Ten days is a short time when we spend 24 hours traveling each way, however it was long enough to remind me of some fundamental aspects of yoga. In the United States yoga is a booming billion dollar industry. In America for most people the word yoga invokes images of young athletic women wearing Lululemon sweating their way into difficult postures. This is very different from what Patanjali, the father of classical yoga defines this ancient “art of living and science of experience.” Yoga is not a sport or a competition. Yoga is primarily concerned with our inner space although, we use physical postures or the breath as an entry point. Yoga is practiced more off the mat than on the mat. Yoga is not something we achieve, it is something we practice for a long time. Yoga is a lifelong journey that brings us closer to understanding ourselves.
Yoga undeniably has physical benefits. Depending on the style of yoga, it may bring increased strength, flexibility and even stamina. In the USA this is an important reason to do yoga – to get a “workout.” To the folks in India this can be close to blasphemy. In the classical sense, yoga postures should “bestow the steadiness of body and a feeling of wellbeing at the psychological level” (Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Book II Verse 47). If this is how we practice yoga, the rate of breathing should not increase while practicing difficult postures. Yoga practice should not lead to fatigue and therein must be individualized for each student. I’ve intellectually known this definition of yoga asana for a long time. For many years I would plow through my asana practice, only focused on getting to the next posture. This goes nowhere towards the ultimate goal of yoga as said by Patanjali “yogas chitta vritti nirodhah” – yoga puts and end to the modifications (thoughts) in the mind. Following your yoga practice, do you feel calmer mentally?
This brings us to the next point, how does yoga bring about a calm mind? In the eight-limbed classical approach, the asanas are the third limb, following the yamas and niyamas. These are behavioral guidelines that come before the postures, meaning that these are practiced first. The first yama is ahimsa – nonviolence. The application of nonviolence is up to the individual but includes many behavioral aspects- being nice to everyone (not just those you like), harming as little as possible through your diet (maybe vegetarian), being kind to yourself both in thought and physical action. This is just a start. The other yamas are truthfulness, not taking what isn’t yours, conserving energy, and non-possessiveness. Simply put, the yamas are behaviors that will help you to live in the world peacefully and harmoniously.
Pranayama is a set of breathing techniques used to regulate the pranic flow through the body. It can help to balance out the body and mind on a physical level. As a regular practitioner of pranayama, I can tell you from experience that it is an amazing tool for achieving clarity of mind. For me the focus of yoga is not getting better at postures, but being more useful to the world. When I practice pranayama I find it easier to be nice – to reserve judgements, to be a little bit more helpful, and mindful of my actions. My time in India reminded me how important the yoga practices are.