A quick guide to 21st century yoga
In its technical sense, the word yoga refers to that enormous body of spiritual values, attitudes, precepts and techniques that have been developed in India over the past five millennia and may be regarded as the foundation of Indian civilisation.Yoga is also the generic name for the various paths of ecstatic self-transcendence. By way of extension, the word yoga has also been applied to those traditions that have been directly or indirectly inspired by the Indian sources, such as Tibetan yoga (Vajrayana Buddhism), Japanese yoga (Zen) and Chinese yoga (Ch’an). In a more restricted sense, the term yoga stands for the system of classical yoga, as codified by the sage Patanjali around the second century; in his 196 Sutras lies much but not all of the root of the physically based yoga many of us practise today.
To forget the wider and deeper body of yoga is to ignore the heart of it, the energy inherent in its history. It isn’t that we need, in the 21st century, to adhere to the past, to slavishly follow a Patanjali, the Kula-Arnava-Tantra (an esoteric medieval tantra yoga), the little known Hatha-Sanketa-Candrika (Moonlight on the Conventions of Hatha), the proto-yoga of the Upanishads of the Vedic civilisation, the dissolving universe of Laya Yoga or even the 20th century Sri Aurobindo’s modern synthesis Integral Yoga, which wants the supramental divine truth consciousness manifested in each of us. It is rather that we need to be aware of the depth and the roots of what we are doing to draw from that past well of energy. After all, some of us practise yoga two hours a day, many 30 minutes and many more a couple of hours a week. So if we merely follow a set of yoga moves prescribed by a teacher, we are skimming on the surface of something we don’t understand. We pay our money and move our bodies. Being more aware brings the nature of the whole exercise into our thoughts, our tissues and our cells.
If I start my yoga practice this way, perhaps with one morsel of new awareness, I am more open, more alive, more conscious and, often, more supple because there are the images of history to work with and to be guided by. What I can visualise I can move into. I can communicate, almost talk to the sages, not in spoken words but on a cellular level, in a transfer of body energy through that thin line of continuance down time. Then, too, I am not alone as I sit on my yoga mat, not just this one body going through gymnastic yoga moves. We need to remember also that in more recent times, when the 20th century yoga teacher T S Krishnamachara, the greatest exponent of Hatha Yoga in that century, from whom Iyengar, Pottabi Jois and TKV Desikachar descend, came to prominence at a time in the world when gymnastics were becoming popular, people were beginning to take off their covering clothes and move their bodies more freely. Indeed Krishnamachara, when invited to teach in his palace by the Maharajah of Mysore, was given the Maharajah’s brand-spanking-new gymnasium to teach in. Suddenly, an ascetic and academic moved into a very physical space. Twentieth century yoga, rather athletic and gymnastic, was born.
The world around us in the 21st century is very different. Our time is about exponential change, technology and worldwide knowledge. We’re expanding our individual minds at such a rate that bits of our memory are loping off. We are so here, there and everywhere. Stress is so much part of our times that we accept the state as normal, ongoing. The potential take-off point that we sit on is so technological that most of us don’t even know it’s happening. No sooner do we read about our brains being linked one day to computers than the next we hear it’s not one day, it’s a fast-approaching day. One day we’re not allowed to clone; the next we have identical sheep, cats and then humans. Jean Huston, recent advisor to Hilary Clinton and one of the leaders of the Human Potential movement, calls it “Jump Time”. In this climate we have to realise that what is in our thoughts one day will be our reality the next day.
We have also to absorb for ourselves the extraordinary changes in our bodies. Every day, cricketers, sprinters, tennis players and pole jumpers shave just another point of a second off their times, height jumped or speed of ball from body. The body is developing its capabilities, astounding us with its growth. We tend to have an out-there view of all this; it’s them, her or him, that sport, that technology, that science. But we’re going there, too. In our bodies we hold science, art, technology, and the same materials our planet is made up of. We are a living microcosm of the whole thing.
The bigger yoga picture
On the yoga mat we can take time to be aware of our similarities, our ability to connect to the bigger picture, to the greater scheme of things, while all the while revelling in the deliciousness of our own bodies, minds, souls and spirit. It’s not that we sit there cataloguing it all — I am this and this and this — but that through finding our peace, we sense it; it is a knowing that comes through clearing and opening the body, mind and heart. Our breathing, for instance, is in rhythm with nature around us. Every time we breathe in we take air from the plants in one of the many symbiotic relationships we work with. At this most basic of levels we are one. So, when we practise pranayama, we need this awareness to complete what we are doing. Otherwise, we only have a purpose for ourselves, not a planetary purpose, and that’s not our individual challenge today.
In today’s yoga it isn’t how far you can twist or stretch, but with what lightness you can do it. Imagine you are letting air into all your joints and space between the different parts of your body, so that everything isn’t crushed together. Imagine walking an inch taller than you do, having your feet walk lightly on the ground and feeling your spine floating up strongly through your body. By changing the way your body moves you change the way your life moves. Through practising yoga, you develop lightness of mind, a supple body and vibrant health. In the clearing of thoughts, the allowing of quiet, you permit yourself to change the patterns of your mind — to allow enough peace to make room for a new uncluttered, quiet concentration on the life you want to lead. In working the body and clearing the mind, we chip away at the extremities, the battered bits, the wounded parts, the anxiety-making extras of a busy life, until a very sophisticated simplicity shines though. When looking at Buddha’s lotus position (padmasana) in sculpture, mandala and thanka, we can see the quiet mind, supple body and easy health, the floating, rising spine and stretched neck, at the same time both serenely still and absolutely aware. When we hold ourselves in this picture, in this vision, we are with the essence of yoga and of life.
Why is yoga so popular today?
Many people are recognising the science in yoga: the science of the body’s functioning. Many are appreciating the technology of yoga’s movements, the art of moving the body in beautiful ways, and then there’s the sacred to be found in yoga, the sacred life that exists at our core. We are not just joining body and mind in yoga. That’s an old paradigm. It’s more that we are allowing ourselves to be what we are. For me, the point of teaching yoga is to help someone find what they need to explore themselves. The point of doing my own yoga practice is for me to settle into myself, to check in regularly with the part of me that knows peace and strength and that delicious feeling of being connected to a universal energy that’s silent, creative, immensely supportive and powerful. This process could be called “enlightenment”, or a stage of it, but it’s more of a recognition of what is already there. Through yoga practise, I slip into it; I do not have to reach out to get it.
Being highly strung, once a competitive ice-skater, kinesetic, a writer and many other things too numerous to track here, my route to feeling balanced, strong, calm inside, optimistic, sure and safe has to be through my body first and my mind second. So, using yoga, I work my body and then my breath to clear my mind. I work with the subtle energies because I tend to get swept up by the rougher ones. That is my way, what I need. To find this way I have studied with quite a number of yoga teachers, read many volumes of different opinion on what yoga is about and sat in many sacred places.
I am fully aware that, although this is my route, it probably isn’t the same as someone else’s. If I taught it to everyone who works with me, where would their individuality be? Where would their expression of their own self be? In this day and time we don’t embark on a yoga path to take on the path of someone else; we work with yoga to find more of ourselves. Yoga today is about alchemy; we transform and then we transform and then we transform again. Talk of a moment’s enlightenment with yoga through breathing, kundalini, visualisation or bodywork just isn’t enough. It’s too limited. I’m not taking away from yoga’s ability as a discipline to deepen our lives and help us along our way, but to me it’s the essence of yoga we need to look to, being aware all the time of what’s at the centre. I don’t think it matters if we choose to sit still in our kitchen and go quiet, use a pranayamic yoga breath, or sit by a river quietly sensing its energy and flow, or work with the hard ashtanga yoga discipline to create an adamantine body. Each of us has to work with what we have, not what someone else or some discipline wants us to have or do. It is tempting; I have felt the pull many times. Sitting in a workshop, for instance, listening to an extraordinary teacher’s knowledge, is inspiring and enlightening and for a few moments I have been drawn to follow: but, if I am to allow the greatest truth, I cannot follow them or their way.
If today we decide to use yoga as our form of becoming more conscious of life, we have some responsibilities to ourselves with that selection. First, our responsibility is to keep ourselves open and aware of what’s going on inside us and how that relates to the world around us. Giving ourselves away to any discipline is giving away that consciousness. I remember an Ashtanga yoga teacher telling me that if I did Ashtanga I would no longer need to go out for a run. What, and miss the sounds of the birds in the early morning, not see the sun rise, not feel the breeze in the trees as I run a morning or two a week? How could I give up the feel of soft rain on my arms, the tread of my feet on soft earth and the high that I might get running across a bridge and looking out over the water?
I see day-to-day yoga as a healthful, restorative and regenerative practice that enables participants to fully deal with their lives at all levels, in physical, mental, spiritual and emotional terms. Day-to-day yoga practising is about building inner and outer strength and noticeable, vibrant health. First you build a strong, flexible and adamantine body. As you work towards this you lengthen the muscles, calm the nervous system, re-educate the body’s glandular, digestive, respiratory, heart, vision, hearing and skeletal habits. Next, you work deep into your breath to detoxify the blood and clear the mind. With this work comes a delicious sense of inner freedom. As you keep working the body through yoga, going deeper and deeper into this freer place, you develop peace, calm and health in your body, mind and heart. Through simple yogic breathing you sharpen your senses . Then you learn how to retreat from them when you need to. When you have developed a more fully integrated structure in your yoga practice your soul can grow and play. Developing this force, the force of the soul, brings you a quiet, focused power. When you’re strong in this way you have the foundation for receiving a universal wellbeing, for tapping into greater energies than your own.
This helps us to give what is uniquely us our wisdom, our knowing and our learning. We do not, when we practise yoga in this context, give ourselves away. We keep what is ours and we do not bend to others’ will. Because we know such a deep peace and vital strength from yoga, we watch our stress and pick it up, fixing it quickly when we stray. We live from our heart and soul and at the same time we retain our heart and our soul. What kind of yoga you sign up for this week doesn’t matter. However, to keep you involved and practising it makes sense to choose a route that feels good at this time. If you’re in need of a lot of strong exercise, you might take Pottabi Jois’ Ashtanga sequences and work at them, sequence after sequence, until you feel quiet and connected inside. If you love exactness, order and perfection, the work of Iyengar and his yoga teachers might be the next route in your yoga practice. If you have specific health requirements at any time, the yoga of TKV Desikachar, Viniyoga, with its emphasis on one-to-one yoga therapy, may heal you quicker. If you crave something vigorous, you might take a couple of Bikram’s sweaty yoga courses. If it’s yogic meditation rather than the body route you’re after, head for Raja yoga classes.
If you have a need to sing and be devotional, Bhaki yoga will allow you to open up your heart through song and sound. Or you could play a Ram Dass or Deval Premal chanting CD, sit down and just let your heart open. For a mix of chant, breath and bodywork, Tibetan Yantra takes you deep into the centre of your body. If a sense of the exotic side of spiritualism is your baby, drop in on a Jivamukti yoga class next time you’re in New York. All these yoga forms and more have a validity. In 21st century yoga we are building experience after experience, health upon health, and then we are finding our own way through to ourselves. If as yogins we can hold the sound of the universe deep inside and keep ongoing the development of our consciousness as well as our bodies and minds, we are indeed firmly rooted in our history and on the forefront of our own time.
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