Foundations of Dharma—the Ancient Roots of Yoga are alive and well in 2013.
Yoga has never just meant yoga. By that, I mean that yoga postures, or asana, traditionally comprise a small component of the complete path of yoga.
Taken by themselves asana usually have a limit to the fruit they can bear. A consistent asana practice will yield wonderful physical, mental and emotional health benefits. This is great. It may also allow us to tap into a deeper sense of spiritual wellbeing because spiritual realization is very natural. But, apart from rare instances, an asana practice in isolation from a complete path of yoga can only do so much. When, in totality, the complete path of yoga is designed to confer the ultimate human experience: the (literal) rainbow light body of boundless compassion and wisdom.
A few different camps have developed in the modern “yoga” scene. One has psychologized the fruits of yoga. The people in this camp either don’t read the texts of the yoga tradition or they read the poetic language of these texts that promise supra-normal results as analogies. They see the ceiling of yoga as what it has become in the modern marketplace: a wonderful type of calisthenics that has the added bonus of relative mental and emotional wellness. In this camp some may pay lip service to the “spiritual” results of yoga, but what they are talking about is just the tip of the iceberg of what is spiritually possible through a complete yoga practice.
In a 12-stage view of spiritual progression stage three renders total self-acceptance and an uncommon experience of equanimity, and stage five is total freedom from psychological problems. These amazing and rare fruits of a complete path of yoga should not be scoffed at, yet they are not even half way up the mountain of what is possible.
Another camp has developed wherein people have sensed the other 99 percent of the iceberg that is possible through yoga. These people seek to “spiritualize” their practice beyond the physical, mental and emotional fruits mentioned above; however, many people have either very mixed ideas about these “spiritual” aspects of yoga, or they think that the highest spiritual practices and fruits do not exist within the yoga tradition.
These latter practitioners often take on a diet of spiritual eclecticism. For example, some people who are into “yoga” (i.e. asana) think it necessary to look to Tibetan Buddhism, Shamanism, or some such practice, in order to get the higher wisdom practices they seek. Some teachers even go as far as bringing elements of completely different types of practice into their “asana flows” and create yoga hybrids with things like tai chi, kung fu, dance, etc. This eclecticism is absolutely unnecessary (and may be detrimental).
These other traditions might have wonderful enlightenment practices and may be effective in their own right. But the full path of enlightenment can be tread completely within the yoga tradition and if we want deep results it is prudent to stay focused within one system. Modern scholars on the forefront of Sanskrit textual translation like Alexis Sanderson and Christopher Hareesh Wallis are uncovering texts that not only illuminate the complete system of enlightenment yoga, but they also demonstrate that other streams of Tantra (such as Tibetan Buddhism) derive their origins from Śakta-Śaiva Tantra, which many are now saying is the original form of Tantra (Tantra being the mother of “yoga”).
So, for those who are interested in asana and want to spiritualize beyond the wonderful fruits of mental-emotional equanimity and physical health, there is no need to mix and match practices from different lineages and/or traditions… as wonderful as those other traditions may be.
When we understand the relationship between view, method and fruit we can see why the millions of yoga practitioners today are not becoming enlightened like the sages of old have promised they could. Mixing views from different traditions, and practicing methods with the idea of a “little bit of this and a little bit of that” leads to a muddled fruit and can even be psychologically and/or physically and spiritually damaging.
The path of yoga is complete and extant today with unbroken roots tracing back millennia. The incredible work of the aforementioned scholars is highlighting the origins of the complete path of yoga in its textual form. Their research is perfectly complementing what has been transmitted orally by the lineage of masters of the tradition. These oral teachings clearly demonstrate that non-dual Tantric Yoga was bristling well before even this textual evidence, which dates back thousands of years. However, it is incredibly exciting to see the texts illuminating what our teachers have been telling us. The complete path of yoga includes incredibly sophisticated rituals, countless mantras, visualization practices and a seemingly infinite variety of sadhanas (spiritual practices) that are designed to systematically take practitioners from the “a” of ignorance to the “z” of enlightenment.
Yoga asana and everything else that comprises the “complete path” I speak of has its origins in Śakta-Śaiva Tantra (which has had many different sects over the years). These origins are older than Patanjali, older than Buddhism and alive and well today. They contain teachings on Ayurveda, countless meditations, internal alchemy, astrology, philosophy, ritual, etc., etc.
So, if you are keen to go deeper with your yoga practice and love the notion that you can do so by staying within the same stream that gave birth to the asana you love, then you will be thrilled to know that this tradition is being practiced by people like you and me today.
(*Chris Wallis just completed a fascinating 6-part video series on the breaking scholarship referred to in this article, which you can view here for free by simply signing in.)
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Ed: Sara Crolick