The practice of yoga is by its very nature a work in progress. Today’s forward bend awakens a vision of how to approach the pose tomorrow, and the stillness we seek in tomorrow’s meditation is prepared for by the way we live our life today. And as our accomplishments in yoga gradually mature, so does our general understanding of what yoga is—at least that hope inspires us.
The practice of yoga is by its very nature a work in progress
But there is a problem in the West. Progress toward a broader vision of yoga remains decidedly slow, and mass-market teaching is moving increasingly in the direction of athleticism with dashes of breathing, relaxation, and inspiration mixed in. Teachers struggle to find time to explore the philosophies and meditative practices that have traditionally been the goal of asana practice, and uncertainty about the origins and history of yoga is widespread.
This may be the status of yoga now, but it doesn’t need to remain this way. Most teachers and students are at least partially attracted to yoga by its reflective quality as it is revealed through quiet moments of breath awareness, slow-paced movements, relaxations, and meditation. Most students are also vaguely aware that yoga offers more than a state of physical well-being, that it can help bring happiness and peace of mind. It takes little more than this to ignite curiosity about the deeper possibilities of yoga. But how can these possibilities be brought to light?
Here’s one suggestion. Get together with fellow yoga students and start a study group. Meet once a week for meditation, reading, and discussion. If you are a yoga teacher, start a group with your students. If space at your local yoga center is not available, gather in someone’s home. A group like this can provide weeks—or even years—of inspiration, a potent addition to your practice.
Groups can be a powerful stimulus to spiritual growth. They are intellectually engaging and bring out the best in each member. They tolerate different temperaments and lifestyles, and make it possible to temporarily try out a new point of view by contemplating someone else’s perspective.
Groups can be a powerful stimulus to spiritual growth.
The sage Vasishtha, teacher of the epic hero Rama, once listed the four gatekeepers who guard the way to self-realization: self-control; a spirit of inquiry (“Who am I?”); contentment; and, finally, good company (satsanga).
Good company, he said, “expands one’s intelligence, destroying ignorance and psychological pain. It should never be neglected, whatever the cost, however difficult it may be, or whatever obstacles may stand in its way. It alone is one’s light on the path. It is superior to every form of religious practice: charity, austerity, pilgrimage, and ritual.”
At its purest, the satsanga Vasishtha had in mind meant time spent with master teachers, spiritual guides whose company spontaneously uplifts those around them. But if satsanga is less strictly defined, it can become the association (sanga) of those who seek truth and wisdom (sat), and who devote themselves to a spiritual path. A yoga study group fits the bill perfectly.
So how will you start? The disciplines of yoga, some of which have already caught your attention, have whetted your appetite for practice. But they do not stand alone. They need to be united with a lifestyle that supports them, with a pleasant-minded confidence in their value, and with an understanding of the philosophy behind them. We might call these three aspects “the missing yoga.” Without them, the practice becomes something like the tricks of a trade—techniques isolated from their original purpose. But when all four ingredients work together, yoga comes alive.
The goal of a study group is to hunt down the missing yoga and shine light on it. That means learning more about the practices, experimenting with new ways to live life, and exploring yoga’s unique worldview. Fortunately, writings on yoga abound. If you have a literary or spiritual bent, for example, you can savor Juan Mascaró’s introductions to the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Budding philosophers can try Eknath Easwaran’s Dialogue with Death, or the classic How to Know God, a commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. There is much to learn about practice and daily life from T. K. V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga. And the Himalayan Institute has published over 60 books by its authors alone. Try The Power of Mantra and the Mystery of Initiation by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait for an overview on how mantra is used in meditation. And, of course, yoga magazine archives are filled with materials that can be ideal for group reading.
Fortunately, writings on yoga abound.
Every group needs to set the stage for its work, and the best preparation is to assume what Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki called a “beginner’s mind.” This is an innocent willingness to entertain whatever is presented to the group’s awareness and to reflect on it without bias. If each group member begins with such a commitment, the group will gel quickly.
Recently I’ve been participating in a group that begins with a meditation (twenty to thirty minutes), followed by reading and discussion (about an hour and a half). All the members have been trained in mantra meditation and enjoy it. Nonetheless, some evenings when the group is tired, we replace meditation with a reclining relaxation. Occasionally, we use a guided practice tape or CD as part of our ongoing training, or we may simply choose to sit in silence.
There are many books and recordings that can be used to supplement the experience the members of your group already have.
I mention this because it is common for yoga students to know a good deal about yoga postures and yet have little experience with relaxation or meditation training. One theme of group work may be to explore the way meditation is practiced within the yoga tradition. There are many books and recordings that can be used to supplement the experience the members of your group already have.
The discussion part of our group meeting varies, and over time we have experimented with a number of formats. Currently, each member takes turns in bringing a chapter of a book or an article about yoga to distribute the week before it is discussed. We all read the section beforehand and bring it to the next meeting. There, each of us reads one paragraph aloud (we have a “three-sentence rule”—a paragraph must have at least three sentences) and we continue reading until a spontaneous question arises or it becomes clear that we need to stop for discussion. The person who selected the reading often has a reason for doing so, and the discussion often centers around that reason. Or we may jump from place to place in the reading. We don’t always complete it. Our aim is to illuminate new ideas.
The advantage of choosing single chapters and articles for reading is that this provides a diversity of themes for study. And since the interests of group members inevitably differ, this is like enjoying a meal made up of many delicious and varied courses. On the other hand, full-length books offer the advantage of pursuing a subject in depth. At an organizational meeting, the group could look at the options before committing itself to one or another.
Groups need order. Some groups do well at managing themselves. Others need a facilitator, whose role is to keep the discussion moving and to help the group when it has become too distracted, bogged down, or dominated by a single member. A group doesn’t need to be perfect, and sometimes a long digression is just what it needs. But not always. Every group must acquire some ability to hear the emotional melody behind the words of the discussion. The need to appoint a facilitator to manage the discussion can be determined after the group sees for itself how it handles its time.
A yoga group is a place for building trust and confidence.
Yoga study groups are not therapy groups and should not be used for that purpose—but it is inevitable that speaking aloud (or even reading aloud) automatically results in sharing some of one’s self. A yoga group is a place for building trust and confidence, and it is deeply satisfying to participate in a group with others who accept themselves and others.
Groups can be simple and informal. A suburban yoga studio not far from ours complements a busy schedule of asana classes with a weekly reading and discussion group to explore “how the principles of yoga can be applied in our everyday life.” This is a drop-in group and meets for one hour. It welcomes new students, serves as a starting point for more study, and helps in community building—something that benefits every yoga center.
Sage Vasishtha often taught Rama about the benefits of conversation and good company for those on the spiritual path. He likened the birth of spiritual life to the growth of a seed. Either through natural inclination or a disappointment in life, he explained, a seed of spiritual discernment is planted in the soil of the mind. That soil is weeded by right action, watered by devotion, and nourished by yogic practice. And thus the mind is prepared for the seed’s germination.
Vasishtha then tells Rama that when the mind is thus prepared, the seeker should seek out good company—people who are sympathetic and who are also on the spiritual path. With the aid of this good company the seed will be watered by study, reflection, and gradual self-transformation. Then it will begin to sprout.
That tiny seedling should be protected, Vasishtha continues. Birds (in the form of desires, attachments, pride, greed, and others) may try to eat it, but peace and contentment will protect it. When great storms strike (such as the desire for wealth or the thoughtless pursuit of pleasure), meditation will keep the plant from harm.
And thus, with the aid of good company, the seed will grow into a great tree, rooted in meditation and giving shade to those around it.
When it is protected, the seed will grow into a sprout and send up two leaves: one is the study of yogic scriptures; the other is the company of the wise. With these two leaves to nourish the plant, it will flourish even if it is shaken by the monkeys known as attraction and aversion. Finally, the seed will send out branches: wisdom, clarity of vision, truthfulness, courage, equanimity, compassion, friendliness, and a good reputation. And thus, with the aid of good company, the seed will grow into a great tree, rooted in meditation and giving shade to those around it.
Vasishtha’s imagery is a convincing argument for finding or starting a group of your own. You needn’t look too far down the road. No towering trees just yet. Simply collect a few fellow students for some brainstorming. What might you like to know about yoga? And when can you meet to talk about it?