By Frank Jesse
Iyengar yoga is very much a physical practice, and Mr Iyengar was sometimes accused of his approach to yoga being “only physical”. Critics of Mr Iyengar wanted him to include more meditation.
I believe it is important to address this question, as did Mr Iyengar, and to look more deeply into the possibilities and limitations, if any, of the practice of Iyengar yoga.
Mr Iyengar was very clear that in his view: yoga is meditation, he says, if we apply ourselves correctly. In other words, the spiritual side of yoga is inseparable from the physical postures.
How the sutras define the purpose of yoga
Yoga, though an ancient tradition, does not have its roots in any one religion. However some traditions and religions believe that to achieve greater spirituality, it is necessary to neglect or even harm the body . Ascetics, for example, would lie on beds of nails or beat themselves with whips. In other words, not all traditions are necessarily wise or beneficial today. In fact Mr Iyengar even rejected many of the extreme techniques to keep the body pure, believing that asana (postures) and pranayama (breath work) are a powerful means to cleanse our physical bodies. “The practice of asanas tones the entire body and removes the toxins and impurities caused by over-indulgence. Pranayama cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves” (BKS Iyengar, “Light on Yoga”).
The debate about the relationship between yoga and meditation is an old one. Many believe that yoga began as a practice to improve the physical stamina of monks so that they were able to sit and meditate for very long periods of time. From that perspective, yoga is the servant of meditation.
Mr Iyengar, in marrying the two practices, does challenge some ancient traditions, and this explains the depth of feeling that many bring to the discussion.
Mr Iyengar was Hindu, but once controversially put the practice of yoga ahead of his religion, saying: “Even if God himself comes and tells me, ‘Leave the asanas behind,’ I will say, ‘No! I will not leave them.’”
I take the view that, if we delve into the ancient yoga sutras [texts that reveal the deeper purpose of yoga) and listen carefully to Mr Iyengar teachings, we find that our yoga practice can move beyond the physical.
If we go back to the Yoga Sutras, which were compiled around 400 CE by Patañjali, we find a definition of yoga as “stilling of the fluctuations of the mind”. The yoga sutras go on to talk about all the obstacles in the way of stilling the mind.
The sutras also define asana as perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intellect and benevolence of spirit. Asana means a “seat for consciousness”.
In Iyengar’s view, the training of the mind and body through yoga leads to awareness of the soul.
But what does this actually mean in practice?
Iyengar yoga demands both focus and self-awareness. This mindfulness is the very essence of meditation, as well. It is, as Mr Iyengar said, meditation in action.
We come to our mat every day with a curious, open mind so we can observe our bodies, our thoughts and our emotions. Yoga it is not a routine, the deeper practitioner is responsive. We respond to what we observe by adjusting our practice, as I have said before.
To practice yoga, we must be present. When we drift off into our thoughts during posture, we cannot engage with the posture. We have to focus and be present. In some of the poses, especially those where we have to balance, you can’t just think of something else!
We are also looking to get into a quiet state of mind. Different asanas have different effects, but they are all vehicles to quietening our mind and becoming still.
Mindfulness or presence of mind is a key part of most spiritual practices. My Iyengar said: My body is my temple, asanas are my prayers.
What is spirituality?
Spirituality is being in touch with yourself beyond the normal desires and wants, the material things. Our perception of ourselves is clouded with people around us defining who we are.
When yoga becomes a balance of action, and reflection on the impact of that action, then our yoga mat becomes the laboratory with all the curiosity that that involves. It is a world of exploration.
Of course, then we need to take our yoga practice off the mat and into everyday life. Are we curious, intelligent and thoughtful off our mat? The practice of yoga can influence our being in the world. Yoga is also about not harming, non-violence, that is in the yoga sutras. By working with our body in mindful ways, we are not doing harm.
We are also learning to listen and not be reactive. By practicing that non-reactive state, we are learning something that can be applied in daily life.
Yoga opens many possibilities and takes us beyond our perceptions of ourselves. Mr Iyengar said we must go beyond our limitations, but he was not talking about physical, he was talking about the limitations of our minds.
For example, people might come to yoga who, at the start, thinks they cannot touch their toes. After practicing for some time, they can touch their toes and they become open to lots of possibilities.
Through practice, we might notice that when we come to challenging pose, we may be holding our breath, or discover our negative mind-set-- I can’t do this, this is too hard – and these insights might be a reflection of what is happening in everyday life.
We learn patience. Some things take time and they need persistence. The yoga sutra says we need persistence, consistent and unwavering.
We also learn to be truthful as we recognise and work the limitations and possibilities of our practice.
How are we going to be happy? We have to be honest with ourselves. If you are sincere enough, you find out the truth
Religions are doctrines; they tell how to live.
Yoga is about discovering how to live. It is about challenging your own beliefs as much as anyone else’s, our own dogma. We try to look at things with a clean slate.
While yoga is beneficial to so many physic conditions, the ultimate reason to practice is to find the truth.
Yoga and belief
When I first started doing yoga, I just loved the experience of doing the postures. It was never a question for me that yoga would give me something back, some added benefit. If I am feeling tense, I do postures to quiet down. It wasn’t a deal.
The benefits of yoga just come if you are open to them.
There’s no need to subscribe or believe in what I have written here, or that you will gain from yoga. If you simply practice the asanas with the right frame of mind, this will lead to positive changes in your body, mind and emotions.
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