Updated: Feb 9, 2021
IMAGE AND IGNORANCE
Have a quick think about what image comes to mind for you when you hear the word Yoga. It pains me that many people nowadays do not even know what Yoga is! It is not their fault that they think Yoga is bendy bodies, for that is largely what we see! Yoga is everywhere right now, it is trendy, yoga and mindfulness quotes are cropping up everywhere, they don’t seem to mean anything anymore, yesterday I even saw tv adverts for insurance using Yoga quotes and even an ad with cartoon pandas doing Yoga on lily pads for an antiseptic cream! I mean what is going on out there! Just now on the news they actually said regarding traffic on the roads that ‘essential journeys only is now a mantra’! Do they even know what a mantra is?! People are unknowingly diluting the meaning and teachings of Yoga down! Even my dearest friends and family are among these people, I admit I get a little frustrated when they make comments about my gracefulness or flexibility or say ‘wow i could never do that’, I actually want to say ‘Yes! You could’. I wasn’t born flexible or strong, I learnt this! I also get guys on dating apps writing things I will let you imagine for yourself. Mostly they don’t read the philosophy or experiences that accompany the images, it takes longer right and we are always jumping to the next thing.
But why don’t we look beyond the image? Why don’t we question what we see? Maybe we don’t have time, maybe we just like the image because it pleases us and that is enough, maybe we are entirely ignorant of the fact that Yoga is much more than a pretty image or pose!?
Why don’t we see the ugly bits? Why don’t people post their fails on Instagram? Their sweaty messy pictures? The real practise? Many images are over styled and edited to emphasise the allure and beauty of Yoga to sell clothing attire, retreats or studios etc… Are we truly only interested in beauty and success? This is not real! It does not represent the whole spectrum of life! It is not fair to these generations growing up drowned in the media, my niece who is 14 years old only posts pictures of her with cute filters or effects... We are happy enough to feed ourselves ugly news and outtakes on TV!? On my Instagram account I make a point of including outwardly ‘boring’ postures, the inbetween bits, the ugly bits, ie what really happens on the mat!
If we only saw traditional Yoga and images in the West it might not be so popular or hot right now! The images of holy men, prayer, meditation or a practitioner working their skill, focus and calm at the edges of their limits might not be so attractive or appealing. People are misled into thinking Yoga is easy and relaxing, I also find this quite amusing, until I get sick, pregnant or injured people turning up and expecting just that in an Ashtanga or Vinyasa Class! This might also explain why some are put off by Yoga; we don’t have as many men doing Yoga, men generally want to get stronger and commonly don’t realise that Yoga gets you really strong! We all know it takes a hell of a lot of effort to reach effortlessness, both physically and mentally, both in posture work and meditation. It makes me sad that many are ignorant of the training and the colossal work going on behind the Yogic poker face! Or, maybe they don’t want to, maybe it wouldn’t sit so well. I often compare the physical practise to the likes of Martial Arts or Ballet; where you see grace and control there is a lot of learned effort behind it. Or think of the duck gliding seemingly effortlessly through the water.
'From whatever and wherever the mind wanders due to it's flickering and unsteady nature, on must certainly withdraw it and bring 'it back under the control of the Self'
'For one whose mind is unbridled, self realization is difficult work, but he whose mind is controlled and who strives by right means is assured of success'
Anything worth having is gonna take effort. And it takes discipline to keep trying and not give up, learning to be consistent is a huge lesson that Yoga teaches us. We may arrive to the mat through our eyes and ego, because we want to be able to do Dancer Pose or an Arms, Abs and Arm Balance class makes us feel good, but soon enough the realisation will come that Yoga is not easy or as fun as you thought it would be! I remember I almost died 5 minutes into my first actual class because the teacher assumed ‘I had done lots of yoga’ based on my appearance! Easily done! This moment will come when it dawns on you that it is perhaps not what you thought you signed up for, and it is hard! and everyone else makes it look so easy! You realise it will take hard work, patience and lots of practise, over a long time! In other words it will take DISCIPLINE AND CONSISTENCY!
Discipline can go two ways, either court the ego and make us rise to the challenge as it did me, or make us simply give up and walk away. Many students leave a Vipassana retreat or give up meditation also simply because too much discipline is needed. We simply can’t be bothered to do it, or there are too many other distractions and seemingly better things we could be doing! Anyone who has tried to meditate will know the nature of the monkey mind. I did laugh today, albeit nervously, as I listened to an ‘Escaping Samsara’ Podcast with Nicky Knoff, 81, she said that each ten years the generation is weaker than the last, that we are becoming softer, we can’t handle life and it is worrying. People are losing their inner strength and resilience.
'Every endeavor is covered by some sort of fault, just as fire is covered by smoke. Therefore one should not give up the work which is born of nature, O son of Kunti, even if such work is full of fault'
'In Yoga there are lots of fearsome obstacles that are hard to avoid, despite which the yogi should keep on striving, even if he is at his last gasp'
Yoga builds within us resilience and faith. Some amount of hardship, struggle and discipline is needed in order to make us confront ourselves and ask questions, if not we simply won’t change, or even see why we should. Through Hatha Yoga we have this amazing opportunity to do this safely on our mats. And over time we become mentally strong, we attain that evenness of mind. This is why the practise should always have some level of challenge or difficulty or complexity, and this will involve the physical body as well as the psyche. It should certainly not always be the same or easy. I remind you that I am an Ashtanga practitioner and each time I get on my mat i encounter every side of me and my behaviour through my body and my reactions to it, it is said frequently that the practise is a microcosm of life itself and all of the types of situations you will find yourself in. I often say to those who may not understand this that Yoga is mind control.
'Life can be devastating or life can be better than you imagined, It depends on you. The biggest lessons and the potential for growth happen when things are the hardest . When life feels devastating, don’t run! Don’t skip the lesson. Don’t numb or avoid the pain. Face it head on!'
RENUNCIATION, SURRENDER AND DEVOTION
'You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of your work, you should never engage in action for the sake of reward'
'Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment and you will amass spiritual awareness'
'Yoga succeeds by these six; enthusiasm, openness, courage, knowledge of the truth, determination, and solitude'
A certain amount of ego is necessary to help us get on the mat in the first place and keep doing the work, we need a challenge or a new pose to engage us and keep us excited to practice, but then we are asked to renounce the fruits of our actions. Santina Giardina- Chard made me laugh with her Instagram post recently, she said ‘what if i like fruit?!’ This seems like a contradiction, a trick doesn’t it?! In other words, the ego gives us the determination, courage and curiosity to do it but then we are asked to forget about our goals and expectations, triumphs and failures. This is different from not caring what happens, it is learning equanimity, standing unchanged and unshaken whether you succeed or fail according to your ego, how wonderful!
Basically It is not about you! Throughout the teachings we are told this time and time again, to shed the I, ego and me, that we should do the work without wanting or expecting a reward or a result of any kind. The idea of doing something for no reason can seem a bit alien. Yoga doesn’t care about your personal reasons for doing it, your pose goals, your fitness or body shape, or even who you are, that is how you label or identify with your self, it just cares that you keep doing the work. This can be terrifying yet on the other hand enormously liberating, finally we are allowed to simply be in the moment, we experience a childlike liberation, free from burden, worry, stress and responsibility.
It took me many many years to reach this understanding of equanimity and now I can say that I am much happier, my practise is less demanding and rough so to speak and it happens more frequently. I once went for a period of 6 months once where I didn't practise mostly because I thought I wasn’t good enough, I needed a break from the I part of me, I was controlling my practise instead of surrendering to it. Most of us are control freaks these days, we over work our minds and seem to gain satisfaction from over- analysing everything. Have you ever tried during meditation to let a thought pass, to not follow it or cling to it, the temptation is great. Think about the moment before you jump into a cool river, control vs surrender, with that surrender comes joy and peace!
Recognising that we can surrender up the ego and it’s ideas and judgements will bring peace and calm not only to your practise, but to your life! And practise really will feel like a safe and caring place to work inwards on your spiritual path, you will have a joyful heart and fall in love with doing your practise, it will no longer feel like a chore or a mammoth mountain you must climb, I speak from my personal experience.
'One who works in devotion, who is a pure soul, and who controls his mind and senses, is dear to everyone, and everyone is dear to him. Though always working, such a man is never entangled'
Traditionally the yoga teacher would need to be convinced by the student that they where ready to trust, commit and devote themselves only to his teachings, most of them did this willingly as they had already exhausted all other forms of medicine and treatments. This is a form of surrender as well as discipline as the daily lives of any yogi adapt in order to conform to the teachings of yoga, conscious changes may have to be made with regard to diet, sleeping, and social patterns for example. Krishnamacharya was a very strict teacher and refused many many students ! Nowadays it feels more like Yoga is conforming and surrendering to the needs of the modern student.
So let's come back to the modern Western yoga scene; we learn to surrender ourselves to the practise, the teacher, the path; we get used to chanting, bowing in Surya Namaskar and placing the hands in prayer, now how about doing it for God?! Yoga is rooted in Hinduism, but in the West the idea of God can put people off, let alone being told to surrender ourselves to God! We simply have a hard time believing in it. We have grown up bathed in the glory of science and technology, God can seem ridiculous, mythical or fairytale like. But Hinduism is pretty cool as we are told that God is inside all of us, it is our true self, our true identity, does that change anything? That God is everywhere and in each of us, as Purusha or the Atman, we all have a fragment of the great Brahman inside of us. Let’s come back to that quote earlier...
'The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal, fragmental parts'
‘There’s no moment of clarity until you’re God, which you already are, but you don’t know that’
In the Chandogya Upanisad we are told that the God in all of our hearts is as vast as the Universe; and in the Bhagavad Gita there is a passage where Krishna (God’s form as a man) reveals his full power to Arjuna and what he sees is awe- inspiring and humbling as well as terrifying! He sees the birth and death of the world, he sees Krishna as the creator, maintainer and destroyer, he sees that Krishna is literally the reason for everything! Imagine how powerless this leaves Arjuna feeling! But also imagine again that sweetness of surrender, the relief of knowing that there is something greater, of being able to effectively pass all responsibility and blame even over to God. This is perhaps what the devout Brahmin Pattabhi Jois meant when he frequently said ‘God is everywhere’. He would point to a door or a wall and tell students 'God is there', he would encourage the Western students to pray.
'You take practise, you think God’
'In all activities just depend upon Me and work always under My protection. In such devotional service, be fully conscious of me'
Faith has the power to dissolve fear, doubt and despair. Whether you believe in God or not, the teachings of Yoga still will apply to all, deep inside all of us there is a calm place of being, call it what you will, we have all felt it, a pure and simple bliss not attached to possessions or people or desire, we are a making our way there as we practise Raja Yoga and this can only mean great benefits for humanity!
'Om. In the centre of the castle of Brahmin, our own body, there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus flower, and within can be found a small space. We should find who dwells there, and we should want to know him… The little space within the heart is as great as this vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars; fire and lightning and winds are there; and all that now is and all that is not: for the whole universe is Him and He dwells within our heart’
In the next parts to this blog I will take a closer look at how Yoga is both learnt and taught generically in the modern day, together with the modern teacher student relationship. I will explore how modern alignment obsession and cueing could lead us away from the inward spiritual path and the true internal work of Hatha Yoga; where are the traditional asana, bandhas and pranayama? And also the deep value of stillness; how set sequences and a personal practise can lead us to the higher limbs with focus on the Ashtanga Vinyasa Method.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read this and for being interested and motivated to do so!