January 25, 2013

The most misunderstood, the most mystical union of all

Article written by Alexandra Alexandrescu, Sri Sri Yoga teacher

Close your eyes and think of a person in a moment of serenity. What do you see?

Recently, pictures of pretty nymphs and businessmen alike, sitting eyes closed in lotus postures, abound in many advertisements that surround us daily. When a company wants to send a message of tranquility, comfort and peacefulness, they introduce this image and everyone understands. Is there a practice more widespread in the world today than yoga?

There are prenatal and postnatal yoga classes, courses for babies, children and the golden age, for moms and dads, for beginners and advanced practitioners; there are classes practised in scorching temperatures and even ... on the back of elephants! But what do we really know about this profound and ancient practice? The term “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word "yuj" which signifies union ... the most misunderstood, the most mystical union of all. In the West, yoga is usually associated with stretching, flexibility, relaxation and, if we are lucky, breathing. However, this image of yoga is so limited that it becomes almost misleading!

It is impossible to prove when the practice of yoga originated. While many ancient Vedic texts mention the practice, the most distant writings dedicated exclusively to yoga come from a sage named Patanjali, sometime during the second century BC. However, before Patanjali broke the tradition and wrote it down on paper, this practice was transmitted only by word of mouth from master to disciple. This means that yoga could exist, as some like to whisper, since the dawn of time ...

Yoga is not only a form of exercise but a formidable assortment of disciplines, all of which lead to the same goal: enlightenment or, to keep things more realistic, a personal evolution that leads to self-realization. Who are we really? Behind the roles that we play, if we remove all the labels that have been stuck on us since birth, who are we ... really? Are we just our body, our mind or the sum of our experiences? Are we our memories, our desires, our values and preferences? Yoga, both art and science, offers several ways to find out.

You like to give it your all and put in a lot of effort? Hatha Yoga is for you. This is the path of effort, determination and commitment, and includes practices commonly recognized as "yoga": postures (asanas), relaxation and breathing techniques will be the way to reach the much coveted union.

If, however, you prefer to take things easily and without much effort, Raja Yoga is for you. The "Royal" path is all about effortlessness and includes, especially, the practice of meditation. You can calm your countless thoughts and attain the unfathomable depths of your inner self.

Do you have a big heart, and love to love and devote yourself to others? Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion, will undoubtedly appeal to you. It recognizes and puts you in touch with the universal love that is within each of us.

Or perhaps you were born for action and want to put all this universal love to good use. Karma Yoga is the path of action and selfless service. Here, union is attained by putting 100% effort into whatever action you do without expectations for results, praise or thanks. When you focus 100% of your attention on what you do, without expectations and without anxiety, the mind is fully immersed in the present moment, which is the ultimate requirement for the practice of yoga.

Are you an intellectual who loves to learn, understand and analyze? Gnana Yoga will satisfy you: this is the way of knowledge. Although you begin by reading ancient texts or listening to discourses given by the wise, ultimately the knowledge will come from within.

Finally, if you want more, Ashtanga Yoga, as described by Patanjali, will be able to challenge you. This path consists of eight branches of physical, psychological, social and personal practices that will turn you into an exemplary yogi. Yamas (social rules), Niyamas (personal rules), Asanas (yoga postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (bringing the senses inward), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (state of consciousness beyond words) are all on the menu for the most demanding yogis.

Surprising, isn’t it? Especially if one believes that this practice is limited to one hour of stretching once a week ... The courses, books and DVDs on the subject, the pretty accessories you can buy along with a book and a coffee at Chapters or at Renaud-Bray represent only an infinitesimal part of a wealth of knowledge that you can appreciate only when you take the time to really taste it. The great yoga masters say that real growth occurs only when you follow a balanced combination of these different paths. I, for one, invite you to start where you are with what you like. Explore those practices that appeal to you and keep at it. And with a good guide, you will be amazed at what you will discover!