Integrating the Many Paths of Yoga

April 4, 2017

 

Photo by Chris Lu on Unsplash

 

Spring is a good time to take up the practice of Yoga. But what approach to Yoga can one take? Yoga offers several method to bring clarity and peace to the mind. The Bhagavad Gītā, written in India between 2,200 and 2,500 years ago, identifies 18 different forms of Yoga [1]. That's a lot to choose from! But maybe one doesn't need to make a choice.

 

What sort of yoga do those following the yoga tradition of TKV Desikachar and his father T Krishnamacharya, like me, have to offer others? I have often mulled this over. It is difficult to answer since one can determine that Yoga should be offered to the individual having due regard to her or his uniqueness and direction of life. Since individuals are so different from each other, that suggests that yoga practice will be different too. The Yoga Rahasya has this advice to give yoga teachers and, by implication, students:

 

One who is learned, who reflects and who has self control, after examining and analyzing the time, place, age, occupation and strength of the student, must accordingly adapt the teaching of yoga (to the needs of the student).

 

With regard to body structure, some people are heavy, some lean, some weak, some crooked and others lame. Therefore, all āsana-s are not suitable for everyone. [2]

 

Below is my personal view on the holistic and integrated approach to yoga practice established by T Krishnamacharya, and extended and taught by his son, TKV Desikachar, both of whom placed their knowledge of Yoga humbly at the service of individuals.

 

This blog post is also an attempt to sketch out what one might expect if one decided to find a yoga teacher teaching in this tradition, whether that be on a one-to-one basis or in general groups. It is the adaptation of the teachings of yoga that is so fascinating and why one could say that everyone can do yoga because there is some sort of yoga that is accessible to everyone. 

 

Yoga can be seen as a destination. But it is also a cluster of different methods. In this sense, Yoga is a process as well as a goal. Let's look at some of methods of Yoga from which we can build individualised yoga practices.

 

Haṭhayoga

 

 

Someone kindly placed me in the haṭha school of yoga, identifying me as a haṭhayoga teacher. I won't confirm or deny this claim, of course, but it did get me wondering what banner I thought I practised and taught under. I have been quite content with plain and simple 'Yoga' as a working description.

 

'Haṭha' is pronounced more like 'huta'; we don't sound the 'th' like the 'th' in the. Haṭhayoga can mean something like the yoga of effort or forceful yoga, although the component parts of the word, 'ha' and 'ṭha', tell us that Haṭhayoga has a lot more to do with prāṇā (the invisible force, energy or power, that pervades all parts of our mind, breath and body) than with strong power postures.

 

The West is dominated by one aspect of Haṭhayoga at the moment and that is postures (āsana). It is a rather watered down form of yoga, even if it can be hard physical exercise in the hands of some, but it is a form that is very popular nonetheless. It seems to fit neatly into a gym-sports-physical-leisure culture. There is little doubt that we should look after our bodies, but I would suggest that Yoga must take care of the body, in a way that is suitable to the individual, as a support to nurturing a clear and calm mind.

 

As a practitioner, knowledge of all aspects of haṭhayoga, for example, āsana, prāṇāyāma, mūdra, and awareness, is desirable.

 

Rājayoga

 

 

I do study, practise and teach āsana, of course, but I don't restrict myself to āsana, marvelous though āsana is. The HYP [3] tells us that the purpose of Haṭhayoga is to get to Rājayoga. Rājayoga is most commonly thought of as the Yoga set out in Patañjali's famous Yogasūtra-s together with the commentaries Vyasa (and others).

 

Rājayoga is about the stilling the activities of the mind (YS I.2). Many meditative practices are suggested in the Yogasūtra-s. Yoga then can be seen as a school of meditation.

 

There are other yoga-s besides Haṭha and Rāja, of course. I'm not talking about the modern made up ones, like Doga (that's yoga with your pet dog) or Tantrum yoga (screaming and stretching for better health). Each traditional form of yoga offers much that is beneficial. I have been taught the value of many approaches to yoga.

 

The thing to do is to apply what is appropriate from this vast Yoga 'tool box of techniques' depending on the level, temperament and constitution of the individual who wants to bring about some sort of positive change. The desired change could be to the benefit of their health, body, lifestyle, relationships, emotions, intellect, 'Spirit' etc.

 

For some, mastery of the body is enough. However, Yoga can go beyond mastery of posture work, whether those postures are done in flowing sequences, individually or with the breath. And Yoga need not involve posture exercise.

 

One can aspire to master not only the body, but different prāṇa-s ('energies'), and different aspects of Mind, all with knowledge of the subtle body (nāḍī, cakra, Kuṇḍalinī, etc) and of the nature of consciousness. The last is something that Rājayoga has a deep interest in.

 

Karmayoga

 

 

Yoga should be practised in the form of karma yoga (the yoga or way of action). That is to say we should practise for the purpose of developing ourselves so that we are able to help others (and not just humans). Without the element of taking actions that are ultimately intended for the benefit of others  our yoga practice won't assist us to grow and yoga itself does not progress.

 

We should look more attentively to the qualities inherent in what we do rather than worrying whether what we do is good, bad or indifferent. And what we do should be for the service of others. The Bhagavad Gītā, echoed by the concept of īśvarapraṇidhānā in the Yogasūtra-s (e.g. YS. II.1), puts it like this:

 

Those who are motivated only by the desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do. When the wisdom of yoga is established, however, all anxiety is left behind. There is no cause for worrying whether things go well or not. Therefore, devote yourself to the disciplines of yoga, for yoga is skill in action.  [4]

 

Easier said than done, I know, but worth remembering before setting out to do something, while doing and after it has been accomplished. For someone aspiring to be a good yoga teacher, commitment to sharing the Yoga teachings is an expression of Karmayoga.  It is offering the teachings of yoga to the benefit of others in a skillful way.

 

Mantrayoga

 

 

We can learn to expand our interest and experience to learning how to use Mantrayoga to promote healing and well being. 'Mantra' can mean to protect the mind and is therefore a means to protect the person from the vicissitudes of life. Clearly, if you have a body that is not fit for āsana-based yoga, then using mantra-s can be the way to explore yoga.

 

Chanting (mantra-s) is a rewarding area for personal development. We find our own voice through it and total self-confidence is one of its rewards.

 

Asato mā sadgamaya |
tamaso mā jyotirgamaya |
mṛtyormā amṛtaṁ gamaya ||

 

(Bṛhadārarṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.3.28)

 

Leads us from ignorance to correct perception

Lead us from darkness to light

Lead us from fear to total confidence [5]
 

We do not need to master our bodies. Mantrayoga brings us into contact with the beauty of Sanskrit language, an area of study and practice in its own right.

 

If we can hold in our mind on the meaning of a mantra, while chanting it repeatedly, the effect can be very powerful, very beneficial. TKV Desikachar said that chanting gives silence [6]

 

Bhaktiyoga

 

 

For some Bhaktiyoga, or elements thereof, can be recommended. Devotion, especially to the notion of the Divine or a higher principle, can be the path to healing the heart. Everything we do, feel and think is offered as a devotion to a power or principle greater than ourselves. The Haṭhayogapradīpikā tells us that when we eat we should have Śiva, who many take to represent the Divine, in mind. Eating can become an act of devotion for those so inclined.

 

A moderate diet (mitāhāra) means eating satisfying food for Lord Śiva's pleasure [HYP I.58]

 

Jñānayoga (Sāṃkhyayoga)

 

 

It might be that the better approach to take is the path of Jñānayoga (the yoga of knowledge). This approach is good for certain types of mind. All knowledge is thought to lie within use. To find it requires meditation, especially on what is and what is not the Self and a teacher. Listening to what the teacher has to say about yoga, the true nature of the Self etc is where one might start and this can lead to studying authoritative texts and meditating on their wisdom.

 

To unlock the secrets of Yoga, a knowledge of sāṃkhya is recommended. The primary text is the Sāṁkhyakārikā of Iśvarakṛṣṇa. This text describes and defines key yoga terms like duḥkha, puruṣa, sattva, rajas, tamas and so on.

 

Sāṃkhya says that life is full of dissatisfaction (duḥkha) of one sort or another and of varying intensities, but there is a definitive way to remove duḥkha. It's not filling your life with nice things, however. There are three kinds of duḥkha to contend with: of ādhyātmika (caused by ourselves), ādhibhautika (caused by others) and ādideivika (caused by nature) [Kārikā I].

 

Yoga sees four types of duḥkha that need to be dealt with: pariṇāma (change), tāpa (intense regret about what we have done and what we have not done), saṁskāra (inability to change habits that cause duḥkha) and our ever changing mind states [YS II.15]

 

It is worth reflecting on the nature of duḥkha, because it is central to the Yoga belief system and the Yoga project of reducing or removing it. Have you ever wondered why you can't maintain a state of permanent happiness? Well, it is because we are up against duḥkha, and Jñānayoga knows all about duḥkha.

 

Kriyāyoga

 

 

Kriyāyoga combines every aspect of Yoga that can be practised. It is simplified into three main areas: tapas (the process of weeding out what is not beneficial), svādhaya (looking into the nature of who we really are) and īśvarapraṇidhānā (action not motivated by outcome).

 

It is recommended as an approach for many whose minds are not steady enough to tread other paths. Patañjali puts forward this type of yoga as a possible way to practise Yoga (YS II.1-2).

 

It's a rich field of yoga. No two practitioners of Kriyāyoga do the same things, but they are all supported by the three pillars of Kriyāyoga.

 

Aṣṭāṅgayoga

 

 

Aṣṭāṅgayoga is the famous eight limbs of yoga as explained by Patañjali in the second half of the Yogasūtra-s. It should not be confused with brands of yoga called Ashtanga Vinyasa or Ashtanga Yoga.

 

Aṣṭāṅgayoga is a more challenging form of yoga than Kriyāyoga and requires a more settled mind, but it is arguably a more complete form of yoga. The eight components of the practice of yoga are:

  1. Yama: how to behave towards others

  2. Niyama: how to moderate ourselves

  3. Āsana: how to sit; how to practise postures

  4. Prāṇāyāma: how to regulate consciously the breath and why

  5. Pratyāhāra: how to stop being controlled by the senses / outside world
  6. Dhāraṇā: how to concentrate
  7. Dhyāna:  how to meditate
  8. Samādhi: how to free oneself from the fluctuations of the mind

 

Āyurveda

 

 

Finally (in my short and incomplete list), we should note that Yoga is allied to Āyurveda, the ancient Indian system of well being. The two systems have co-evolved. The application of yoga to support healing (Yoga Cikitsā) comes in part from its association with Āyurveda.

 

You can see this in the Haṭhayoga tradition which share Āyurveda terms like the three doṣa-s (biological humours), prāṇa, agni (digestive fire) and dhātu-s (tissues).

 

Mayūāsana removes all illnesses quickly ... and overcomes the imbalances of the humours (doṣa-s) ... it stimulates the gastric fire (agni) [HYP I.31]

 

Haṭhayoga is incomplete without an understanding of Āyurveda's knowledge of the body.

 

To sort out problems with the mind, Āyurveda recognises rajas and tamas (which come from Sāṃkhyayoga and Rājayoga) as the main factors of disease and suffering at the level of the mind, and the cultivation of the sattva guṇa as the way to be healthy at a psychological level [7]. It is a very similar concern shared by the Yogasūtra-s (e.g. YS II.18). We can therefore say that Rājayoga is incomplete without an understanding of Āyurveda's knowledge of the mind.

 

Closing remarks

 

Is there a pure path of and to Yoga? Maybe - for some. But for others, like me, different expressions of Yoga provide better support at different times in our lives. The many paths of yoga suggest that we should try to understand the greater yogic landscape. This is especially true, I feel for yoga teachers. The Haṭhayogapradīpikā suggests that:

 

Haṭha is the sanctuary for those suffering every type of pain and it is the support for those practising every sort of Yoga. [HYP I.10]

 

We can't be expected to be masters of all the approaches to Yoga (and I have not listed them all here). Every yoga teacher or student I have ever met are on some sort of Yoga journey, and by definition, they are still evolving their knowledge, skills and experience.

 

While mapping out the many paths of Yoga can help us see the bigger picture, I would prefer not to reduce the study and practice of Yoga to any of the above labels. Yoga can just be Yoga. We learn what we can and apply that knowledge, experience and wisdom judiciously and for the service of everyone the Universe puts in our path.

 

I am still quite content with using the plain and simple term 'Yoga' as a working description of what I practise, study and teach.

 

 

Notes, references & comments:

 

[1] TKV Desikachar, from his 1995 book, The Heart of Yoga, p.135

[2] TKV Desikachar's translation of his father's, Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya, published 1998 by Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai, India. Śloka-s I-30 & 31

[3] Haṭhayogapradīpikā, I.1 ff

[4] BG, II.49-50

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hEMvA6BWqY, about 23:38 minutes into the video

[6] ibid, about 29 minutes into the video

[7] https://vedanet.com/2014/11/23/ayurvedic-implications-of-yoga-sutras-of-patanjali/

 

 

 

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