April 14, 2010

Ashtanga: the Yoga of Purification.

Working Through Physical & Emotional Discomfort in the Practice of Yoga.

“The practice of yoga is a slow retraining of our bodies and minds to make ourselves comfortable with the scary places inside and outside of ourselves.”

Yoga purifies the mind and body…by asking you to develop deep self-knowledge.

When you unite with the deepest part of yourself, an incontrovertible understanding of not only your own life, but all life takes root. The highlights along the path of yoga are epiphany moments where your higher self is revealed to you—moments that blossom between your breath, your posture and point of attention. This three-pronged approach is the pinnacle of the Ashtanga Yoga method that I learned from my teacher Sri. K. Pattahbi Jois, whom I called Guruji.

Guruji taught that regular yoga practice cleanses the area around the spiritual heart and removes the six poisons of kama (desire), krodha (anger), moha (delusion), lobha (greed), matsarya (envy) and mada (sloth). He was a believer in the benefits of daily practice as the main method for practitioners to experience the benefits of yoga. In order to remove these poisons, you have to practice with strong determination in order to awaken layers of accumulated patterns.

This is done through daily practice of all the eight limbs of the Ashtanga yoga path. When this integrated approach to spiritual development is in place, the inner fire of purification, called agni in Sanskrit, is ignited and literally burns through unhealthy habits, physical toxins and emotional hang-ups.

Studying and memorizing the Yoga Sutras, Sanskrit words or contemporary philosophy alone will not give you peace. Information is not knowledge. Guruji always emphasized the necessity of experiencing the effects of a daily practice within your own practice, body and life. Only in this way can students integrate the wisdom of the sacred, eternal teachings of yoga into daily life and “get,” firsthand, the empowering self-knowledge that is the essence of yoga.

Yoga transforms us not by demanding change, but by inspiring change from within—and it is daily practice that provides the breeding ground for this phenomenal transformation.

Anything really meaningful in life usually comes at the expense of a little hard work, and yoga’s great promise of transformation is no different.

Most practitioners feel is that yoga is hard and demanding. The reason the exercises, practices and observances are so challenging is because true self knowledge demands it, and our attachments to the six poisons are deeply entrenched. Before the brilliance of life can be felt, there is often a sort of due diligence that needs to be taken through the doldrums of these obstacles. Attachment, anger, delusion, envy, laziness and other detrimental states of being must be understood and transcended before we can know lasting peace. We all have a place inside of ourselves that we are not one hundred percent comfortable with. We have all done things that we are not completely proud of. And we have all fears, insecurities and idiosyncrasies that we hide from the world.

The practice of yoga is a slow retraining of our bodies and minds to make ourselves comfortable with the scary places inside and outside of ourselves. Yoga can be the first step along an arduous path towards unconditional acceptance of all life, including our own.

On many of my trips to Mysore, students would often share their elaborate stories of discomfort with Guruji.

The majority of the time, he would say “Pain good.”

The second book of the yoga sutras begins with an axiom that defines a key element of yoga practice as accepting pain as help for purification, known in Sanskrit as tapah. The only way that the inner fire of purification, agni, works is if you learn to stay in it and not run away. The natural human response to pain is fear, avoidance and denial, yet yoga uses pain as a method of awakening. By learning to accept pain within the safe space of yoga, you learn to create a pause between the stimulus of pain and the response in your body and mind that wants to run away. In that powerful pause you are able to choose your course of action instead of being driven by reactionary patterns from the past. The store of accumulated reactionary patterns amount to what is called in Sanskrit the samskaras and these set ways of being, reacting and running create the negative karma that adversely affects our lives.

So yoga teaches you how to react painful situations as opportunities for growth, expansion and success and thus you learn not to run away. If your tendency is to focus on the problem when it arises yoga retrains your mind to focus on the solution. If you run away from pain yoga teaches you how to accept it and then move through it. While you might not want any type of pain in your life, the truth is that pain is pretty much unavoidable. There will always be a squeaking thing you could do without, a person who aggravates you or a life situation that saddens you. Yoga gives you the unique chance to change your reaction patterns and thereby tap into an eternal, abiding peace. The stability of the dedicated yoga practitioner means that peace is possible to experience regardless of what circumstances arrive at the doorstep. In other words you can lesson the impact of the six poisons and the samskaras by accepting pain and practicing true kriya yoga when pain comes so that you will experience a more peaceful life.

While the acceptance of pain as help for purification is sometimes the most difficult step to take along the journey of yoga it is one that will help you move through pain, suffering and injury into healing, peace and joy. After you maintain a steady yoga practice over a long period of time the immeasurable benefits begin flowing through your life. Yoga gives you direction and pointers to show you how to excavate layers of yourself hidden below dirt, debris and toxins, and in doing so you experience the deep peace that is inherent in your nature. Whenever there is tension, stress and unhappiness it is because the connection to your higher self has been lost in the sea of the six poisions and the samskaras. In order for you to transcend these unhappy states of being and experience the true luminosity of self-realization you must first accept the inevitable pains of life as help for purification. Yoga reconnects you with your inner world so that you can make contact with the indescribable space of ultimate knowingness where transformation happens.

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