- Photo: Amy Messere
Yoga is less about balancing your body on your head, really, more about having a balanced head on your body.
I read with great consternation the article How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body in the New York Times and watched with great trepidation the alarm and fear it has needlessly spread like a wild bushfire.
The article displays a callous and a reckless lack of information about yoga by the chief antagonists. Nearly all the comments and reactions by rightly concerned people…both…for and against… fare no better. They remind me of air hockey players commentating on professional hockey and foosball players giving their expert comments on professional football. You can cry or laugh, depending which side of the divide you are on.
If the misconceptions and the accusations arising out of avidya (ignorance) and ahamkara (ego) were not given prominence by an iconic newspaper like the NYT, they would have been laughed at and/or ignored.
According to the writer, the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011.
He adds, ’Surveys by the Consumer Product Safety Commission,” he writes, “showed that the number of emergency-room admissions related to yoga, after years of slow increases, was rising quickly.
They went from 13 in 2000 to 20 in 2001. Then they more than doubled to 46 in 2002’ he does not tell us about the number of emergency-room admissions related to yoga in the year 2011. From 2001 there has been about a five- fold increase in the number of Americans ‘doing yoga’.
Let us assume there has been more than a ten-fold increase number of emergency-room admissions related to yoga, say roughly 500 in 2011. That means out of 20,000,000 (20 million) ‘doing yoga’ roughly 500 required emergency room treatment—that translates as 0.000025 or simply 1 in a quarter million (2,50,000). He presents the figures in a way to sensationalize. In reality, his figures are self-defeating…as statistically they represent nearly a nil chance really.
Anything can hurt anyone…especially sitting on the sofa…or even lying in bed! People have even died while having sex. So, do people stop sitting on the sofa, lying in bed or having sex. Get real.
The writer does not…because he can not…produce any figures of emergency-room admissions related to people injured while taking a stroll, pedestrians being injured, people playing sports… this list can go on quite a bit!.
He also lacks the courage to state the number of people who have benefited from Yoga.
Lastly, by labeling Yoga as a ‘Consumer Product’ the writer has displayed an arrogant insensitivity to an ancient culture which is ‘other than theirs’, and a time tested tradition which is both a science and an art.
The insensitivity of the West started with the very pronunciation of yoga itself (‘a’ is said as in ‘cut’) by re-christening it yoga (by sayin ‘a’ as in car)…and extended to other terms. Yamah became yama, Niyamah became Niyama, Asan became Asana, Pranayam became Pranayama, Dhyan became Dhyana, and yogin has become yogi. Not being satisfied with this, the West is distorting the very precepts, concepts, techniques, aims and goals of Yoga.
Mr. Broad has shown how narrow his vision of Yoga is, and Mr. Black has revealed the color of the lenses through which he has viewed Yoga. NYT don’t NYT… don’t No Yoga Therapy, instead NYT kNow Your Topic, and get to kNow Yoga Truly!
Yoga is much misunderstood today. People in general, especially those in the West, embrace a very lop-sided view of this ancient art and science. Just Google — Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, and/or switch on the T.V. to see the nonsense which is being broadcast, dished out and taught in the name of Yoga, Hatha Yoga and Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga.
There is something out there being called yoga that is not yoga.
The obsession of the West with asanas can be exemplified with the proposal of certain Yoga franchise owners to have Yoga declared an Olympic discipline, thus giving Yoga a totally physical slant and ignoring the other seven steps of Yoga and the aim of Yoga… kaivalya (isolation, liberation). They may have their reasons…which may be laudable…but again…they may not be so laudable.
The concept of yoga from abhyasa(continuous, diligent practice) has metamorphosed into Instant Yoga, following the prevalent trend ‘the instant tradition’…instant coffee… casual sex …drugs, junk food, instant gratification. Yoga is a non-stop continuous learning curve. Even the most evolved yogin or Master can hardly declare that there is nothing more to learn or nothing more to know.
In all systems, including Yoga, there is an apparent meaning of and an apparent benefit accruing from certain practices and a hidden, deeper real meaning and benefit from abhyasa (continuous, diligent practice). The practitioner will no doubt gain from the apparent meaning and benefit, but in any system it is the hidden, deeper real meaning which is the aim and goal of all practices. The same holds true for Yoga. All practices are to be viewed in this light.
Do you think you are a yogin just by contorting your body or standing on your head? Many fools think that way. They may be useful in a gymnastics competition or an acrobatic display or even in a circus, but just doing that is not going to take them to a yoga state — otherwise gymnasts, acrobats and people in circuses would be the most enlightened people in the world. Do you think they are enlightened?
The irony is that these people do not even know what an asana is…if they did they would not end up getting injured.
In the West people are increasingly beginning to think of Yoga in terms of asanas only. Asanas are becoming the face of yoga — that is both good and bad. Good, because at least they introduce people to yoga and create an awareness of yoga. Bad, because, they create a lop-sided, extremely limited, biased and erroneous awareness of yoga.
People think that asanas are the be all and end all of yoga. The West is asana obsessed and asana fixated. In the West it is more about Ego postures and less about Yoga postures. Those that know a bit more, for good measure, throw in a bit of pranayama (regulation of breath) and dhyana (meditation). Yoga is much more than that.
Patanjali devotes just three sutras to asanas in general. He does not recommend any particular asana or sequence of asanas. Patanjali, says what is an asana, in PYS 2.46: ‘sthir sukham asanam’. ‘An asana is that which is steady and comfortable.’ Does the Western practice of asanas even remotely approach this sutra. The answer is a big no.
Patanjali, says how an asana is to be practiced, in PYS 2.47: ‘prayatnasathilyanantasamapattibhayam’ Through relaxation of effort and contemplation of the Divine.’ Does the Western practice of asanas even remotely approach this sutra. The answer is a big NO.
Patanjali, says what then happens in PYS 2.48: ‘tato dvandvanibhighatah’ ‘Thereafter, there is no obstruction from the pair of opposites.’ Does the Western practice of asanas even remotely approach this sutra. The answer is a big no.
Asanas in the West have evolved into meaningless contortionist poses…more befitting of a circus performer. Only poses (asanas) are for posers only.
Yoga, as practiced in the West could better be described as calisthenics, bearing no relation to the true roots of the practice and virtually ignoring the integrity of the tradition.
WHAT IS YOGA
All problems regarding Yoga trace their roots to the simple fact that most of the teachers and preachers of Yoga, themselves do not really know what is Yoga. Yoga does not belong to any one person, any one creed, any one belief system…least of all yoga does not belong to any one religion.
Those creeds, those belief systems, those religion(s) that claim yoga to be theirs have not understood yoga and have trivialized yoga. Those who claim yoga to be the work of the devil and those who claim yoga is against their religions also have not understood yoga and have put on it a tag which yoga certainly does not deserve. Both are showing and betraying a total lack of understanding and a callous disregard of yoga.
Psychiatrists all over the world mint money hand over fist by just verbalizing in their native tongues and exhorting their patients to follow what the great sage Patanjali expounded, in Sanskrit, more than two millennia ago the great sage Patanjali who collated the Yoga Sutras named after him said in PYS 1.2: yogash chitta vritti nirodha — ‘yoga is restraint of the modifications of the (mind) chitta’. (chitta maybe loosely translated as mind in english…as english has no word for chitta). This is what relaxation techniques do to an extent…that psychiatrists prescribe This is what anti-tension and anti-anxiety drugs do…that doctors prescribe…only yoga does it better and without side effects. Nobody criticizes psychiatrists and doctors.
The media — print, T.V. electronic — the self-proclaimed thekedars (custodians) of society, pirs, pundits, pastors, priests, pseudo gurus and even politicians propagate and are constantly exhorting you to be non-violent (ahimsa), to be truthful (satya), to be non- stealing (asteya), not to over indulge in sensual pleasures (brahmacharya), to be non- acquisitive (aparigraha). You should be up in arms against all of them as these constitute the first step yamas (principles and values) in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold Path of Yoga). You can’t uphold these values…as then you will be practicing Yoga. Be cautioned you will cause yourself serious injury.
The very same media and people tell you, that you must maintain cleanliness (saucha), be content (santosha), be austere (tapah), study the scriptures (svadhaya) and surrender all your works to the Divine (Ishwara Pranidhana) and you do this diligently. You should not…as these constitute the second step niyamas (observances) in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold Path of Yoga)… as then you will be practicing Yoga. Be cautioned you will cause yourself serious injury.
Sedentary habits are leading to an increase in modern life style caused disease. Mild exercises are the prescription for the times. Nothing fills the prescription better than gently and fluidly flowing into asanas (bodily postures) which constitute the fourth step in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold Path of Yoga). But how can you do them…as then you will be practicing Yoga. Take note you will cause yourself serious injury.
The first thing psychiatrists recommend that you do whenever you are upset…take slow long, deep breaths. If you are having a heart attack, again, the first thing doctors recommend that you …take slow long, deep breaths. You should refuse to do so… as these constitute the fourth step Pranayamas (regulating the breath) in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold Path of Yoga)… as then you will be practicing Yoga. Take note you will cause yourself serious injury.
Turn inwards is recommended by one and all as the gates of the five senses are all directed outwards and they are responsible for our experiences which create our attitudes which in turn lead to mood swings which cause unhappiness. Turn inwards is the recommended remedy and the unanimous call…but then how can you do that as this constitutes pratyahara (turning the senses inwards) the fifth step in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold Path of Yoga)…as then you will be practicing Yoga. Take note you will cause yourself serious injury.
In life, whoever you may be, whatever you may be doing, whenever you are doing something… your parents, your teachers (educational, professional, spiritual and others), your boss, never tire of telling you to focus, focus and focus on what you are doing… but then that is not possible for you do as that is dharana (focus) which constitutes the sixth step in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold Path of Yoga). .as then you will be practicing Yoga. Take note you will cause yourself serious injury.
Meditation is the panacea recommended worldwide to prevent a host of illnesses and also to cure them. When this dharana (focus) becomes unwavering, steady and one pointed like a laser beam and flows smoothly like oil it transforms into dhyana (meditation)… … but then that is not possible for you to meditate as that is dhyana (meditation) which constitutes the seventh step in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold Path of Yoga). .as then you will be practicing Yoga. Take note you will cause yourself serious injury.
Focus, meditation and contemplation are the buzz words used by psychiatrists, doctors, teachers and practitioners of relaxation techniques and used by them for de-stressing people and which leads to elevated levels of consciousness in them… but then that is not possible for you to contemplate as that is Samadhi (contemplation) which constitutes the eighth step in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold Path of Yoga)…as then you will be practicing Yoga. Take note you will cause yourself serious injury.
There is not anybody in the world who is not following some of these principles, values, precepts and concepts…all Yoga is suggesting to you to follow all of these with an awareness. You may then ask to what end ? The answer brings us to the aim and goal of Yoga…which is Kaivalya (isolation, liberation)…which is the same as moksha, nirvana, salvation and… but then that is not possible for you to attain moksha, nirvana, salvation and… as that is Kaivalya (liberation) which is the aim and goal of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold Path of Yoga)…as then you will be practicing Yoga. You have been told Yoga causes serious injury.
You now know what is yoga…Everything else is… not yoga.
There is not a single sage, seer, prophet, messenger of the Divine or a realized soul who has not practiced and propagated some or all of these concepts and they have all benefited and experienced the trayam (triad) of samyama (dharana, dhyana and samadhi), to attain Kaivalya (liberation) … albeit with different names.
Yoga shows the way to break free from the rigidity of conditioning, rituals and practices. Break free — liberate yourself. Rip apart, tear away and get rid of the strait jackets forcibly put upon you by pseudo gurus, babas, churches, mosques, temples, systems, institutions and authorities and the media to permanently enslave you. Restore your power centre — which you have unwittingly handed over to pseudo gurus, babas, pirs, pundits, pastors, priests and politicians and publishers — restore it to your true self, where it really belongs.
Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is not a system of worship. Yoga is not the sole prerogative or the sole preserve of any system, caste, creed or religion.
Yoga belongs to everybody. In yoga there is not even a hint or suspicion or a whiff of exclusiveness or fundamentalism in favour of any system of beliefs…organized or not; and neither does yoga militate against any system of beliefs organized or not. Yoga was there before any organized beliefs system, it is now here…not because of any organized beliefs system…but, rather, in of spite of organized systems of beliefs and it is my belief that it will continue to flourish in harmony along with all other beliefs systems.
Conflicts because of collision of views should be replaced by a celebration of convergent views of existing beliefs systems.
Yoga is not some half dead myth trying to rise from the ashes of the past, it is both a living science and a fine art of living in the present. Yoga is not the inspired or revealed gift of any one person. It evolved over thousands of years and was intuitively revealed to sages, seers and rishis when they were in deep meditative states (samadhi). It was collated, co-ordinated and systematized by the sage Patanjali (600 BC), in his classical treatise, the Yoga Sutras, which consist of 195 terse aphorisms.
Yoga is a science as well as an art of healthy living. It is no way limited by race, age, sex, religion, caste, creed and any other boundaries and can be practiced by those who seek an education on better living and those who want to have a more meaningful life.
Yoga is non-competitive. Sports are competitive. Yoga is not a cardio workout, yoga is not simply time on the mat, yoga is not a performance, yoga is not about how far you can go. It is about how much you are able to let go of. It is about linking the movement with the breath, it is about awareness of the body and restraining the mind. Yoga is to be done at a gentle pace. Like in all disciplines, in Yoga too, there is a learning curve. You push the boundaries too fast and too much you are going to fall off the graph. The PYT,’s you see on the covers of Yoga books and feature in Yoga DVD’s conveniently forget to mention the hours, the days, the weeks, the years of abhyasa that they required to reach that picture perfect asana. The yogin’s own body is the yogins best teacher. You can not learn Yoga from books, DVD’s….yoga does not require specially heated /cooled/pressurized rooms. Yoga only requires a cool, well ventilated, pleasant ambience, and a yogin able and willing to invest in a sustained, continuous, diligent practice, whose returns will be slow, sure and steady.
Yoga is a philosophy, a systematic discipline, involving a long term commitment. Yoga is a perpetual persevering personal research…
The fault lies in the half baked teachers, who have given an erroneous twist and spin to the original teachings. The fault is not in the teachings of the sages.
Yoga has been estimated to be over 5,000 years. The greatest test of anything classic is… the test of time. Yoga has not only stood the test of time…for over 5,000 years… but has come out with flying colors..
A mind at peace, a mind centered and focused, is stronger than any physical force in the universe.
Ramanjit Garewal is a Master of yoga and has been teaching classical, traditional and the art of Hatha yoga for more than 20 years. He presently teaches at The Yoga House, a destination for the health conscious in Mumbai, India. His teachers have been: Life, Nature and the Universal Self present in all of us.Thirst, hunger, longing, to know the Self, to realize the Divine, by attaining kaivalya (liberation) have pulled him to yoga.
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