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An Introduction to Yoga

Yoga is one of the best known terms of Eastern spirituality in the West and one of the most successful products of India on the international spiritual market. Of course, Yoga is much more than this, but its true nature and authentic purpose got quite fuzzy after it got mixed with Western culture some 130 years ago and with Middle Eastern and Far Eastern cultures much earlier. Furthermore, Yoga was already quite complex even earlier than that in the country of its origin, and it has always been a multitude of different (often conflicting) traditions, never one unchanging monolithic tradition. Also, the origin (or origins) of Yoga is not known and there are many holes in its long history. The relationship between the traditional Yogic lore and its modern expressions is therefore extremely confusing. Here are some important considerations, both theoretical and practical, that can help beginners in Yoga get oriented in the fascinating and perplexing world of modern Yoga.

The purpose of Yoga as a spiritual discipline

Essentially, Yoga can be applied for two different and yet connected purposes. The first one is for spiritual/human development (yoga-sadhana) and the second one is for prevention/therapy (yoga-cikitsa). Unfortunately, the first purpose is almost forgotten in modern Yoga, both in the so called “postural yoga” and so called “meditative yoga”. One of the reasons for that is the overall medicalization of (hatha-)yoga that happened first in India in the first part of the 20th century and then worldwide in the second half of the 20th century. Other reasons are the watering-down of Yoga in the capitalist mass production of “yoga” on the global “spiritual” and fitness markets, the “branding” of Yoga into the popular “styles of yoga” and a host of others. Therefore, most practitioners of Yoga today are unaware of the original and authentic spiritual purpose of yoga, that is of the primary use of Yoga for spiritual awakening and human growth.

On the other hand, the connection of Yoga and therapy is very old and often Yoga as such was understood as an ultimate remedy for human suffering in general, a kind of a deep healing that paves the way to a systematic exploration of true human potentials. And the other way round, a natural continuation in the application of Yoga after it has been used as therapy because an aspirant was ill and needed first to regain his or her health is to then use it for a harmonious, life-long and holistic human development. However, the primary purpose of Yoga (yogartha) is to trigger off and sustain a lasting desire for self-knowing and provide deep intimacy with the inner reality, with our Heart, so that the right kind of relatedness can be established with the outer reality, the world at large. In this way, the inner and outer conflicts can perhaps be understood better and hopefully ended, giving us an unlimited access to an infinite pool of creative energy that can be skillfully used for the benefit of all.

The spirit that Yoga (capital Y because there is actually only one authentic Yoga, your own Yoga that is right for you!) was supposed to reveal is not some kind of abstract immaterial identity, “our true self”, the knowledge of which will magically obliterate all our problems and bring us automatically into a state of permanent bliss and perfect enlightenment. On the contrary, the spiritual awakening that Yoga can give us if we practice it wholeheartedly is the realization that we are free to love and that love is a matter of action, not abstraction. Then the very act of falling in love with life through our practice and loving life beyond the practice frees us from all social conditioning and imagining that we are “less than” in our social interactions. We are the fullness of Life happening right here and right now, and that is our natural state, the state of Yoga, of being One with ourselves, the world in which we live and the Whole of Existence that we are.

A Yogic view on health

Many people nowadays connect Yoga with some kind of alternative or complementary therapy, a way to achieving and maintaining good health. However, according to the old teachings of Yoga, good health (arogya) is not just the absence of ill health (roga). It is an overall sense of well-being (svasti) based on the strong presence of life force (prana-sakti) in the body. And there are physical, mental and emotional/spiritual aspects of wellness. A healthy body depends on a sound mind, and the mind in turn rests on a developed emotional core. When all five layers/aspects of the human being – body, breath, mind, consciousness and emotions – are balanced and integrated, there is a profound feeling of being healthy, or being able to engage into action by interacting intimately with our reality, both within and without.

When applied as therapy, Yoga can be used for prevention (rakshana) and treatment (cikitsa). However, its primary strength lies in preventing and correcting mild imbalances leading to severe illnesses, but it can also be very successfully used for curing people with various diseases, including the so called incurable diseases. The basic practical tools of Yoga used as therapy (and as a spiritual discipline after good health has been restored) is to cleanse the body of detrimental waste (tapas), promote self-knowing (svadhyaya) and encourage devotion (isvara-pranidhana). Asana (specific postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) are helpful in removing the excesses (langhana-kriya), providing what is needed (brmhana-kriya) and balancing (samana-kriya) all the necessary elements for maintaining good health, increasing vitality and supporting longevity. Dhyana (engaging into meditation), mantra (intoning powerful utterances) and puja (performing rituals) are then used to deepen our sense of liveliness, to be at peace with ourselves and to creatively make a difference in the world. The healing process starts with disconnecting from what is hurtful to us (viyoga) and (re)connecting with what is beneficial to us (samyoga), especially with the people whose company is good for our personal growth (sat-sanga). Dietary changes, that is eating moderately (mitahara) and eating what is right for us (hitahara) can also be introduced, including life-style changes (vihara), and some medicinal herbs can sometimes be used (oshadhi) as well.

Of course, Yoga therapy can be combined with other systems and methods of medical treatment, alternative or official, ancient or modern, holistic and specific, and so become even more effective in each particular case. The crucial point to understand is that our health is in our hands regardless of who is helping us heal and ultimately we are the ones that heal ourselves with the full freedom to use whatever we feel is right for us. The element of faith in the possibility of healing, in the healer’s abilities to help us and in the power of medicines to make us feel better, plus our willingness to receive help and finally the discipline to follow the therapeutic instructions to the very end of the healing process are the key ingredients in successful healing. And finally, health is not the goal of a human life. The goal is to love life and be free in our making love with life. Health, vitality and longevity are here to help us in that, to make us capable of truly enjoying our lives and finally meet death without fear as the natural ending of a biological organism that we are.

Finding a good Yoga teacher and developing a personal practice

Since Yoga is a very special kind of traditional knowledge, it can only be learnt from a competent teacher. That kind of a teacher must be deeply rooted in some living Yoga tradition and must be able and willing to give to the student what he or she really needs, and such a teacher is very difficult to find. On the other hand, it is even harder to find a sincere student, the one who is really eager to learn and is ready to do that for the right reasons. Most aspirants have all kinds of misconceptions about what Yoga is and what it is for, and so are initially very confused about what they really want to study and practice. The quality and level of their motivation is also questionable in most cases. Some clarity about one’s intentions and needs is therefore necessary to have at the beginning of one’s search for the right teacher. And a bit of good luck is also helpful. Some would even say that a touch of fate is also necessary.

So, a good start is to be as clear as possible about whether it is Yoga that you want to practice. Perhaps it is something else. Then get as informed as possible using all the available sources about Yoga in general and the local teachers around you. You also have to rely on your intuition, not only on the information you gather and sift. If you cannot find a good teacher in your immediate surroundings, search farther away until you find one. A good teacher likes you and does not impose any ideas on you. He or she actually practices Yoga and lives what he or she is teaching. And remember, mere curiosity is not the right reason to approach a teacher although most teachers today will teach if students are merely curious about Yoga. Perhaps the interest will deepen or it will fade away, depending on many factors, mostly on the quality of relationship established between teacher and student. If the relationship is that of mutual respect and trust, devoid of all exploitation, and is equal and friendly, then the studying can really start.

The first step is always helping the student develop his or her personal practice. Unfortunately, that rarely happens because most of modern Yoga is just passing on patterns and earning a living, not transmitting empowerment and showing real care for the well-being of the student. The student should always start from where he or she really is and so ascertaining realistically the starting point is the teacher’s first responsibility. Then an adequate personal practice is carefully designed for that particular student, and it is almost always something simple, pleasant and easily manageable for the student, not something hard to do or difficult to grasp. The responsibility of the student is then to practice with confidence what has been received from the teacher.

A serious problem in developing a personal practice is the modern mass teaching in a group setting at Yoga studios and similar places (including online of recently) where people practice together, mostly led by their instructors of Yoga who mostly mechanically reproduce arbitrary sets of physical exercises looking like Yoga and/or teach various methods of meditation presented as Yoga meditation. In this way, most people don’t practice at home or don’t know how to do it by themselves even if they feel the need to have an adequate regular home practice. A possible solution for that is enabling the modern instructors to teach individually, meaning that they should re-educate themselves and actually develop a personal practice, and then start teaching from personal experience instead of imitating other people’s “styles of yoga”. We still have a long way to go before the low quality of teaching reaches the high quantity of teaching, and so be very cautious when looking for a teacher.

Making your personal practice of Yoga your priority

First and foremost, Yoga is a spiritual discipline. It is spiritual because it is not merely physical in the sense of dealing only with the body at the superficial level of movement and exercise; it deals with all other aspects of our human structure, that is with our life-giving breath, our tricky mind and our heavily conditioned consciousness, our suppressed emotional core and ultimately with our often quite messy relationships. Yoga is also very technical and technologically precise; it is a set of anciently developed and gratefully inherited techniques, but the really important thing is the spirit behind the techniques. That is the reason why Yoga can be understood as the technology of spiritual awakening to the mystery of existence. It is a great opportunity and privilege for us to delve deeply into ourselves, discover something useful about the workings of our body-mind complex and then use it creatively in our everyday life when interacting with our social and natural environment.

And Yoga is a discipline. At first, it may be a crude discipline of doing our practice in spite of the resistance not to do it. However, for most people, if they have a good teacher and the right kind of support, it soon becomes a very subtle discipline of fully enjoying our life in all its aspects. Having a personal and personalized Yoga practice is the basic precondition for that to happen. And, at first, it must be something short, simple, interesting and, above all else, it must be pleasant and well-adapted to the constantly changing individual needs and abilities. Then a regular daily practice can be slowly developed, maintained regardless of what is happening in our lives and deepened with time. And then the daily discipline of doing our Yoga will turn into constant learning about ourselves, the world around us and the whole of life that we are.

To be able to maintain and deepen our practice we should make it a priority in our daily life. If we truly understand the importance of having a regular Yoga practice and if we have felt at least some of its numerous benefits, it should not be too difficult to make it a priority in our daily schedule, no matter how busy it may be. We no longer forget to do it, skip it or neglect it. We just do it because it feels good and because it is good for us, just like any other daily activity we do for the same reason. And we no longer debate with ourselves whether we should do it or not. Our Yoga practice has become one of our priorities and we know how important it is to keep it a constant priority. Of course, priorities also constantly change and we must often revise our priorities as we change and as our life changes, but we choose to keep our personal Yoga practice a constant priority over and over again, and we stick with that decision no matter what. In this way Yoga becomes an integral part of our life sooner or later and remains a solid foundation of our well-being, our human dignity, our sense of freedom and our ability to understand, appreciate and love life.

by Domagoj Orlić