This attitude of silent observation is the very foundation of yoga. You see the picture, but you are not the picture. – Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
As a psychotherapist, I often have people tell me that one of their techniques for dealing with emotional pain or suffering is yoga. The sentence usually takes some form of, “I tried yoga once.” As the discussion moves further it becomes clear that, in almost every case, the person is talking about Asanas, the practice of body postures. What soon follows is a brief description of their inability to strike this or that pose, some expression of discomfort being around other people for whom downward dog seems second nature and yoga pants that never seem to fit right.
It may be a very Western phenomena, but I imagine that many of the people who talk about yoga as a beneficial practice are unaware that yoga is made up of various practices. I think it would surprise most of the people I see that the body posture, or as one client put it “making myself into a pretzel,” is only one of eight limbs of the ancient method of self-realization. The fact that so many people are missing these other practices speaks to our cultural lack of understanding and, in many ways, to good old marketing. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to get people to buy into something akin to exercise than to encourage them to control the senses through the use of something called Pratyahara — the yoga practice of the withdrawal of the senses.
The continued interest and emphasis on mindfulness and meditation signals an increasing awareness of the growing disconnect that many people feel between who they think they are and how they go about their daily life. As levels of stress increase and a population grows increasingly anxious, worried and afraid it’s not surprising that the search for relief has given rise to the resurgence of ancient practices. The benefits of these practices are well documented, many receiving the Western stamp of approval through the neurosciences.
The dismembering of Yoga is a function of Western trained minds seeking to divide the whole into parts in an attempt to make it easier to understand. The irony is that Yoga, as a unifying mechanism, is now called upon to reunite, or re-member, that which was always joined. The danger here lies in what can become a vicious cycle of creating more and more parts and then standing in distress as one’s life goes to pieces.
Focusing solely on the body posturing, to the exclusion of the rest of the limbs, is akin to an alcoholic choosing one of twelve steps of AA. Depending on the step chosen, there may be a cessation of drinking but a return to a sober and sane life may still be out of reach. Likewise, someone seeking stress relief, or heightened self-awareness, may benefit from a hot yoga class. However, an unchecked ego can lay claim to the progress and now the person becomes a yoga junkie to the distress of friends and family who grow tired of hearing about how long he/she can lie in savasana—aka corpse pose.
Anyone in search of the promised land of complete self-realization, as outlined by the father of yoga, Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, would be well-advised to first, read the sutras, second, pick the limb that attracts one’s attention and third, find a guide to train in that limb and advise when to move on to a new practice. Since they are not rank ordered and are interconnected there is no right or wrong choice.
- Yama : Universal morality
- Niyama : Personal observances
- Asanas : Body postures
- Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
- Pratyahara : Control of the senses
- Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
- Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
- Samadhi : Union with the Divine
Sharing the above list with a frustrated seeker, who has realized there is no market for used yoga pants, can, itself, bring an increase in awareness and relief. One can finally come down from tree pose, up from downward dog and sit, wearing nothing but jammies, in the silence of dharana and still be on the yogic path.