April 18, 2016

What is the Essence of Yoga?

Author's own (Taleta McDonald)

Most people associate yoga with postures and, let’s face it, Western-based yoga classes focus mainly on the physical aspects of yoga.

However, there is a lot more to yoga than most of us realize.

What is the true essence of yoga, and is it fast becoming lost to a multi-billion dollar fitness industry, which is largely based on getting a toned body, looking good in the latest fitness gear and posting the best looking pictures on Instagram?

My passion to learn the deeper aspects of yoga led me to the Himalaya’s of Nepal, and it was there that I met Premananda, who completely shattered everything that I thought I knew about yoga.

Unlike the big names and popular teachers of yoga in the west, Premananda didn’t really advertise himself, it was only by chance, when driving down a narrow dirt road, that I noticed a little sign outside the front of his house, advertising yoga classes.

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I attended my first class with him, all I knew was he had trained at The Bihar School of Yoga (the world’s first yoga university), he taught one on one and his classes were based on the teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

He welcomed me into his modest little home with a warm namaste, and I sat down on a cushion on the floor. There were no mirrors, props or music playing, just a bare room with paint peeling off the walls, in a basic house perfumed with the smell of incense.

He was short, somewhere between 40 and 50, and he dressed in loose yellow clothing.

The class began with a long philosophical talk about yoga. He explained to me that he believes yoga is the practice of non-ego, and in a class full of students it’s easy to compare your self and compete with others, which is why he only taught one to one.

He went on to explain that yoga can be practiced anywhere at anytime and during any activity that one carries out, through the art of mindfulness.

This idea was totally foreign to me, and I felt so naïve to have thought that yoga postures were the all-important element in yoga, when in fact they are just one of many yogic practices that can lead one to internal bliss.

A light switched on inside of me while the profoundness of what he was saying sunk in. This means we could be practicing yoga while we are washing the dishes, going for a walk, cooking dinner or anything that we are doing or not doing.

Perhaps it is more yogic-like to be watching television with a complete state of awareness than carrying out a sequence of yoga poses in a crowded studio with no awareness whatsoever.

After having a deep discussion about yoga philosophy, he took me through a series of poses to warm up my body before starting the asanas.

I was used to jumping right into sun salutations before practicing a rigorous form of sweat-inducing Ashtanga, and I wondered how slowly and repetitively rotating and flexing certain body parts would be of any benefit to me.

As if he could read my mind, his soft voice pointed out the numerous benefits of bringing total mind-body awareness through specific movements designed to warm up my joints and remove blockages in my pranic flow.

He explained to me that illness and disease are often a result of energetic blockages, and through the practice of these simple exercises, one could attain a healthy life.

So, I continued with my eyes closed until he guided me into my first posture using only his voice. I thought the posture was too easy for me because I was used to doing advanced postures and handstands; however, he continued guiding me into simple posture after simple posture, as he could see I was attached to my ego and wasn’t yet ready to move onto the more advanced postures.

He studied the rhythm and flow of my breath and gave me gentle reminders as I worked slowly and consistently through each posture while maintaining complete awareness. For the first time, I felt that I was going deep into a meditative state, far from the bright lights of a yoga studio and the often quick pace of an asana-based class.

I went onto practice pranayama, and then he led me into Yoga Nidra (a deep psychic sleep), where every muscle in my body felt completely relaxed. My mind somehow drifted into oblivion, but I was fully awake and all my fears, worries and insecurities disappeared until I was left with nothing but nothingness—a state of peace with the universal source of life itself.

After three years of practicing what I thought was yoga, I felt like I was finally beginning to grasp what the essence of yoga really is, far from the watered down versions that are so often taught in Western classes and in over-priced teacher trainings. Just like the old proverb When a student is, ready a teacher appears, I had found my teacher, and I felt thankful that I had unintentionally stumbled across him.

He gave me an invaluable lesson, it cost me a fraction of the price of a typical yoga class and I learned more than I had in all the yoga classes that I had ever taken!

Feeling humbled, I left my ego at the door that day and went back to the very basics of yoga.

As a yoga teacher, I felt like a fraud. I had been yearning to learn and experience for myself the deeper aspects of yoga, and now I was fully able to pass down what I had learnt to my students and offer them a well-rounded class, finally feeling like more than just a fitness instructor.

There are many different paths of yoga, all of which have the common goals of awakening our own consciousness and choosing a yoga path is indeed personal, which can entirely depend on one’s personality as to what would best suit the individual person. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and each style has its own unique benefits. However, for the purpose of this article I will be focusing on Ashtanga Yoga.

In Sanskrit, yoga  signifies the union of any form of connection, so in a philosophical sense, it can mean the conscious connection with self.

According to the sacred Hindu texts of the Upanishads, yoga was divided into four forms: Raja (Ashtanga), Hatha, Mantra and Laya yoga. It later branched out into eight schools: Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, Raja, Tantra, Hatha, Kundalini and Mantra.
The eight-fold path of Ashtanga yoga is aimed at harmonizing oneself to attain samadhi—union with the divine—which leads to self-realization. The first five precepts are orientated toward removing external distractions, while the final three are focused on raising one’s consciousness so that the mind ceases to function.

If we look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the foundational text of Ashtanga yoga, we can see a clear path that was laid out for yoga practitioners to achieve Kaivalya, the ultimate goal of Ashtanga yoga and liberation from rebirth.

While it may not be the goal of most people to achieve this level of consciousness, it is worth understanding these ancient texts if we wish to achieve a well-rounded and balanced yoga practice.

Author's own (Taleta McDonald)

Let’s now look more closely at the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.

Within the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are the Yamas—the first limb of Ashtanga Yoga. The Yamas are the moral disciplines for the practicing yogi and the five precepts attempt to harmonize oneself with our external world.

Ahimsa is the absence of violence from one’s mind, body and spirit. It means the total cessation of violent thoughts, words and actions toward all living beings, including animals. It is the realization that the spark of divine spiritual energy exists in all forms of life and to hurt another being is to hurt oneself. This precept gives many yogis a fundamental reason to maintain a vegetarian diet.

Satya simply means the practice of truthfulness, and it pertains to the virtuous restraint from falsehood and distortion of reality in one’s words, expressions and actions. It means to think, speak and act with integrity and truthfulness.

Asteya means one must not steal in action, speech or thought. Not only does it mean to not steal property, it can also pertain to being on time and speaking mindfully so as not to steal another’s time away, or it could mean not stealing someone else’s peace during a yoga class.

There are different interpretations of the next yama, Brahmacharya. The classical text refers to maintaining a virtuous lifestyle of celibacy or fidelity if one is married; however, in modern day times it is recognized as not wasting one’s energy on things that don’t serve a higher purpose, such as misusing our sexual energy.

The final Yama is Aparigraha, and it pertains to non-greed, non-possessiveness and non-attachment. It means to live without greed from material gain or happiness through the killing, hurting or destruction of other human beings, life forms or nature.

Next come the Niyamas, which are the disciplines of self-restraint and internal observances to harmonize one self with our feelings.

The first Niyama is Sauca, which means to maintain purity of body and mind through cleanliness. The outer aspect pertains to keeping ourselves clean and our lives organized and uncluttered, and the inner aspect guides us to a healthy body and clarity of mind through the practice of asanas and pranayama.

Santosha is a feeling of inner contentment. It means to be happy with what we have rather than focusing on what we don’t have in life.

Tapas represent the burning desire to reach self-realization and the disciplined use of our energy. It is the focused and intense commitment that is needed to burn off that which keeps us from being in the true state of yoga.

Svadhyaya means self-study and observation. Through cultivating self-awareness, we can live in balance with all aspects of our being.

Ishvarapranidhana pertains to total surrender to the creator. It is the recognition of an omnipresent force that is guiding and directing the course of our lives and the celebration of the divine spark of life that is within us, and all living things.

Yoga without the moral foundations of the Yamas and Niyamas is contradictory to the path of yoga, as it will most likely not have the desired effect. I have heard a few yoga students say they have felt bored during a yoga class, which is where I feel the practice and understanding of the Yamas and Niyamas would be of more benefit to them. By reducing the friction between one’s outer actions and inner attitudes, one can begin to feel an inner harmony and peace rather than carrying out postures with no internal framework.

The third limb of Ashtanga yoga is Asanas, or yoga postures. According to Patanjali, the purpose of asanas are to balance the different nerve impulses by maintaining a steady and comfortable position that is firm but relaxed, for extended periods of time. Later, asanas became a term for various postures used to restore and maintain a practitioner’s health and wellbeing by regulating internal organs, improving the body’s flexibility and cultivating awareness, concentration and relaxation.

The fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga is Pranayama. The purpose of pranayama is to control and expand the breath through the concentration of one’s prana, or life force, and when practiced correctly it has the ability to slow down the heart rate and mental activity, leading to a state of no-mind and inner bliss.

The fifth limb, Pratyahara, involves the conscious withdrawal of the senses in order to find union with oneself and life. Ultimately, the practice of pratyahara enables us to choose our responses rather than reacting. How does this translate into our yoga practice? It can simply mean to withdraw the energy of our thoughts about a pose by focusing on the pose itself.

The final three stages in Ashtanga yoga include:

Dharana, which means to concentrate the mind through fixing the awareness to one object and excluding others. In an Ashtanga class, we are often told where to fix our gaze in order to stay focused and keep our mind from wandering.

Dhyana is the total absence of thought during meditation, which results in deep tranquility and a feeling of oneness. Swami Satyananda Saraswati stated during the World Yoga Convention in October, 1978 that In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, meditation is defined as the moment “when the mind has been able to transcend the knowledge of smell, sound, touch, form and taste, and at the same time, when the consciousness is functioning around one point.”

The final limb in Patanjali’s eight-fold path of Ashtanga yoga is Samadhi. It means to experience bliss and a state of oneness, through transcending the mind and awakening to the truth of oneself.

If the essence of yoga is to attain higher consciousness through a state of oneness, internal harmony and bliss, what does it mean for the vast number of yoga enthusiasts who are paying large amounts of money to attend yoga classes, workshops and retreats with teachers who are focused on only one or two aspects of yoga?

If the essence of yoga is to survive in an environment of commercialism, which is driven by money, success, ego and status, the fundamentals need to be practiced and taught in its entirety, as the great sage’s of yoga intended it to be.

If we can move forward with awareness and spread the true teachings of yoga, which encompasses so much more than just a physical workout, if we can allow the ancient teachings to penetrate our practice with the hope of spreading more love, compassion and awareness to ourselves and all other living beings on earth, if we can let our practice be the basis for all that is good and shine forth the beautiful beings that we are, we can keep the true essence of yoga alive.



Author: Taleta McDonald

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photos: Author’s own

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