Millions of practitioners intuitively seek it. Why? It is the nerves. Yoga is a union, the journey of spiritual and physical transformation, a lifestyle that leads to the expansion of the self beyond the I and merging in the vastness of pure existence. We want calmness and research has proven that yoga practice can do it. “Uneven respiration – an indication of stress – is alleviated by the practice of yoga.“, wrote B.K.S Iyengar, widely credited for popularising the accessible side of physical yoga in the West.
Over 45 million Instagram tags* prove that he ticked the hot spot. Richard Branson does it, Giselle and Christy Turlington, the supermodels, blessed their pregnancies through it, LeBron James retired from basketball and also does it. Beyond Bali the trendiest luxe hotels in Miami, New York, London, even in the Alps, the vinous Napa Valley and Turks and Caicos, rave about their yoga spaces. The magic nectar of youth is yoga, and the whole body-toning asanas are highly Instagramable. The transcendental force of sadhana (yogic life) is facilitated by favourable social environment. Thank you Four Seasons Hotels for providing that perfectly rolled mat in their large guest rooms and daily cleaning it. Yoga in its contemporary form is omnipresent – on the beaches at Bondi, St Tropez and California, on the grass in Brooklyn, the sun salutations penetrated the rustic fincas on Ibiza, the agriturismi in Italy, stretching to the serious (and expensive) retreat centres in California, Colorado, Germany, Maldives and looping back to Pune, India where many yogic ashrams and schools found a firm ground centuries ago. Go yoga!
Journey towards global yoga
How did the ancient lifestyle reserved to the highest castes penetrated our society? Nurtured by a symbiotic relationship between the inner awareness of an individual who tasted the honey of yoga and the material world, the calling for liberty from cravings and lust, free from pain and suffering has intensified from the 1960s over the past decades. The Indian Prime Minister and daily yoga practitioner Narendra Modi persuaded the UN to assign an International Yoga Day since 2015. Like the Internet, yoga hacked our attention today. Yet, in the fake news susceptibility, confusion is rife, misinterpretations rally, and ultimately, we are losing its core principles. The potential of true yoga though is immense. The unifying discipline proved working towards wellbeing for over five documented millennia. As any ancient system of thought, it was polished, tweaked and mutated into the global phenomenon today. Yoga was a philosophy, spiritual guidance and lifestyle, not just a pumped up class at the gym or yoga studio.
I have been practicing yoga asanas and pranayama (controlled breathing) for 20 years – regularly when at home, haphazardly when on the road. I succumbed to the charms of yoga in my early teenage years, I curiously watched the white powdered yogis in intricate poses while smoking something in India (the later surprised me), but it was not until my early 30s when the spiritual root of yoga tempted my consciousness. The mindful practice has grown for me from an interest in the Eastern wellness philosophies, through stretching asanas between my athletic endeavours, to feeling my entire body and vata (fleeting) mind in the moment as they are. The sheaths to my soul have been delicately peeled towards it. I learned instinctively through insight that listening to our needs, self-love yielding to compassion, this is happiness, pure bliss in life, not any new-age promise. Yoga has brought me balance, clarity of thought, and smooth emotional rides instead of anxious bouts procrastinating anything I set to do. Once I felt the magic, I turned to literature and soaked the wisdom of the sages with an open, critical eye of a journalist.
History of yoga simplified from its core books
Including a little history is wise to illuminate where yoga is in the second millennium A.D. Already the oldest sacred text in the Indus civilisation, the Rig Veda used the word yoga to inspire a set of ideas and rituals of the vedic priests, the highest cast – the Brahmans. Coined by Lord Krishna in Bhagavad-Gîtâ Upanishad (around 500 B.C.), and later (around 200 A.D.) systematically organised in the yogic scriptures by Patanjali in his Yoga-Sûtras, the path of Raja Yoga, often called “classical yoga” was illuminated. The duty and good life concept (dharma) of yoga as a course of conduct leading to freedom, integrity, and state of “auspicious beatitude (sundaram)”, wrote Patanjali. Yoga can guide us through challenging periods of life. Like ageing, but still living good wine goes through a dull phase, when it tastes “closed”, unable to express its potential for some period, and then again it flourishes on the palate later, we experience downs and ups. Yoga grounds those emotions that can lead to a greater harm if we let them to rule over our life. Yoga teaches the “stable state of consciousness” or “the union of the individual soul with the Universal Soul” as is mentioned in Ahirbudhnya Samhita.
Yoga came about as a mindful practice connecting the individual with the reality, unobstructed by emotions, the self, ego and the constantly spinning mind. More often today yoga is where gymnastics met the acrobatic spirit in the modern world. The hatha yoga’s asanas are newer inventions (its core text by sage Svatmarama emerged in the 15th century: Hatha Yoga Pradipika), unless you count the likes of supine meditative seating position practiced for ages. The Tantric, body-focused practices build to promote rejuvenation, turned the vedic yoga upside down, to “clean” the body and spirit became the new goal. From here, unlocking of the knots, the chakra blockages to long life, became the focal techniques of the yoga practice. Kundalini yoga builds on tantra, highlights the effects of yoga on your inner organs and the spiritual energies through chanting of mantras and intense mind-cleansing pranayama techniques. It is a holistic exercise.
The classical Yoga Sutras by Patanjali are difficult to grasp and even B.K.S. Iyengar’s (1918-2014) thoughtful rendition of the text is challenging since sanskrit terms are used interchangeably, and this might be the problem. Iyengar himself taught the precision of asanas leading to unity and that physical do-ability grasped millions of curious people globally to start practicing yoga. Nevertheless today, many of these young hot yoga girls, the millennial Insta acro yogis and sculpted male egos crisscrossing the cities with their tightly rolled mats have never peaked into any of these books. They may scan the yoga magazines for latest trends, vegan recipes and new routines to firm the butt, tighten the abs or release stress, but they are intimidated or just mentally lazy to dive into the history and deep meaning of yoga. Follows a simplified guidance to an authentic yogic life:
Patanjali introduced ashtanga = The Eight Limbs of Yoga
1. Yamas – ethical principles: Ahimsa – non-harm & non-violence; Satya – integrity, truthfulness; Asteya – non-stealing, self-sufficiency; Aparigraha – non-grasping, detachment; Brahmacharya – moderation, mindful use of sexual energy
2. Niyamas – moral codes: Saucha – cleanliness, purity of body, speech and thought; Santosha – contentment, acceptance of current situation without resignation or coveting; Tapas – austerity, self-discipline required for transformation; Svadhyahya – self-study, contemplation of oneself in the universe; Ishvarapranidhana – devotion to the higher power (can be God, but also that above man and nature)
3. Asana – postures (to unite your body)
4. Pranayama – breathing techniques (to unite your energy)
5. Pratyahara – mental detachment to reduce distraction (to “tune in”)
6. Dharana – focused attention (Sanskrit root of yoga yuj means to join, concentrate)
7. Dyhana – sustained and unwavering attention (to meditate)
8. Samadhi – the ultimate goal = bliss (to unite with all that is)
SOURCES: B.K.S. Iyengar: Yoga The Path To Holistic Health, Core of the YOGA SUTRAS; Do You Yoga
Refinement of something that you know very well is progress, but now when the rushed yoga teacher programmes turn someone on a prolonged vacation into a certified yogi, and the overall commercialisation of yoga are overshadowing the discipline’s core and in so the practice loses the added benefits that the dedicated practitioners may gain from it. As The Guardian in the UK reported recently, calls for regulation increase with yet another injured yoga head stander, back-bender and scorpion pose attempter who was not listening to his/her own body alerting to limitations. Some teachers are against, but the wise, experienced yogi might incline towards safety, insight, mindfulness as not anyone is able to achieve the acrobatic advanced poses in a flick of a finger. The practice that was mutually transmitted privately from a guru (teacher) to a student for generations perhaps should not be wholesomely taught to large masses at once. Focus is key, and many yoga studios try to facilitate it through their minimalist space and Hindu sculptures in the practitioners’ view aiding as your drishti (gazing at a focal point to maintain physical and emotional balance) .
The documentary movie The Last Shaman traced a journey of an American man suffering from a gravely depression with suicidal thoughts. After trying the best Harvard hospital, and grappling with the side effects of modern medicine, he decided to entrust his life to various shamans in South America. The cure he went through was radical, extreme in its use of hallucinogenic plants, cleansing diet and mind-altering solitude. Eventually, he came to peace and found deep love for himself. Many other Westerners came over and tried to commercially exploit shamanism. What was the most striking to me was how our Western intervention in traditional cultures and our commercial hunger for the unknown ultimately leads to the destruction of centuries and some over the millennia of acquired knowledge in these remote societies. What is happening to shamanism, traditional natural healing and to indigenous rituals, is now happening to yoga. The ancient lifestyle philosophy, older than Buddhism and Zen, has been transformed by the written account and its expansion beyond its historic borders in India. Evolution towards what?
In an interview for the BBC Dr Jim Mallinson, a yoga history researcher and senior lecturer at the University of London’s SOAS, alerted: Sun salutations are “now seen as integral to yoga practice” but are not found in any old texts and only started being taught around the 1930s. His colleague Dr Mark Singleton adds that Swedish and Danish gymnastic drills were particularly influential on Indian yoga practices. A widespread “preoccupation with natural fitness” at the turn of the 19th Century coincided with developments in photography, which allowed pictures of poses to easily spread between India and the West “inevitably meant that European notions of gymnastics and bodybuilding got mixed up with Indian postures and poses along the way,” In the 1960s, travellers on the hippie trail ended up in Indian ashrams, and the images of The Beatles visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh in 1968 drew greater international attention towards Indian spiritualism and, of course, yoga. Since the 1960s many Westerners transformed their lives at the ashrams in India. There, the one to one relationship with their guru followed the ancient tradition. Such intimate, personal journey of the individual is very distant from the mass yoga classes in public parks and yoga festivals. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (the author of Yoga Mala) and B.K.S. Iyengar are the most known 20th century yoga gurus.
Human imagination is exploding in the rapture of the second millennium. The late B.K.S Iyengar wrote in Yoga The Path to Holistic Health: “Yoga releases the creative potential in life”. So, we (mainly the entrepreneurial Americans) invented aerial, power, prana, hot (Bikram) yoga, Jivamukti (David Life and Sharon Gannon), Anusara Yoga (“Yoga of the Heart” founded by John Friend), Yoga Maze (currently taught at Wanderlust in Hollywood), while David Magone practices Prana Vayu a style of his own invention in Boston. There are so many types of yoga today, most stemming from hatha yoga, but vinyasa (arranging asanas in a special way integrated with breath) flow is the most widespread.
You can try laughter yoga, aqua yoga, paddle board yoga, naked yoga, goat yoga (of course it went viral), dog yoga, yet cannabis and beer yoga are the most ridiculous. Well, the Japanese style wrinkles preventing face yoga method instructs how to make monkey, sucking like or eye bulging grimaces daily to avoid needles of Botox.
That physical aspect of yoga as we know it today can be sourced to Hatha Yoga Pardipika, the essential Sanskrit text on the science of hatha that includes asana, pranayama, shatkarma, mudra and bandha. Postures, breathing holding exercises, awakening of the vital energies (kundalini, pranas, chakras). Still, there is more – in yoga the physical serves as the gate to the transcendental, the mind becoming one with the divine. Gwyneth Paltrow Insta followers you will not learn that on her account. Teachers like Elena Brower and Erica Jago became the American group gurus, practicing their own version of self-centering which rings with the American psyche (hello “I”, which according to the ancient philosophy of yoga you are seeking to transcend, not encourage). At many yoga studios now you can buy “Yoga Journal for a beautifully conscious life”, sign up for yoga retreats (over 6k tags on Instagram), festivals, get new pants (over two million Insta tags!), bottles, snacks. yoga chocolate, biscuits, yogi tea, yogic detox, bracelets, gemstones, etc. Ironically, marketing has infected the yoga lifestyle. Now you can pilgrim to ashram yoga retreats some 100km from Paris.
We have yoga journals in each major country in its own language, while yoga workbooks and notepads sell like Jane Fonda’s video workouts in the 80s. In short, yoga has become heavily commercial. Ironically, this material world escaping lifestyle has been materialised. Just follow or like a couple of yoga studios on Instagram or check-in at the class on your Facebook profile and you were enrolled in the yoga snooping scheme. The world has not got too mad yet though as #yogainspiration has almost five million tags today, yet #yogaeverydamnday with over 12 million tags sounds like someone’s integrity is at stake.
Find your yoga guru
Although B.K.S. Iyengar is credited with bringing yoga to the West, my favourite teachers include the pranayama and meditation focused “yogarupa” Rob Stryker, the founder of Para Yoga in Colorado. He is one of the most experienced Western yogis I came across. You can take online classes with him to let your brain, mind and body flow in the unity of oneness. During an Ayurvedic retreat in the Indian Ocean I was taught by a Bhutanese female yogi. The experience was so deep, not just practicing asanas above the vastness of the ocean on by stilts-supported verandah, but the mantras she taught me set off my curiosity about meditation. Until then I did not fully appreciate any of the fully tattooed Jivamukti teachers chanting in their London or New York centres. The main reason being that I did not understand the sanscrit. Fundamentally, we need to to penetrate deeply into the Om, M, U and A mantras that make you feel the inner organs and the brain – these ancient techniques are life-changing. We have the power to tune our body and mind to the desirable frequency through chanting, meditation, pranayama and yoga. As Ayurveda has observed, different personalities – vata, pita, kapha, need to tame or encourage energy in to them distinct proportions to align oneself to health. One day we need more yin calmness and grounding, while other we need energy from the uplifting yang practice. Notice how you feel prior deciding on what pace of yoga is right for you in this moment. This is time for introspection, balance and renewed strength for the day or evening to come. A great personal teacher can inspire and guide you towards it.
Attain CLARITY, CREATIVITY and LIBERTY through yoga
Are you really talking the talk and walking the walk?
Recently I participated in guided meditation by musicians in LA & Paris, curiously they practice yoga but claimed they were not teaching it, yet these two young artists may have been closer to teaching yoga than most of the hundreds of hours certified yogis! How comes? Their focus was on the inner process, on mindful connection to one’s body, on compassion and insight – not on bodily workout – stretching, twisting or other competitive posturing as many of the yoga classes focus on today.
Yoga should inspire mindfulness, kindness, respect towards others, improve relationships, indeed, daily yoga practice can assist you to solving conflicts reasonably and without emotional harm. Practicing mindful yoga individually assists to “subtle shifts in brain chemistry” that according to the research by Meyer & Qunzer will “alter mood, concentration and memory”. Whether you practice steady hatha asanas, flow like a wave of body and mind in vinyasa, or focus solely on pranayama (breadth control and retention), you may experience the unity of yoga. Unifying the intellect (brain) and emotional intelligence in the heart feels amazing. This simple awareness of being (mindfulness) is the original aim of yoga lifestyle, and the first time I fully realised it, tears entered my eye pockets. This is love! as Bob Marley sang, pure, unconditional and true love of oneself and everything that exists. You feel beautiful, cared for, content, happy, positive about the world, and all of this comes from you not being ego or self-centred, but united within. Your awareness is the only reliable source of love in this world of constant change, so better take it. If we seek love elsewhere, we will ultimately feel pain one day, the pain of loss or the suffering from the insecure reality of love streaming form someone else.
Ultimately, yoga goes beyond the physical and psychological, the self and the ego, it lands in your pure soul (the atman). You create stability in life through a true, holistic practice.
Yoga has become globally desired lifestyle choice of many overwhelmed citizens of the world. Seeking balance, connection with one’s self, a community sharing similar values, but also pure fellowship in a trendy activity are some of the drawers of contemporary practice. In Sydney on the famous Icebreakers ocean-fed pool you can practice the asanas in a gail force wellness spirit, St Tropez offers beach yoga, Wanderlust in Hollywood is the coolest yoga house imaginable, you can participate as I did in the social yogic gathering anywhere in the world.
Yoga is a compendium of techniques for discipline. The practice leads to detachment from cravings and to eventual indifference to pain. According to the fundamental Buddhist teachings all human suffering ends if we manage to ground our minds in wisdom. Emotional stability is one of the conditions of happiness and success.
This wisdom enables you “to rest in the house of the immortal universal self” as the sage Vyasa wisely observed. Be curious about your true happiness and that will inspire compassion towards the world. We are all connected and to me this is the meaning of karma, the connectedness of our happiness or sorrow that requires compassion. Do to others you wish to be done to yourself. Keep up with the honourable ethical values (yamas) that our evolved Western moral codes had also embraced. Remember, integrity is the main tool of yoga, the union between your true nature and everything else. Whatever the next new class might twist and tweak, personally turn inwards (through meditation, pranayama), listen to your pure soul, and you will attain the bliss (samadhi) involuntarily.
*Instagram tags count was accessed in January 2018