’s pose, stretch ahead and to corners
Forward fold x 2
Inhale up, tiptoe to front of mat, exhale
Surya Namaskar A x 3
Standing Series, Right then Left
- Virabhadrasana 2
- Utthita Parsvakonasana
- Crescent Warrior, reaching and looking back with each hand
Prasarita Padotanasana C
Virabhadrasana 3/Ardha Chandrasana
Legs up wall
- Legs up wall
- Thread the needle
- baddha konasana
- Supported/Free Shoulder Stand