State of Mind
As our car pulled into the driveway, my father checked the mailbox. “Did it come? I gasped excitedly. The year was 1986, and I had been waiting in breathless anticipation for the past two days. I knew that the results of my black belt test had been mailed and my heart plummeted into my stomach every time I thought about it. As my father handed me the thick envelope, I gingerly opened it.
“Oh my God, I passed! I shrieked, as only 15-year-old girls can. We jumped into the car to go to tell my mother who was in her evening yoga class. My mother was the first one I knew who ever did yoga. In fact, before she started taking classes, none of us had heard of yoga as something done by non-Indians. My mother’s and my introduction to yoga came at the behest of a physical therapist to whom she had gone for treatment of a back injury. Of course, mother needed to know that I had passed, and of course a 30-second ecstatic intrusion couldn’t possibly be any a big deal. But it was a big deal. The teacher lovingly, but sternly, explained to me, in the midst of my exuberant outburst that yoga was not merely confined to physical exercises. It was also a state of mind, a state of the breath, and a mindful awareness. Exercise might not be disturbed by a 30-second interruption of an ecstatic teenager, but yoga was.
The Global Spread of Yoga
Today, almost 30 years later yoga has become globally ubiquitous. 15-year-olds not only understand it, but in many cases, practise it. The practice of yoga has burgeoned and blossomed throughout the world. When we started organising yoga classes and courses in English and then started hosting the International Yoga Festival at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh in 1998, the foreigners came primarily from America, Canada, Europe and the United Kingdom. Today, there are participants from more than 100 countries. Yoga has been allocated its own official day by the United Nations. Yet when we think and speak of yoga today, what do we mean? Sadly, most of us still view yoga as the art of perfecting physical exercises.
The Fullness of Yoga
True Divine Union Yoga, the phrase itself, literally means “union.” It is not merely a union of our forehead to our knee or our fingers to our toes. It is a union of the self with the divine. Patanjali spoke about eight limbs of yoga or ashtanga yoga, ofwhich asana (the postures) is limb number 3 and Pranayama (breath exercises) is limb number 4. Limbs 1 and 2, the very foundation of yoga, are the yamas and niyamas, or the dos and don’ts of a yogic life. In fact, the yamas and niyamas have nothing to do with what most of us consider to be a yogic practice. There is no bending or twisting or stretching. There is no contraction or elongation. There is simply non-violence, truthfulness, control of the senses, non-hoarding, purity, contentment, dedicated practice, self-study and surrender to the divine. These, what we might call the ten commandments of a righteous life, are the foundation upon which Patanjali’s yogic philosophy is based. When we realise that a righteous life; a life of honesty, integrity, non-violence and purity, is the foundation of a true yogic conscience, the looseness or tightness of our hamstrings becomes only one of the many aspects of our life into which we shine the light of mindfulness and awareness. We can then embark on a practice of being present and mindful with all of our actions. Are we truly non-violent in words, thoughts and deeds? Are our choices, including what we eat, what we wear and what we buy, choices for non-violence and purity? Are we truthful, not only in letters but in spirits, in all of our interactions?