Yoga as a Vehicle of Transformation

There is only one Yoga...

Posted Jan 28, 2013

Author's note: I've chosen to re-post this article, originally penned in 2008, as less of a 'response' to Melanie Greenberg's article than as a perspective in support of the very valuable and timely information she has provided.

There is only one Yoga. It is a 5,000 year old spiritual disciple that, while informed by Hindu Vedanta, is not a religion. It is a contemplative vehicle meant for everyone interesting in furthering their personal spiritual--and psychological--journey. The practice of Yoga was originally codified by the sage Patanjali, who, in the Yoga Sutra, framed it as ashtanga, or the eight limbs.

In the West, we are most familiar with the combination practice of asana and pranayama (posture and breath control) - sometimes taught as just asana -- that is referred to here (and in Dr. Greenberg's article) as Hatha Yoga. Hatha is Sanskrit for 'sun-and-moon'.

Although the commercialization and Westernization of Yoga have solidified this as our perception of the practice, it is, in fact, the least of it. In point of fact, asana, as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra need only be "comfortable and steady". Putting your feet behind your head has little to do with it. Men--listen up.

So, what's the big deal? Yoga provides us with a system for living. The yama and niyama give us structure. The asana and pranayama gives strength, health and vitality. Pratyahara helps us release our clinging, desire and fear. Dharana and dhyana gives us some measure of solace and spiritual attainment, and samadhi, enlightenment in the form of connection with our authentic self, as well as connection with our personal vision of God.

How is this important for emotional health? Human beings thrive on structure and consistency. I often teach my clients, especially alcoholics and drug addicts, that one of the best ways to get clear and stay clear is to build ritual into your life. Ritual does not mean chanting, incense and midnight sacrifices -- it means structure and consistency. A true and complete Yoga practice can, and does, provide that.

Personally, I began studying Yoga at a time when people at the Kripalu Center still dressed head to toe in white, Beryl Bender Birch had just introduced traditional Mysore Ashtanga as "Power Yoga" and was teaching in a dark little studio on the Upper West Side, and what I like to call "media Yogis" like Rodney Yee and Bikram Chodry were just a whisper on the wind. Since that time, thousands of "variations" of Yoga have surfaced as people attempt to exploit the commercial value of a practice that is becoming more and more ubiquitous in our culture.

Where there is only one Hatha Yoga tradition and a handful of attendant schools, like Mysore Ashtanga, Kripalu, Iyengar and Shivananda, etc., we now have things like Om Yoga, Lotus Yoga, YogaFit and even the oxymoronic Zen Yoga. If I'm sounding critical or cynical, I'm not. I'm only frustrated, as I am frustrated with martial arts schools where the more money you pay, the faster you gain rank. I'm less of a cynic and more of a purist --- so sue me for being rigid, and maybe a tad elitist.

Within the overall system of ashtanga Yoga there are several paths (note that ashtanga and Ashtanga are two different things). We've discussed the Western take on Hatha Yoga. More traditionally, Hatha Yoga is the physical practice of asana and pranayama combined with the personal disciplines of yama and the social observances of niyama. Raja Yoga, or the Royal Path, is traditionally considered the practice of the upper 4 limbs - pratyaharadharanadhyana and samadhi.

There is also Karma Yoga -- the path of action, Bhakti Yoga -- the path of devotion to God and Jnana Yoga -- the path of knowledge. Practices like Kundalini Yoga and Tantra (which is bit more complicated than just cool sex tricks) are what I, as a teacher, would classify as advanced sub-disciplines within the larger purview of Raja Yoga.

Yoga is a system for helping us to realize our full potential, but somewhere along the way this intention was lost inside the commercial imperative. Yoga is now presented as a physical practice that brings spiritual awakening. Frankly, that's ass-backwards because we are not physical beings having spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings having physical experiences.

I guess the point of this post, aside from providing a deeper outline of the practice, is to say, "In a time when everyone is a Yoga teacher, set your intention and choose carefully. If YogaFit works for you, great. If dropping out and going off to an ashram in Rishikesh works for you, also great. Or maybe it's something in between."

Just know what you want, and make certain that you're getting it, as the practice is a deeply transformative experience that can and will change your life, as it has mine and as it continues to do so every single day.

© 2013 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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