Q&A: Why Is Modern Yoga So Focused on the Physical Practice?
Again and again, I’ve heard it said that yoga is a systematic path leading to enlightenment and self-realization, that yoga means union between the individual self and universal consciousness, and that the goal of yoga is to attain perfect control over the modifications of the mind. Yet most yoga centers and teachers offer only instruction in yoga postures and breathing exercises, with an occasional mention of psychology. Many do not teach meditation at all, and the few that do confine themselves to basic techniques. Why?
The goal of yoga is gaining control over the modifications of mind and, finally, attaining the direct experience of one’s inner Self. More than 2,000 years ago, when the sage, Patanjali, codified the system of yoga, he did not put much emphasis on physical exercises and included only advanced pranayama (breathing practices) in his system. In those days, either hatha yoga and pranayama practices were so common that they didn’t need to be mentioned, or people lived such balanced, harmonious lives and were in such good health that they did not need to make the physical postures and the breathing exercises an integral part of their spiritual practice.
Today, however, it looks like we are stuck at the level of body consciousness. More than half of our time and energy is spent dealing with mental issues, and what remains goes to addressing physical complaints and ensuring our day-to-day survival. This leaves little time for purely spiritual pursuits: What is our origin? What is the purpose of life? Is there any higher reality than the one we perceive? What is the relationship between our individual consciousness and the Absolute consciousness?
We are stuck at the level of body consciousness.
A second reason yoga teaching lacks depth is that many of today’s yoga centers are run by teachers whose knowledge of yoga is confined to the physical postures (asanas) and the simple breathing practices, so this is what they teach. This is also the area of yoga that interests the greatest number of students. After practicing for several years and studying yoga texts, some students begin to yearn for deeper dimensions of yogic wisdom. They naturally develop a greater commitment to the spiritual dimension of yoga than to its physical and psychological benefits. But even these inspired students face the same problems as everyone else: their physical energy is depleted and their minds are scattered. Consequently, they cannot afford to exclude asana and breathing exercises from their spiritual discipline.
There are some teachers who know the inner essence of yoga and who have inherited the wisdom of the ancient yoga scriptures. But in such a materialistic society, it is very difficult for them to teach. It takes money even to advertise that the teachings are available, and even when they manage to do this, such classes are poorly attended. However, any student who is prepared and who is earnestly searching will find qualified teachers and the authentic teachings, which lead to the supreme goal of yoga—Self-realization.
How do you prepare yourself to practice yoga beyond the level of body and breath?
It has to be done systematically, step by step. Begin by watching where you stand in worldly and spiritual life. Observe how strong you are physically and emotionally at this moment. How fulfilling or dissatisfying is the world around you? How entangled are you with your physical complaints, biological urges, emotional issues, and worldly duties and obligations? The results of this analysis will guide you in determining how much emphasis to put on postures, breathing exercises, and basic relaxation and concentration techniques.
Don’t forget to analyze the role of the four basic urges—food, sleep, sex, and the desire for self-preservation—play in your life. Working with these urges is an important part of any yoga practice. If they are not properly regulated, they can undermine the positive effects of any practice. Therefore, know to what extent you are controlled by these urges and learn how to regulate them.
Many texts say that a student should practice pranayama only after achieving mastery of the asanas, but perfection in asana is not a simple task. The point of asana is to gain flexibility and strength in the body so that the body itself does not become an obstacle in meditation. Because this takes considerable time, you can simultaneously work with the breath by using simple practices, such as deep diaphragmatic breathing and alternate nostril breathing. These will benefit anyone who practices them. There are breathing practices, such as bhastrika, kapalabhati, and ujjayi, which fall between asana and pure pranayama practices. They can be done daily, even if you have not yet attained mastery over your sitting posture. Meanwhile, keep refining your postures and preparing yourself for the practice of advanced pranayama.
I know that there are a variety of paths in the discipline of yoga. How do I know which one is best for me?
Six months after you start systematic practice, observe the degree to which you have overcome the problems and concerns you started with. Is your mind less scattered? Is your body stronger and more flexible? Do you have more energy? If you have been working systematically, you will find that your capacity has expanded. In order to make good use of that expanded capacity, look for more advanced instruction.
If you have become enchanted with the sublime philosophy and metaphysics of yoga, especially in the area of mantra science, and if you have come to find the charms and temptations of the world less alluring, then look for a master who can initiate you into mantra yoga. He or she may instruct you to undergo a serious and systematic practice of mantra meditation, which in the scriptures is known as purashcharana, “the first step toward the Divine experience.”
If you have studied the authentic texts and are amazed by the powers and potentials that lie dormant within the human body, and if you are sure that your body is healthy and your mind sound, find a teacher who can instruct you in the path of kundalini yoga. But if you choose this path, remember that the authenticity of the teachings is purely experiential and self-evident. Any experience that doesn’t bring out previously unknown dimensions of knowledge and joy is not a spiritual experience. A spiritual experience is never bizarre or painful, nor will it harm your health. Kundalini shakti (the dormant force within) and problems simply do not go together. My personal warning: If any experience of so-called kundalini awakening causes a problem, then it is not a kundalini experience.
If, instead of studying books, you have studied yourself—your body, breath, mind, and your worldly circumstances, and realized that, to some degree, you are interested in mantra, kundalini shakti, and the immense power of mind, then it’s better to follow the path of raja yoga. On this path, you will work with yourself simultaneously on every level of your personality, in a gentle and progressive manner. An experienced teacher of raja yoga instantly knows which area of your life needs immediate attention—body, breath, mind, or lifestyle. He or she will help you focus on that particular area in such a way that the other areas of life are also addressed in a proportionate manner.
On the path of raja yoga, you will develop healthy and harmonious relationships with others by practicing the five yamas: ahimsa (non-harmfulness), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (walking in God), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). As a means of disciplining yourself, you will practice the five niyamas—saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerities), svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishwara pranidhana (surrender to God). For your body, you will practice asanas; for your breath, pranayama. To gain control over your senses, you will practice pratyahara, and for your mind, you will practice dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (spiritual absorption). You can either climb these eight rungs of yoga step by step, or you can embrace them simultaneously, depending on your needs, circumstances, problems, and capacities.
Regardless of what specific path you follow, you must organize worldly life and spiritual life so that one is not a source of disturbance to the other. This can be done by incorporating the basic principles of karma, bhakti, and jnana into your specific practice.
According to the school of karma yoga, a human being cannot live without performing actions. Attachment to the fruit of these actions is a source of bondage. When an action is performed selflessly, lovingly, and skillfully, then neither that action nor its fruit can bind.
Bhakti means love and devotion. Without it, even spiritual practice becomes dry and boring. Doubts seep in and you begin to wonder, “What’s the point of doing all these practices?” Cultivating love for your practice will help you become devoted to it.
Jnana means knowledge. In this particular context, knowledge means understanding that nothing in this world really belongs to you. We can enjoy the objects, but have no right to mentally own them or become attached to them. Placing less value on the objects of the world and constantly remaining aware of the Truth within will strengthen your understanding of the world and enable you to stay on the path.