What is yoga, anyway? This week marks nine years since I started teaching yoga. And I still have only a vague idea what the practice is all about. It’s somewhere between renouncing all worldly possessions in the pursuit of a higher understanding of the universe and ensuring that you aren’t overinflating your ego as you admire your ability to do hatha yoga poses. I’ve been examining the practice and chronicling my observations for more than a decade. Here’s a sample.
On and Off the Mat
Yoga is a complete system of living. I, like many of my students, started yoga because I wanted to “stretch.” Yoga is a good physical activity, but the practice has been around for millenia; there must be more to it. Indeed, as I delve into the more esoteric aspects of the practice, I’ve discovered there’s a lot more to it than just stretching.
There’s several types of yoga. The wheel of yoga represents the unity between disciplines. The techniques for practicing are diverse, but every discipline agrees the intention is freedom from suffering. Students return to the practice again and again with the aim of reducing suffering by shedding the habits of the ego.
Pain is an inevitable part of the human condition. Heartbreak, loss, failure, rejection…are just a few examples of experiential suffering. The attachment to this suffering is optional. As children, our personality structure is based on seeking love. Seeking and finding love is a strategy of the ego and children must pursue acceptance as a survival technique. As we reach adulthood, however, the pursuit of love, acceptance and pleasure creates a false sense of self. Constantly seeking approval and love from external sources represents the inherent idea that we are “not enough” as we are and thus suffering ensues when external circumstances of love change or disappear.
The intention of yoga is to understand the Self in relation to the self. The Self is the underlying nature of bliss and shared with all living beings. The self is the personality and ego unique to each person. The strategy for navigating difficult emotions and suffering less is to train the mind to be free of misunderstanding of the true Self. Yoga addresses this freedom from misunderstanding through six different disciplines: Raja, Karma, Jnana, Bhakti, Hatha and Mantra Yoga.
Called the king of yoga, Raja yoga is inclusive of all yoga brands. It’s a goal rather than a technique and teaches that the intention of yoga is to unite the self with the oneness of the universe.
Raja yoga can be practiced in any way and at any time and does not require any particular poses or rituals. The absence of “process” means that this type of yoga is accessible to anyone, regardless of training or knowledge. Raja yoga devotees teach themselves to find harmony between themselves and the universe as a whole. They practice self-mastery by turning inwards towards love and light and eschewing external stimuli.
Right now, without changing anything in your surroundings, close your eyes and listen to your breathing. Withdraw from the sounds, smells and external stimuli around you. Without judgement, observe yourself. No blame if your mind doesn’t settle right away. Thoughts will come to you, but regardless of what they are or what circumstances they represent, repeat the following: “my well-being and my freedom is not attached to any outcome.”
Raja yoga is the ability to withdraw your senses from your circumstances and find freedom within.
The yoga of action is karma yoga. It is participation in selfless service without expectation of receiving anything in return. True karma is diligently doing your work without feeling attachment to any outcome. Participating in karma yoga teaches kindness and compassion without expectation. It is selfless generosity of spirit without needing payment in kind. As with all types of yoga, the intention is freedom from selfishness and release of the self-serving ego. According to the Bhagavad Gita, life gives infinite opportunities to act, but you must never allow yourself to be affected by the results. Karmic action is a selfless contribution to the world without expectation.
It’s difficult to find volunteer opportunities that do not offer anything in return. There’s always parties or gifts for people who volunteer their time. But most volunteers don’t do it for the gifts. What are other ways to provide selfless service? Picking up garbage? Shoveling your neighbour’s sidewalk?
Practicing karma yoga provides freedom in the form of selfless service. It’s an active reminder that everyone is equal.
The yoga of knowledge. Practitioners of jnana yoga use the mind to understand the greater truth within the mind. The premise is that all knowledge and truth already exists in the mind. Just like an ice sculpture artist who finds a shape within a block of ice, students of jnana yoga learn how to access knowledge and truth within their own mind. Practicing jnana yoga demands great concentration and strength of will – you must figure out how to transcend your own thoughts and ego.
The process of jnana yoga is to consistently question the self and reflect on the limits of the ego. Through this process, you arrive at a place of yearning for freedom from suffering. The process of jnana is a six-step process. Patience is the key to success in the process.
The Six Steps of Jnana Yoga:
Tranquility The perseverance to maintain peacefulness in spite of external stimuli.
Control Ongoing mental fortitude against the senses. Train the senses to be used only as instruments of the mind, rather than the other way round.
Withdrawal Renounce everything not directly related to your duty. Jnana requires a lifestyle of simplicity where there are no distractions from the spiritual path.
Endurance Hardiness in the face of external forces that create suffering. Success/failure, pain/pleasure are examples of these forces. Endure all forces and resist the urge to suffer.
Faith Be confident that this is the correct path and that the teachings of jnana will guide the way.
Concentration Complete focus and attention on the greater truth of the universe. Abandon all attachment to thoughts and perceptions of the world.
The practice of bhakti is union through devotion and love to a personal god. Bhakti is also described as “love for love’s sake,” and includes ceremonial offerings, devotional meditations and reminders of gratitude.
Bhakti yoga includes references to “the lord,” “the divine,” and “god,” but note the lowercase letter. For the secular, bhakti is the belief that love is all around, available in abundance to be given and received. Bhakti Yoga teaches that the divine exists in whatever form you choose; the yogic divine is formless.
The intention of bhakti is to create love and gratitude outside of the self. Recognize that attachment to relationships and possessions is fleeting, but receiving and giving love to a divine energy is absolute and permanent. Bhakti devotees describe their practice as “romance with life itself, rather than a specific person or object.”
People come to bhakti yoga as a remedy for heartache due to loss of love. In the face of extreme loss, people seek to understand how to love again. Bhakti teaches that love is abundant and that by spreading love and receiving love from all sources, suffering from heartache can be alleviated.
Sufferers of heartache feel heavy because they’re carrying around a feeling of love and loss. Bhakti yoga is the practice of finding an outlet for that love – regardless of which relationships or possessions are present. Bhakti yogis give love to the earth and the sky and everything in between.
The practice of Bhakti includes devotional meditations such as Kirtan chanting, ceremonial offerings such as flowers or sand represent love for the earth, and offerings of gratitude such as giving thanks before a meal.
Remember a time that you were consumed by grief. As a tool to focus on the abundance of love, ask yourself the following: If the world around you – the trees, the stars, the moon, the sun, the earth, the water – could speak to you to console you, what would they say? What would you say to them?
Practice bhakti yoga as a reminder that love is formless and abundant.
Alternately referred to as “forceful yoga,” Hatha yoga is focused on developing strength and tenacity in the physical body. Like every yoga practice, hatha aims to transcend consciousness and find freedom by understanding a divine reality. The practice of hatha is a physical pursuit that prepares the body for the rigours of transcendence. Transcendence must not be mistaken for a purely mental achievement. Arriving at a mystical state of consciousness has profound effects on the nervous system and other bodily systems. Hatha yoga is the tool to prepare for these effects.
Hatha yoga is the technology to realize transcendence. Tread cautiously though. Due to the intense physical nature of hatha, practitioners are susceptible to body-focused egocentrism. The intention of yoga is to transcend the ego. Be careful not to inadvertently inflate the ego through admiration of yourself in the postures of hatha yoga.
Use hatha yoga as a tool to prepare the body for the rigours of the finite life and the infinite reality. Be cautious though. The poses are a tool to transcend the ego. Don’t admire yourself in the poses. Don’t overinflate your ego on the path to freedom.
Mantra is a tool to focus meditation. Mantra yoga is the use of a phrase or a sound in the practice and its use protects the person who is using it! Traditionally, Mantra is passed from teacher to student when the teacher clearly sees what the student needs. In a moment of revelation, the teacher knows exactly which mantra to provide. The student receives the mantra and repeats it over and over in meditation. Its use creates a shield and protects the user whenever protection is needed.
If you haven’t been offered a mantra yet, start with OM. With practice and patience, a personal mantra will be revealed to you, either from a teacher of from your own intuition (the teacher within).
So what is yoga?
Yoga is a multi-faceted technique for existing in a mindful state. To do yoga is to adhere to a set of guidelines for coexisting with the world around you. Life is full of challenges, surprises, victories and moments of euphoria and sorrow. Doing yoga is allowing the moments to happen around you, but not being reactive to their outcomes. Also, life includes possessions. Things, relationships, jobs, friends, experiences. All of these possessions contribute to a rich and fulfilled life, but their presence is temporary. Doing yoga is observing those things and experiences as they gracefully come in and out of your life but not allowing their absence to cause you suffering. Pain from their loss is inevitable, but suffering due to that pain is optional. Doing yoga is peacefully accepting that everything is impermanent. Yoga is the template for freedom in the face of all worldly experiences, whether they be exhilarating or debilitating.