More to Yoga than Downward Dog
Yoga is a practice that is thousands of years old. Although most are aware that there is more to it than the physical practice and “Namaste,” it is very interesting to learn a little background on this widespread practice. The first references to yoga were 4000 years ago! Back then the practice consisted of breath control, philosophy and spirituality. Around 3000 years ago, “yoga” was encountered by name, but there was still no physical practice. The famous yoga texts Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads are orally composed, and different branches of yogic philosophy began to take shape. This is different from the types of yoga we hear about these days. Eventually, what evolved were 6 schools of yogic philosophy with different emphasises.
Raja yoga: means “royal”, focuses on meditation and introspection, now strictly adheres to 8-limbed path
Karma yoga: focuses on service and the path of self-transcending action, Mother Teresa might have been drawn to this type of yoga
Bhakti yoga: focuses on devotion, seeing the divine in all things, cultivating acceptance and tolerance for everyone we come into contact with, expressing devotion with every thought and deed, Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr might have been drawn to this school of yoga
Jnana Yoga: focuses on knowledge and wisdom, the path of a sage or scholar, students of scriptures and texts, considered the most rigorous and direct, similar to Benedictine monks or Kabalistic scholars
Tantra Yoga: focuses on ritual, makes things sacred by experiencing the divine in every act, reverential attitude, although Tantra is often associated with sexuality, many tantric schools recommend celibacy. Appeals to those who enjoy ceremony, ritual and celebration.
Hatha Yoga: The physical practice of yoga (Asana) - Uses the body as a vehicle of self-transformation.
As we create our own personal yoga practice, we can draw from all the branches of Yoga philosophy that appeal to us!
In 200CE Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, which include the 8-Limbed Path of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras are the background of most modern forms of yoga. It is now believed that Patanjali, rather than being one man, was actually a collection of authors all contributing to this notable work. I will be discussing the different parts of the 8-Limbed Path in subsequent articles so stay tuned! There are references to just a few physical postures at this point. So 2000 years of yoga have passed, and the physical practice is just starting. It is only a small part of all that yoga is! The Sutras include guidelines for living, both personally and in relationship with others, as well as practices and techniques for finding serenity and peace.
Finally, in 500CE and onward, many styles of physical yoga emerged. These are the types of yoga we are more familiar with these days. Although the names may sound familiar, unless you have been lucky enough to try out many different types of yoga classes, you may not always remember what makes each type of yoga different from the others. So here is a little summary of the types of modern yoga practice:
Hatha: Any type of yoga that teaches physical postures, sort of the umbrella under which many of these types of practice fall.
Mantra: Uses mantras / sounds to get closer to divinity by creating positive vibrations
Kundalini: Combines exercises, breathing techniques, chanting, meditations, and mantras - awakens energy at the base of the spine and draws it upward through the 7 chakras
Iyengar: A meticulous practice, focusing on proper alignment. Lots of props, less movement, but strenuous hold of postures, comprehensive training of instructors, good if you have a chronic injury or condition.
Kriya: Brought to the west by Paramhansa Yogananada who wrote “Autobiography of a Yogi” -comprised of meditation, breathing, sound and some postures.
Vinyasa: in Sanskrit - “to place in a special way” - fluid flows, linking breath to movement, lots of variety.
Ashtanga: Similar to Vinyasa, but has fixed poses in a certain order, brought to the West in the 1970s, there are 6 different series (1 beginner, 1 intermediate and 4 advanced)
Bikram: series of 26 poses, trademarked, fixed sequence, in heated room
Power Yoga: Vigorous Vinyasa-style yoga, often to upbeat music (This is the type we do at Bee Free Yoga!)
Yin Yoga: Restorative - slow paced poses often held for 5 min or longer - the idea is to apply moderate stress to connective tissues to increase circulation in joints and improve flexibility.
So if yoga is not only about physical postures, what is it about? The meaning of the word “yoga” is “union,” from the Sanskrit “to yoke.” It refers to the union of mind, body and spirit; of breath and movement; of male and female energies; of humans with nature; of the individual soul with the divine. The concept is similar to Buddhism in that practitioners are seeking liberation from suffering (duality) by realizing the true nature of reality (enlightenment) and experiencing union with the divine.
To understand this union, imagine you are like a bubble floating around in the ocean. You are separate, yet you are also a part of the ocean. And when you die, you pop and dissolve back into the ocean. We can also access our own experiential knowledge of this union, by recalling those blissful moments of connection in our own lives-- moments where time slows down, and your worries slip away, and you really feel the magic all around you. For me it often happens when driving around town on a beautiful day with my music on and my windows down. I see people and animals, and the veil of separation drops. For many, these moments might happen in nature, in moments of stillness and quiet, or during movement / exercising in a way that quiets their mind.
Also, like Buddhism, Yoga is not a religion. It is a spiritual path that can compliment any faith. It sets forth practical guidelines and practices to foster connection with the divine and to cultivate compassion and serenity, no matter what is happening in the physical world. It is up to the individual to define their idea of divinity. For me, it is the energy that connects all things… and that energy is Love. Rather than the divine being some separate entity, the divine is in us and of us… just as it is one with the rocks and trees and plants and animals. And just as nature is a dance of interdependence, so are we a part of that dance.
How can this union positively affect our lives? Having this larger perspective can help us find peace when life seems out of control. When we get caught up in the minutiae of the everyday, we can drop into this vast space and remember that our little dramas are part of something much bigger. “This moment matters on one level, but it’s not cosmically serious.” (Charlotte Kasl, If the Buddha Got Stuck).
We spend so much of our lives trying to control the uncontrollable-- other people’s actions, how things will unfold, people’s opinions of us. One of the best ways I know to let go of the things I can’t control is to remember that I am part of something bigger, and loosen my grip. This is different from being fatalistic or resigned. It is paired with a belief that the universe conspires in our favor; a belief that is cultivated over time. If we reflect on all the things that seemed to go drastically “wrong” in our lives, we can usually in retrospect see that they were actually going “right” but in ways we didn’t yet understand.
It is a belief in this union that allows me to surrender. What am I surrendering to? I can surrender to the notion that what I have is this moment, and everything it contains is exactly what I need for the evolution of my consciousness and to be of service to the world. I don’t have to resist what is because I feel safe and supported by a benevolent universe. I see it in the miracles of nature, the moments of human connection and the resilience of the people around me. No, this doesn’t mean we will be immortal, and tragedy won’t strike. But every hard experience is an opportunity to soften our heart, to connect, and grow.
Even if we are comfortable with the idea of the divine, can we really believe that we ARE the Divine? It seems almost sacrilegious! But remember it's not just you that are divine-- everyone is! Even the plants, animals, rocks and trees. “Do you really trust you are a Buddha?” Tara Brach, who wrote Radical Acceptance, was asked this question at a meditation retreat. Her inner response was “Absolutely…. Sometimes.” Countless times she had moments of realization, of full-body awareness and connecting with her true divine nature. Yet she knew she also spent huge amounts of time each day believing she was her small self, falling short and needing to be different in order to be okay. So she began asking this question periodically during the retreat… “Who am I taking myself to be?” She was a mediator taken away by persistent thinking. She was a woman wearing clothes that were too sexy and immodest for a Buddhist retreat. She was a judgemental person, running a constant commentary in her mind about how others appeared and behaved. She was a self-conscious yogi, wanting to impress her teacher. The question became a useful tool for revealing how fully and often she slipped into the trance of unworthiness and disconnection.
A more ancient story of the power of “union” is of the Buddha. After many failed attempts at enlightenment, he spent a night sitting under the Bodhi tree. Mara, the god of greed, hatred and delusion presented him with many and various challenges. In his final, and most difficult challenge, Mara said to Buddha, “By what right do you aspire to Buddhahood?” In other words, “Who do you think you are?” In response to this challenge, Buddha reached down and touched the earth, touching the ground of wakeful presence, the heart of perfect wisdom from which all enlightened beings spring. He was calling on his true identity to dispel all the doubts that kept him from being free.
According to legend, when he touched the ground, the earth trembled and the sky was filled with rumbling. Mara, seeing that he was facing not a man, but the creative power of awareness itself, fearfully withdrew. This story can inspire us. When we connect what is right in front of us, we realize the true immensity of who we are. (Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance)
So what daily practices can help us stay connected? Prayer, in whatever form works for you, is a wonderful way to remain connected to something bigger than us and to release control. There are also many tools for accessing our inner wisdom like tarot, soul collage and tuning into signs and synchronicities-- and meditation and yoga of course!
How we treat ourselves is also a reflection of our belief in this union. We can care for our body like a divine vessel. We can take a bath with candles and bath bombs, and ceremonially wash our skin. We can eat a clean diet, approaching our meals mindfully. Perhaps we have a special perfume that we can apply throughout the day, taking the opportunity to pause and remember our connection. What types of clothes and colors make you feel the most divine? What music helps you embody this power? What situations and people honor our true nature? Does our self-talk reflect our divinity?
Just as we can design our own yoga practice based on the practices and philosophies that appeal to us, so can we develop a set of daily practices to encourage our connection to our divine nature. Have fun with it! And when your own version of Mara comes to challenge you-- and he will-- reach out and touch the ground, and remember who you are.
* (For further reading, check out Charlotte Kasl’s “If the Buddha Got Stuck”, “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach and “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)