This article was published on The Huffington Post, here.
The Early Days:
As our car pulled into the driveway, my dad checked the mailbox. “Did it come? 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. My dad handed me the thick envelope filled with handwritten evaluations of the five senior black belts who had assessed my test. Each would have written “pass” or “fail” at the bottom of his detailed analysis of every mistake I’d made in my katas and sparring. At fifteen, I was one of the youngest girls, and certainly one of the few non-Asian girls, to ever test for black belt in Los Angeles. As I forced myself to keep breathing, I gingerly opened the envelope and reviewed the results. One by one they said “pass.”
“Oh my God, I passed! Oh my God, I passed!” I shrieked as only fifteen-year-old girls can.
We jumped in the car to go tell my mom who was in her evening yoga class. My mother was the first one I knew who ever did yoga. In fact, in the early to mid-1980s, none of us had heard of yoga as something to be done by non-Indians, before she started taking classes. My mother’s, and therefore my, introduction to yoga came at the behest of a physical therapist to whom she had gone for treatment of a hip injury incurred during a Jane Fonda aerobics class. As my teenaged self bounded up the steps to her yoga class, I could see, through the glass doors, about twenty women spread throughout the room bending down over blankets, bolsters and blocks. The idea that my intrusion may have been inappropriate was inconceivable. Of course Mom needed to know I had passed and of course a 30-second ecstatic intrusion couldn’t possibly be any big deal.
It was a big deal. The teacher lovingly, but sternly, explained to me, in the midst of my exuberant outburst of “I passed!”, that yoga was not merely the physical exercises my mother and the other women were doing, but that it also was a state of mind, a state of the breath, 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. Fifteen-year-olds don’t only understand the yoga that their parents do, but in many cases, they are also doing it. The practice of yoga has burgeoned and blossomed throughout the world, leaving almost no corner untouched. When we started organising yoga classes and courses in English and then 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 60 countries around the world, including not only the ‘West’ as we envision the Americas and the European Union, but also large groups from countries that didn’t even exist when I was learning geography. Countries from the former Soviet Union, countries including Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Croatia, countries throughout Africa, and of course throughout Asia, ranging from Mongolia to Taiwan.
Yoga has now joined rank with other crucial and inextricable aspects of our daily life and society as toilets, hand-washing, forests, water, mothers and fathers in being allocated its own official day by the United Nations.
Yet, when we think of yoga today and speak of yoga today, what do we mean? What is that yoga of which we speak? Sadly, most of us still view it as the art of perfecting physical exercises, a more sophisticated and subtle form of the Jane Fonda aerobics class.
The Fullness of Yoga — True Divine Union
Yoga, the word 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 to the Divine, a union of the small self to the universal self, a merging of the drop back into the ocean.
Patanjali spoke about eight limbs of yoga or ashtanga yoga, of which 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 do’s and don’ts of a yogic life. In fact, the yamas and niyamas have nothing to do with what most of us consider a yoga practice. There is no bending or twisting or stretching. There is no contraction or elongation. There is simply non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, control of the senses, non-hoarding, purity, contentment, dedicated practice, self-study and surrender to the Divine. These, what we might call the 10 commandments of a dharmic or righteous life, are the foundation upon which Patanjali’s yogic philosophy is based.
“Suddenly we embark on a practice of being present and mindful with all of our actions, not only those performed on the yoga mat.”
When we realize that a righteous life, a life of honesty, integrity, non-violence and purity, is the foundation of a true yoga practice, then suddenly 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. Suddenly we embark on a practice of being present and mindful with all of our actions, not only those performed on the yoga mat. Are we truly non-violent in word, thought and deed? 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 letter but in spirit, in all of our interactions?
As every builder, contractor and architect knows, one cannot build a structure beginning with the third floor! Regardless of the beauty and elegance of the building, if there is not a strong foundation, that building will collapse in the slightest storm. Similarly, we cannot base our yoga practice exclusively on limb three. We may become fabulously strong, limber and flexible but the moment the winds of change begin to blow in our lives, the best asana cannot keep us grounded if we have no foundation. The yamas and niyamas are inextricable, crucial aspects of any true yoga practice. Without them, our asanas become acrobatics or aerobics — still fabulous of course for the body, but not “yoga” in its fullest meaning.
“The yamas and niyamas are inextricable, crucial aspects of any true yoga practice. Without them, our asanas become acrobatics or aerobics – still fabulous of course for the body, but not “yoga” in its fullest meaning. ”
Lastly, our 8-limbed tree of yoga also does not stop at limb 3 or even 4. It grows and expands gloriously up through the practice and experience of pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (single pointedness) through dhyana (meditation) and ultimately into Samadhi (complete ecstatic, blissful Union). Resting your forehead on your shin in janushirasana for the first time is an experience of great relief and release. The muscles of the back, the neck, the head and even the chest let go as we rest in the elongation of our spine, as prana is breathed into the space between our vertebrae and into every muscle in our body; despite the “ahhh” experience of relief and release in the physical postures, the tree of yoga has juicier fruits to offer us if we just keep climbing.
Thus, as we do not start with limb 3, so we do not end with it. The asanas are windows into the possibility of what yoga holds. It is said “sthira sukham asanam” — that which is stable, that which brings true joy, that is asana. Yes. And that is a window into not just stability and joy IN the asana but in every moment and every breath of our life.
Yoga to Save Ourselves and Our Planet
It is this stable joy, this health and wellness of the entire being, this balance between the body, the breath, the mind and the heart, this opportunity to melt and merge into something deeper than ourselves, the infinite ocean of expansion, it is this which draws more than 1,000 people from more than 60 countries across the world to the banks of the Ganga River, to Parmarth Niketan Ashram, in Rishikesh for the International Yoga Festival each year.
It is this which our world is turning to as we celebrate International Day of Yoga on June 21st. We are not celebrating aerobics. We are not celebrating calisthenics. We are not celebrating stretching exercises. We are celebrating Yoga, ultimate union, a union that — beginning with uniting the body and the breath and leading to a union of body, mind and spirit — takes us into a union between ourselves and the Divine. It is a union of our small, isolated, individual, limited, physical existence, with all of Creation.
In separation, the opposite of yoga, the world is made up of objects. We are each the “subject” of our own subjective reality. Everyone and everything else is an object — the animals whose flesh becomes our meal, whose skin becomes our car seat or belt, the impoverished sweatshop workers who produce our “rock bottom” priced clothes, the precious trees of the Amazon felled by the acre to make room for the grazing of hamburgers-to-be, the indigenous people whose lands are being cleared across the rain forests, the coffee and cotton pickers whose children have birth defects due to the toxicity of their pesticide-ridden working environment.
In a yogic life though, in a life committed to the awareness and experience of unity we realise that these are all us. Hence, we don’t need to put sticky notes on our computers to remind us to practice non-violence, to remind us not to steal or hoard, to remind us to live a pure life. The practice of “yoga” leads automatically to a life in which our choices are ones made in an awareness of unity and oneness.
This is what our world needs. As individuals, to overcome our depression, loneliness and numbness, we need to feel connected. As a society, in order to function well, we need to be connected and in harmony. As an international, global world family, we need to realize that we are inextricably connected, as Chief Seattle said so beautifully, to “the web of life.” Yoga, a true realisation of union, could save not only our health, but also our planet.