Whenever I make attempt at writing “Yoga is…”, I get stuck. The temptation to approach this question originates in my need to share Yoga with others. The most popular question I get about Yoga is “what kind of Yoga do you teach?”. The more experience I have facing this question – the better practiced I become at avoiding a direct answer. Yet, if the number of students I have taught is any indication of my quality as a yoga teacher – then it is safe to say that I have failed . I have pondered this very much – which usually leads back to the question “What is Yoga?”.
Though I cannot answer this question directly, I would like to try an alternative approach. I will try to review the key elements that make up my experience of Yoga. These include:
- What I was Taught – The Yoga Sutra – which is commonly accepted by Yoga teachers (of all brands) as the primary reference and inspiration of Yoga teachings.
- Who Taught Me – My Teachers – as they were and are the people who’s experience, knowledge, life and beliefs have shaped the teachings I have received.
- How has my Practice Effected my Life – My personal experience of Yoga.
The Yoga Sutra
It is an ancient text commonly accepted as a key reference to Yoga philosophy. Some ideas about the text as a whole:
- It is divided into four chapters – each chapter is a collection of sutras. The sutras are verses of varying length.
- The text is written in Sanskrit – which is a language of unique, some would say spiritual, qualities.
- The sutras have an elusive quality – they do not offer clear cut information and are not intended for independent reading.
- Some translations approach the text with neutrality – aiming for precision. Other translations (most of those that I have encountered) reflect an interpretation that carries as much of the translator as it does of the text. There is no “correct” translation.
- The text is not intended for straightforward reading. It is intended to be delivered to a student by a teacher (and I think that a whole book can be written on just this idea of student and teacher – so please don’t take it face value!).
- My experience of the text is that it elegantly highlights vague ideas, it offers meditational questions and ideas and if applied with care it can be a source of inspiration.
The Yoga Sutra is divided into four chapters:
- Samadhi Padah – the chapter on integration. This chapter is aimed at the student who’s mind is already able to contain. This is not the typical state of most western people. If you do not know what a contained mind is – then the second chapter is for you.
- Sadhana Pahah – the chapter on practice. This chapter is aimed at people who did not qualify for the first chapter. It outlines a method of practice which can help in preparing the mind for approaching chapter one (do you know where you should start reading?)
- Vibhuti Padah – the chapter about manifestations. This chapter talks about the potential of a mind that is capable of containment.
- Kaivalya Padah – the chapter about freedom.
I would like to point out three ideas in the Yoga Sutra. The first is the “definition of Yoga”. The second is the “definition of what is Yoga practice”. The third is the concept of “Vasana” – a core idea of human behavior according to Yoga (as I write these words I feel relief that despite what seems like a long detour – I am still heading in the general direction I set out on in this writing).
The Definition of Yoga
The definition of Yoga is offered in sutras 2-4 of the first chapter. I bring here the translation (which has been fine-tuned over the years I have known my teachers) as given to me by my teachers:
1-2: Yoga is the containment of the mind’s activities
1-3: In that moment the state of Seeing remains.
1-4: At other time the activities are presented.
I would like to suggest that:
- The text is not self explanatory. To gain some understanding of one needs to embark on a personal voyage of exploration.
- Remember – the first chapter is for the mind that is able to contain. Though these are the first sutras in the text – maybe their lack of clarity indicates that they art not yet relevant for the reader?
- The main object of discussion is “mind”.
- There is not a hint of “body”.
- In my experience, the text will not become more clear by reading translations and interpretations. The most relevant understanding is one that is gained through personal experience. How can that experience be gained – through a practice. What practice? The answer awaits in chapter 2! There are no shortcuts!
Understanding a concept is very different from a personal experience of it. I urge you not to fall into the trap of understanding Yoga. Yoga is an invitation to gain personal experience – without it you carry empty ideas that are not relevant for your life.
The Practice of Yoga
Sutra 29 of chapter 2 is an overview of what a Yoga practice can be (the following sutras, continued in chapter 3 provide more details). You may find that you are already familiar with the key term – “Ashtanga” – which translates into “8 limbs”. The practice of Yoga is made up of 8 limbs:
- Yama – the practice of my relationship with the world around me
- Niyama – the practice of my relationship with myself
- Asana – physical postures
- Pranayama – breathing excercises
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhayana – meditation
- Samadhayah – integration
Sidenote: another classic text “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” describes in length the physical practice of yoga – hatha yoga. Early in the text it describes the qualifications to become a yoga practitioner: young, healthy, bachelor men! For the people that met these requirements the physical practice is almost taken for granted – a young body can be easily folded into many shapes. My teachers even suggested that the origin of the variety of yoga postures are actually a means to keep children involved – a kind of game with the body. Are you a healthy, young, male bachelor? Could it be that the relevancy of the physical practice as it was originally taught is not relevant for you?
Ashtanga is not the self proclaimed brand of popular physical practice that diminishes the true meaning of the word. Ashtanga is the whole of 8 limbs structure of Yoga practice, only one of which mentions a physical discipline. The physical discipline may even be a minor part of the entire system, and yet in our times Yoga seems to gravitate around this. Could it be that we are gravitating towards what is more convenient for us rather then what is at the heart of Yoga? When you leave a yoga class – are you aware of your relationship to yourself and or the world around you? Are you aware of any changes in these relationships? Have you really been practicing Yoga – all 8 limbs of it? Can you practice all 8 limbs in a single lesson? Do you practice these things when you are away from the Yoga mat or your teacher?
Vasana – The Roots of Human Behavior
Vasana can be likened to seeds – rooted in lifes experiences. Our mind is filled with seeds – each seed holds a potential for behavior/action. These seeds are a result of all of our daily life experience (and for those who subscribe to reincarnation – then there may be numerous lives involved) – every experience can inhibit, reinforce or give birth to new seeds. When our senses engage the world these seeds of experience are triggered and potential becomes behavior.
Through Vasana, a Yoga practice can be seen as an opportunity for change & growth:
- Observation – to experience growth – or change of any kind one needs to first experience being here and now (other wise how can I differentiate there and then?). A quality Yoga practice can often shed light on our existing tendencies – the Vasana that we carry with us. For example: “when closing my eyes I feel nervous and fidgety”. By experiencing this I observe both the specific Vasana and the fact that Vasana exist.
- Creating Space – at first it may seem that Vasana are automatically triggered and that I can only observe them retrospectively – after the potential becomes behavior. How then can I introduce change? By practicing again and again! A quality, consistent Yoga practice repeated over a period of time offers a recurring opportunity to observe these patterns until new insights appear – the body (and through it the mind) learns something new. I am then able to identify the urge to act before acting. I have now inserted a small wedge between the potential and the actual behavior. That wedge creates a a new space!
- Learning an Alternative – now I can experience and observe Vasana and differentiate it from the behavior that is associated with it. The quality, consistent, repeated Yoga practice is now an opportunity to practice a new behavior – one that is consciously selected and hopefully more supportive of growth. For example: “instead of struggling with my nervousness when my eyes are closed, I can open my eyes and then close them softly and repeat this as many as times as necessary… until I recognize a new quality in having my eyes close”. For example “hey, instead of struggling for change I can be more generous and understanding with myself and then maybe change will come”. For example “this struggling behavior is a pattern in my life… maybe I can adopt this generosity and understanding in my relationship with my family and people at work…”.
Yoga practice can be a seen as a training of the mind. This is achieved through repetition. The results can be profound because not only does the practice enable me to adapt new patterns of behavior but it also empowers me with the ability to continue to do so throughout my life. I am are no longer a slave of my Vasana. I recognize their function in my life and how they are formed and am capable of affecting them to better suite my life.
Sidenote: just to be clear about the idea of repetition – for me this means a practice over a period of at least months if not years. The Yoga practice is tailored and maintained to suite a practitioners needs. The practitioner approaches the practice with a passionate commitment (if you practice Yoga just to get it done you may as well go for a cup of coffee instead!)
My teachers are (in Israel) Ziva Kinrot & (and from the UK) Paul Harvey. Paul is Ziva’s teacher and through her I met him. Ziva has been my teacher since the summer of 2001. That same year I went on my first week-long retreat withPaul who has since visited Israel at least once a year for retreat and/or teaching. During my first year of training with Ziva I attended group lessons. After that I switched to a personal practice that was supervised and directed by Ziva & Paul.
Ziva has been teaching Yoga for over 30 years. I think she has experienced numerous flavors of Yoga teachings as both a student and a teacher. Ziva is a real and grounded person. Her knowledge of Yoga is profound and always offered in a simple and relevant way. I am inspired by her sense of presence and perspective. Over the years we have grown close and I have become familiar with some personal aspects of her life – and I am awed by the application and integration ofYoga tools into her daily life. She remains true to the Yoga teachings she was given and she is able to keep an open and critical mind when she encounters new insights and perspectives. I feel that she has forged her own experience of Yoga both as a practitioner and a teacher.
Ziva met Paul in a Yoga conference in Europe in 1996 and invited him to teach here in Israel and he has been visiting ever since. Ziva joined and completed Paul’s Teacher training through recurring visits to the UK.
Paul is a surprising person. Most of his visits to Israel are surrounded by mystery of his whereabouts. I feel that he softly balances his commitment to his life’s work as a Yoga teacher and his commitment to living his own life. As the years go by Paul seems to be retreating from some of his commitments and investing more time and attention in his personal journey. This is one of the major lessons I have learned through him.
Paul represents a meeting between east and west. He has studied with many teachers, but I think it is safe to say that his teacher for 20 years was TKV Desikachar in India. This means that Paul spent much time living in India and studying with his teacher in Indian weather, culture & traditions. If you see him walking down the street you won’t notice any of this. Paul is a westerner and in many ways a british one!
Paul holds rich knowledge that combines classic Indian teaching, modern day sciences of the body and of the mind (psychology). He has carried precious knowledge from the east and made it accessible to western minds and bodies. He has refined a teaching method that carries qualities of reason and spirit – leading to an experience that combines understanding and insight.
There were times I wished for a Guru – though I had two of the best Yoga teachers on the planet. I wanted someone who would shoulder my burdens for me and point me in the right direction. Someone who would magically make my doubts disappear and deliver me into enlightenment. I am grateful to both Ziva & Paul for never falling into this trap and taking me with them. Ziva & Paul are two people living their lives. Their karma has carried them into the arms of Yoga Teaching and they have both embraced it into their lives and are committed to the transmission of that knowlede to others. They carry no meaningless external signs of their fate yet it radiates from within them. I wish the same fortune for other Yoga practitioners.
Yoga in My Life
This is a section that can easily get carried into many pages and this is not my intention. Instead I have chosen to list some things that have changed in my life since I have been practicing Yoga:
- I participated in two Reiki course – where I picked up the idea of wishing for myself. I made a wish to bring photography and Yoga-teaching into my life.
- I brought to a close a career in computers & software where I was doing OK but felt unhappy.
- I share my life with a wonderful woman.
- I am an artist – through the use of photography.
- I am a Yoga teacher.
- I have moved from the city to a village. I spend more time at home then I do away from home. I work from home (unless I am in the studio with the camera).
- I encounter different people – people of high quality, masters of their arts. I draw much inspiration from these people and everything I do in my life is mingled with their lives.
- My lifestyle has changed: I eat better, I am better at resting, I enjoy people…
- I carry with me many doubts and fears, though I have learned to learn from them instead of fearing them.
Yoga did not change my life. My Yoga practice escorted me through this part of my life. It created an opportunity for me to take the time to observe. It is my life that gave the Yoga practice meaning. There were times when I did not experience the relevancy of Yoga for my life. I can now smile back to those time and confess that during those times I did not execute a dedicated Yoga practice. I am smiling now because back then I remember being harsh to myself, demanding of myself to keep practicing Yoga. I also remember that at a certain point I surrendered this harshness and rested – realizing that this was the relevant practice for that time.
I invite you, the reader, to note your own perspective on Yoga – one that is found in the spaces between the words – where your own thoughts, feelings and inspirations will reshape these words to reflect you. Whatever it is that comes up as you read these words – carries knowledge and perspective that is unique to you. Your awareness of this is your Yoga practice.
Yoga is an empty shell. When Yoga is applied to life it takes on living qualities. Sutras are nothing more then a collection of syllables until they are delivered to a student by a teacher as an idea which reflects upon their personal lives. A Yoga practice is merely stretching the limbs unless it is accompanied by conscious intent. An unconscious practice is merely a stage for a diminishing performance of the ego. A conscious practice is merely a practice – its resonance is deep within, beyond your understanding domain of the mind.
The first Sutra of the first Chapter of the Yoga Sutra says: “now begins the practice of Yoga”.