On Personal Practice or “Noisy Bangles”

Beaten RiceLong ago in an Indian kingdom, there was a poor girl who wished to marry. When her prospective in-laws came to visit her home, she greeted them graciously and bade them to sit. Her parents entertained them while, unknown to the guests, she went to the back of the house to work in the kitchen. They were planning to serve a meal with beaten rice. Ordinarily pounding the rice is the job of the servant. This family was too poor to have a servant and the girl had to pound the rice herself. She began the laborious process and quickly noticed that she was making a lot of noise. As most Indian women, she wore numerous bangles and this was causing such a racket as the flattened the rice. On account of her poverty, she did not wear gold bangles but ones made of glass. She knew that the sound of her jingling bangles could be heard throughout the house and she did not wish her prospective in-laws to know that she was doing the work herself. She started by breaking few bangles but found that they still made noise as she worked. Eventually she broke all her bangles save two and still they made noise by jingling against each other. Finally she broke another, leaving her with only one bangle and in silence.

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This is a very old story that was told to monks, yogis and spiritual seekers of every kind. The lesson of the story is that as soon as there are two, there is discord. This means that as soon as two people practice together, there will be disagreement. Each of us has a path to walk and we must invariably walk it alone if we wish to reach the destination. Simply, we all have different minds, bodies, capacities and goals; therefore our practice must be different.

This also applies to the practice of Hatha-Yoga. Group practice is nice and offers certain advantages (group energy and motivation). However, to make real progress we must develop a personal practice. This will develop the discipline required to move forward on our path. Practicing alone also allows us to enhance our internal sensitivity and develop concentration in our practice. You can listen to your own breath and follow a sequence that is tailored to your needs, which is unavailable to you in a group setting. It makes it possible to really practice Yoga. By practicing alone, you offer yourself the possibility to deepen and evolve your practice. This will result in real progress toward your goal. This is not to say that you should give up group classes, which can be very enjoyable. It is important for anyone wishing to genuinely practice to remember that true and transformative Yoga is purely an individual pursuit. I understand that it is not what we may want to hear but Yoga is an uphill climb that only you can do for yourself. Understand why you are practicing, where you are trying to reach, take courage and keep climbing.

International Yoga Day

This Sunday (June 21st) is the first International Yoga Day. However, it’s tantamount to having International Exercise Day. The celebration of this event furthers the confusions and ignorance about Yoga’s true value. Allow me to explain why.

Last year India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, visited Canada and the US. He was given the opportunity to address the UN. This is what he had to say:

International-Day-of-Yoga“We need to change our lifestyles. Energy not consumed is the cleanest energy. We can achieve the same level of development, prosperity and well being without necessarily going down the path of reckless consumption. It doesn’t mean that economies will suffer; it will mean that our economies will take on a different character. For us in India, respect for nature is an integral part of spiritualism. We treat nature’s bounties as sacred. Yoga is an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition. Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”

His address was so well received that the UN declared June 21st as International Yoga Day. Across India and the world, Sunday will be host to massive classes but I ask, what good will that do?

There is an inherent fallacy found throughout the Yoga community that doing Hatha-Yoga (postures) will have some profound effect on our lives. In the true spirit of Yoga, we must be precise and clear about our ideas. There is no reason to believe that doing exercises will make you happy. It will help you be fit and healthy, both of which are important but you don’t need Yoga to achieve them.

Mr. Modi called Yoga a “holistic approach to health and well being” and I agree fully (holistic meaning “complete” or “whole”).  The sweeping tendency in the modern Yoga movement is to focus on the first (health) and (largely) forget the second part (well being/happiness). If we practice in a partial way then we will only enjoy partial benefits. If we practice holistically then only can we expect holistic benefits. More dangerous is the baseless assumption that practicing the first will also give the second. We know very well that happiness does not lie in the body but is found in the mind.

I think it’s a real shame because not only do we short-change Yoga but mostly we short-change ourselves. Yoga’s most precious gift is in regard to our mind (peace & happiness), which we are in desperate need of in our modern lives. I agree that health is important and a pre-requisite for happiness but beyond that what will it bring us? Fitness is great but it’ll never make us happy. My concern in reducing Yoga to a form of exercise is in losing it’s most valuable gem.

I certainly do not wish to take anything away from all those enthusiastic Hatha-Yoga practitioners who are going to participate in lovely community events on Sunday. I encourage the physical practice but I would also suggest an addition: I encourage everyone to take five minutes of quite reflection and self-examination. Please remember that Yoga is about right knowledge and right practice. We should not be so naive as to think a few thousand (or million?) people doing Sun Salutations is going to change the world; imagine if that same number re-invented themselves from the inside by practicing holistic Yoga. That is a world I would like to see.

yoga around the world

The Benefits of Yoga Practice

The Benefits of Yoga Practice” [from the introduction to Fourteen Lessons on Raja-Yoga]

Life today is full of stress and strain, of tension and nervous irritability, of passion and hurry. If man puts into practice a few of the elementary principles of Yoga, he would be far better equipped to cope with his complex existence.

Yoga brings perfection, peace and lasting happiness. You can have calmness of mind at all times by the practice of Yoga. Yoga can have restful sleep and increased energy, vigour, vitality, longevity and a high standard of health. You can turn out efficient work within a short space of time and have success in every walk of life. Yoga will infuse new strength, confidence and self-reliance in You. The body and mind will be at your beck and call.

Yoga brings your emotions under control and increases your power of concentration at work. Yoga disciplines, gives poise and tranquility and miraculously rebuilds one’s life. The Yoga way of life deepens man’s understanding and enables him to know God in relationship with Him.

Yoga leads the way from ignorance to wisdom, from weakness to strength, from disharmony to harmony, from hatred to love, from want to fullness, from limitation to infinitude, from diversity to unity and from imperfection to perfection. Yoga gives hope to the sad and the forlorn, strength to the weak, health to the sick and wisdom to the ignorant.

~Swami Sivananda

What is Hatha-yoga?

What is Hatha-yoga? Another wonderful question; simple but often misunderstood. First, it is pronounced with a hard ‘t” sound; more like “hat-ta” than “ha-tha”. The use of “h” Sanskrit transliteration is meant to denote an aspirated vowel (meaning you exhale as you make the sound). Second, it should not be limited to meaning a particular form of modern asana practice. It is often incorrectly listed among the various methods of contemporary yoga practice when it should be the heading..

Hatha” may be interpreted in two ways. The first is figurative, as “Sun & Moon”; referring to the union of opposing forces within the body (prana/apana or ida/pingala). The second is as “obstinacy”; referring to the great effort involved in the practice. Hatha-yoga is actually a sub-branch of Pantajali‘s Ashtanga-yoga, which focuses primarily on the first four limbs (yama, niyama, asana & pranayama). Hatha-yoga makes use of physical practices in an effort to purify the physical and astral bodies: postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), energetic seals (mudras), physical/psychic locks (bandhas) and purification techniques (kriyas). If you are using any or all of the above mentioned means you are practicing Hatha-yoga. Thus, all the modern schools/methods of asana practice fall under the Hatha-yoga sub-branch.

Some of the key pre-modern Hatha-yoga texts include the Yoga Yajnavalkya, Gheranda Samhita, Siva Samhita and the Hathayoga Pradipika of Svatmarama. The great master T. Krishnamacharya taught all the above texts but found that, after the Yogasutras, the Yoga Yajnavalkya was the most important text. He found that the two samhitas were blended with Advaita Vedanta and that the Hathayoga Pradipika was mixed with Tantra and had plenty of contradictions. We should note that the Hatha-yoga traditions developed long after Patanjali’s system. Hatha-yoga was developed as a preparation for the path of Ashtanga-yoga. Even for Svatmarama, there is no Hatha-yoga without Ashtanga-yoga. As it is extremely difficult to control the mind, it makes good sense to start with the body. Hatha-yoga is a means to discipline the body in preparation to ultimately control the mind. As told to me very simply by my father: “Hatha-yoga was made so that the rishis could sit in meditation for ten to sixteen hours a day without having any physical problems”. Many great masters, including Krishnamacharya, have stated that poor health is an impediment to Yoga and so Hatha-yoga represents a methodical system for radiant health to aid us on our path. Let’s make use of it!