The Varied Paths of a Modern Yogi
Mr. Iyengar stood on the back of a student who was on the floor in the sitting forward bend, paschimottanasana. That wasn’t what enthralled me about yoga, though it was a powerful approach.
What drew me were the weekly three-hour yoga classes with Iyengar’s student, Barbara Linderman, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The classes were filled with a sense of community, and we engaged in many practices—asana, breathing exercises, relaxation, chanting, meditation and sacred readings.
Our first assignment was Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. That was 1974. Linderman encouraged us to continue our daily hour-long practice sessions and engage in regular meditation. She enticed us to attend weekend retreats where the immersion in yogic practices did indeed enthrall me. The chanting especially ignited a fire of joy within me that continues to glow.
The word “yoga” means, “to join, to unite.” It is a joining and aligning of body, mind and soul. There are many ways to do this, like following one of the four paths of yoga: Bhakti (devotion); Jnana (knowledge); Karma (dedicated action); or Raja (discipline).
The practice of yoga is one of the greatest joys and passions of my life, and I have been blessed to share it with thousands of yoga students across the country since I began teaching yoga in 1976. More recently, I have enjoyed offering devotional music for retreats and workshops led by my mentor and friend, Richard Miller, Ph.D.
Yoga in America
Yoga in America has changed significantly during the past three decades. I learned Iyengar Yoga from Iyengar’s students Barbara Linderman, Pierre Gariel and Karin Stephan, and from Mr. Iyengar himself once or twice.
In those days, there were no certification programs. We simply dedicated ourselves to the daily practice of yoga, with a three-hour group class once a week, for two years without a break. Then, our teacher encouraged a few of us to start teaching.
I subsequently trained with Sita Frenkel, Lillias Folan’s teacher, in Sivananda Yoga for one year as an apprentice at her yoga studio. Thus far, each teacher I worked with incorporated postures, breathing exercises, relaxation, meditation and chanting in their yoga practice.
Finally, I took a six-month training in the healing, flowing style of Synergy Yoga as taught by Charmaine Lee, based on Randolph Stone’s Polarity Therapy. This did not incorporate meditation or chanting, but was based on a healing modality that promotes physical and emotional health and well-being.
Yoga in America reflects the melting pot that is America.
Many American yogis have trained with Indian yogis, or the students of Indian yogis (or the students of the students), and they have taken the treasures of the ancient teachings and presented them in their own way. Thus, instead of the five primary “schools of yoga” that I recall from years ago, we now have possibly 15 or 20 primary “schools of yoga.” Each one has a different focus, perspective, approach and gift. I used to teach workshops describing the different “styles” of yoga. I’ve given that up since there are more new styles now than I could ever keep up with!
One other big change in the field of yoga in America is related to certification and registration. Yoga has become more professional, with the registration of certified yoga instructors with Yoga Alliance, and clear guidelines for the skills, knowledge and background needed in order to teach yoga.
It was 1990 and Thich Nhat Hanh was about to speak. The huge nave of the Washington Cathedral was filled with more than 1,000 people, eager to hear his words. I had been meditating with the Washington, D.C. mindfulness community for over a year and they asked if anyone could play some music prior to his talk. So, my friend and I brought our instruments and had the honor of playing before he spoke. He talked in almost a whisper, even with the microphone, and you could have heard a pin drop in the midst of that cathedral. This is part of yoga in America—meditation being one of the limbs of yoga’s eight-fold path and Thich Nhat Hanh’s inspiring words were not lost on the crowd.
What is Yoga?
Here’s a glimpse of the Four Paths of Yoga, just to share a deeper understanding of what yoga is, from the perspectives I have learned as a student and teacher of Iyengar, Sivananda and Synergy Yoga over the years. I have also studied Vedanta philosophy as described by Swami Vivekananda, and Mindfulness Meditation, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, Sylvia Boorstein and Jack Kornfield.
These approaches are an integral part of the yoga classes that I teach at health clubs, spas and yoga centers. More than the asanas we teach, it is the energy, the chi, the “prana,” the “life-force” we share with our students that is the primary element. That comes from our own depths; the essence of what we have absorbed from the ancient teachings over the years.
Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of Devotion
This yoga is the path of love, the path of the heart. The yogi, or “devotee,” calls upon Spirit by chanting holy names, offering flowers, food and gifts to the Eternal, reading sacred songs and conversing with friends about their eternal beloved—or friend, child, mother or father.
Spirit is considered to be near and dear to the yogi or devotee who speaks to the Eternal one with a chosen bhava, or devotional mood. The yogi interacts constantly in communion with that light and love who is the indweller within all beings. The devotee nurtures a mystical relationship, a constant inner union with the Eternal.
To learn more about this path, you can read the Narada Bhakti Sutras, an ancient yogic text describing Bhakti Yoga, the Path of Love.
The idea is: if we are going to love, then love the highest—the spirit that dwells within all hearts.
We are so fortunate to live in this time when Krishna Das, Deva Premal, Jai Uttal and others have rocked the musical world and the yogic community with their devotional music. If you haven’t heard their chants, you are in for such a treat! And if you have, then I’m guessing you know what I mean.
Not since Mirabai during the 16th Century in India, and Chaitanya long before her, have so many people been swept away in the ocean of devotion that is “sacred chant.” Robert Gass has explained it well in his book, Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound. Recent translations of the sacred poems of Rumi and Hafiz are also a wonderful part of the flow of American Bhakti yoga. You can experience the yoga of devotion simply by reading these lyrical poems.
It was 1998. Somehow we met and sang. Girish and his friend were also long-time devotees of Ramakrishna and Holy Mother, as I have been. He had already begun to play tabla for Krishna Das from time to time. Girish and I played concerts and collaborated on our Peace Chants CD. He started composing chants for his first CD, Reveal. Life changed. He moved to Southern California. And those sweet memories of songs, chants, harmonium and tabla remain etched in my mind.
Jnana Yoga, The Yoga of Wisdom and the Truth that sets us Free
This yoga is the path of the intellect. Yogis who are drawn to this path use their mind, their awareness, to cut through the many aspects of the self to arrive at the radiant inner Self that is the peaceful witness of all that happens in the body, mind, ego and emotions.
From this perspective, the real Self that you are is known to be more than your body, your thoughts and your emotions. It is united with the infinite ocean of Spirit and is not separate from Spirit. It cannot be hurt, killed or destroyed in any way whatsoever.
This inner Self is powerful, peaceful and imperturbable. It is free from the struggles that constantly occur at the level of body, mind, ego and emotions.
This path is beautifully described in the Bhagavad Gita and in all of the Upanishads, the ancient Indian texts which focus on Jnana Yoga, the yoga of wisdom.
Karma Yoga, the Yoga of Dedicated Action
“Whatever I do with my body, speech, mind and senses; by my intellect self or nature; all that I offer unto Thee. Kayena Vacha Manasindriyairva.”
This is the creed of the karma yogi. Every action and effort is dedicated to the Source; the results are offered to the universal energy, without being attached to the outcome. Yes, easier said than done!
But karma yogis keep on dedicating their actions and efforts, and continue to let go of the results as an on-going practice, so that hopefully, just like meditation and asana, the process becomes easier over time.
It is similar to the Buddhist notion of non-attachment to desires and results. Yet, the karma yogi continues to act, surrendering the outcome. Again, the Bhagavad Gita describes this approach very well. Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s primary disciple, also wrote beautifully on the topic of Karma Yoga in his book by that name.
Raja Yoga, the Path of Discipline
The word “raja” means king, as it is the “Royal Road” to Nirvana or Samadhi, the ultimate goal of all yogis. This path, so wonderfully described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, includes:
- >> Yamas, or social precepts that include non-violence, truth, not coveting, purity of mind and body and non-possessiveness;
- >> Niyamas, or self observances that consist of cleanliness, contentment, discipline, study of scriptures and surrender to Spirit;
- >> Asana, or postures done consistently to keep the body well, preserving prana, the life force. These poses can help calm the whole body and the nervous system, preparing the mind for concentration and meditation.
- >> Pranayama, or breath control practices that are beneficial to overall health, calm the mind and the nervous system and prepare the yogi for concentration and meditation.
- >> Pratyahara, or withdrawing the senses from their external objects. We do this as a matter of course during many yoga classes, ideally becoming more indrawn during the session, to taste the nectar of the peaceful, joyful inner Self.
- >> Dharana, or concentrating awareness on an object such as a flame, the mid-point of the eyebrows or the image of a deity.
- >> Dhyana, or steadfast meditation is the undisturbed flow of awareness toward the object of meditation. The meditator remains separate from the object of meditation.
- >> Samadhi, or oneness with the object of meditation. This is achieved by constant, uninterrupted focus on the object of meditation, which is eternal, free, powerful and blissful by nature.
What is Yoga in America?
From the perspective of Swami Vivekananda, what the East needs is more of the West’s business acumen, efficiency and technical capability. What the West needs is more of the wisdom, spirituality, faith, freedom and pure joy that are inherent parts of the ancient teachings of the East.
This exchange, between East and West that Vivekananda presaged in 1900 at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, is happening now, and has been happening more and more during these past three decades.
Yes, incorporate yoga into the fiber of our American society! This will be to the benefit of our lives—physically, emotionally and spiritually. Yes, continue to make it available in every town, every neighborhood, in schools, health clubs, churches and hotels!
It is beneficial and has been sorely needed since the industrial and technical revolutions stole away some of the spirituality that had been at the foundation of our American society in the days of our founding fathers—and mothers.
The Goddess, Divine Mother
Yes, bring the Goddess/Matriarchal element into the chants, readings and t-shirts! Let it balance out the patriarchal elements of our society, so that men and women become equally cared for, remunerated and respected.
Speaking of patriarchy, it is of course as sacred as matriarchy, even though the Goddess has been highlighted here in our yogic culture quite a bit recently. For how can a bird fly on one wing? Where there is nurturing, love, kindness, compassion and flexibility there is also a need for strength, clarity, boundaries and guidelines.
Still the Goddess energy needs to be clear, strong and supported, because it is only now in this new millennium that the balancing of yin and yang, (or prakriti and purusha in yogic terms) is beginning to be achieved.
The Business of Yoga
In the American way, yoga has become big business. This is a good thing! Yoga has become more available, and the sharing of information and training has been greatly facilitated by regular professional conferences within the yoga community.
I must admit, as a life-long mystic and one who loves silence and solitude, I have only attended a couple of yoga conferences and a handful of yoga retreats in recent years. As part of my training during my 20s, I did spend nine years at a meditation center in upstate New York with more than two hours of daily meditation and daily chanting, in addition to monthly weekend retreats and a 10-day summer retreat each year. We also traveled to India several times on pilgrimage during those years.
During recent years, I have been so immersed in offering my own classes and workshops, taking local classes and gathering with friends to chant the holy names that I rarely venture out to the larger gatherings. Whenever I do attend workshops and conferences, I greatly enjoy them and am delighted to learn from wonderful and experienced yogis and yoginis.
Yet, in the midst of the crowds and the marketplace, my soul hearkens back to those pilgrimages in India. I remember how we chanted our way by bus, plane and horseback to the shrines and temples, from Rishikesh and Haridwar in the North, to Vivekananda Rock at the southern-most tip of India.
As the saying goes, great yogis can bring the stillness and peace of the meditation cave to any city or marketplace. The stillness, radiance and peace are always there, within us.
Hannah Schoen Caratti, MFT, E-RYT is a psychotherapist in private practice in Santa Rosa, and teaches yoga and meditation in Sonoma County, California. She is the author of several CDs—Mother’s Heart, Walk with the Angels, Peace Chants and True Self and the DVD Gentle Yoga. She is also delighted to be laying the groundwork for the first annual Yoga & Mental Health Symposium in Northern California in collaboration with Richard Miller, Ph.D. and Meridian University. For information about workshops, CDs and the Gentle Yoga DVD, please see counselingyogameditation.com
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Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers
Editor: Sara McKeown