Indian yoga codified from esoteric practices that are thousands of years old. It has developed several branches to accommodate different personality styles. The major yogas are Bhakti ( a devotional approach that opens the heart, it is best for those who are primarily emotionally-oriented ), Jnana ( an intellectual approach that leads to wisdom, it is best for those who are primarily mentally-oriented ), Karma ( an active, service-oriented approach, it is best for those who are more extroverted and who find meaning mostly through relationship ), and Raja ( a meditational approach, it is best for those who are primarily oriented to the practical aspects of a situation ).
For those who are capable, Raja Yoga employs the most powerful and direct techniques for spiritual advancement. In addition, it provides a clear outline of the stages of progress along the path. These teachings were first systematised in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ( written around 300-500 AD ). The eight traditional stages are:
The final practice of this meditational path is to connect the samadhi state with ordinary day-to-day consciousness so that a practitioner is in samadhi regardless of whether he or she is meditating in total isolation or performing daily chores in the normal bustle of people, places, and events. In this way, the accomplished meditator has quite literally passed beyond life's sufferings but yet remains in the world. A spiritual master of this stature experiences every moment as pleasant and peaceful regardless of what may be happening to her or his body and mind. For instance, such a person would be aware of the body's torment when suffering from some terrible disease, such as cancer, but naturally remain in a serene state anyway.
In response to the fierce asceticism that was the social norm for this yogic style of practice, other esoteric branches developed which looked to incorporate spirituality more into daily life. Notably, tantric principles were first developed and refined during this period of social recoil. They generally began to catch on during the early and middle part of the first millennium and, as with fashions, have waxed and waned in popularity ever since.
Indian tantric systems utilise the forces of nature--especially desire--in a way that accepts, redirects, and refines them. This is in contradistinction to most ascetic methods which apply denial as their chief lever for working with negative emotions such as lust, greed, and hatred. By appropriately channelling the raw power of, for instance, sexual desire, a spiritual practitioner can not only learn to manage troublesome mind-states, but also get a boost of confidence and energy as well.
And, as you might imagine, the misuse of such deep-seated human forces can lead to much havoc as well. Thus, Tantra has mostly lead a dual social life--being popularly accepted by the masses as a more palpable way to digest necessary spiritual disciplines, and also being cautiously respected and approached by more ardent and serious practitioners. With proper support, however, these principles can be tremendously helpful.
As mentioned, Hatha Yoga is part of a system of yoga aimed at achieving total enlightenment. And traditionally, hatha yoga is used to cultivate the physical body in order to make it a healthy and fit vehicle for meditation and further energy work. Far removed from this vision, the average westerner today considers "yoga" to mean Hatha Yoga, and Hatha Yoga to simply mean physical fitness. Classically, "yogi" and "yogini" respectively referred to serious male and female practitioners. In contrast, today anyone--and everyone--who even tries a yoga class is called a yogi.
But, yoga can be much more than a way to physical vitality. The yogic tradition is so ancient and time-honoured, and has had so much positive spiritual energy invested in it over the millennia, that yoga can be better understood as a mighty spiritual river that encompasses and supports all that encounter it.
In fact, the key sutra from Patanjali goes: "yoga chitta vritti nirodhah". That is, yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. This, the chief and end goal of yogic effort, equates with full enlightenment--the great river finally reaches its source, the even mightier and endless ocean.
So, yoga works not only with the physical body but also with increasingly more subtle energy bodies. Hence, because yoga really is a vast and steady river of light, it can, and does, support all those who will travel upon its waters, for however far a distance they would travel. So, even a short journey for some good health is quite acceptable. This special river, alluring in subtle ways, has a vibrancy that eventually draws back most who have come to its shores.
To illustrate the enormous potential that the yoga system can offer even a relative beginner on the spiritual journey, consider the following practice which, in suitable form, is accessible to anyone who would make the effort to try it. It is based upon the tools of Raja Yoga and Tantra Yoga which can be fiercely powerful enablers. The proper synergistic use and cultivation of these tools, via this practice, can fully stoke the flames of a passionate, longing devotion for the divine.
Since any decent spiritual practice will consider all levels of the human experience, the practice being presented does so too. These levels are highlighted in the following table and include: the body (physical), heart (emotional), mind (thinking), mindfulness ("right-brain" awareness), concentration ("left-brain" awareness) and psychology (personality, unconscious processes). The items on the right of the colon indicate some sample tools for working with their related level:
An outline of the major parts of the actual routine follows. It is in terms of various Tibetan Vajrayana tantric practices which are applied during portions of the Ashtanga primary series. The items in parentheses indicate the general timing of the tantric practices in terms of the primary series. The list partitions the entire set of poses into functional units in which some particular tantric aspect is highlighted. However, each tantric aspect (for instance, refuge) includes most, or all, of the components listed in the preceding table (for instance, body, heart, mind, concentration):
You will learn more about the Vajrayana parts of this practice, for instance the self-generation and completion stage practices, in the next web page of this series of Spiritual Teachings--it is on Tibetan Buddhism. The explanation of the practice's steps and components is fairly straightforward, so, if you prefer, you can simply keep reading through this page.
Ashtanga is a popular style of hatha yoga that incorporates a vigorous, and continuous flow of physical postures into its routine. To find out more about this form and its history, you can search on the net or check into any good metaphysical or wholesale bookshop. The overall practice consists of four or five progressively more challenging series of poses, and for one to master even the first series would be a noteworthy accomplishment. This style needs lots of strength and endurance and its other common name of power yoga adequately reflects its generally full-on nature of physical exertion.
Now, Ashtanga is being used as a reference simply because it is a well-known, and fixed, sequence of postures. There are many other styles that may be more suitable for a person depending on her/his level of fitness. So, just consider that the basic format of this spiritual practice is to progressively move through a set of asanas, that is, postures.
Also it is important for you to realise that what is being described is not just Ashtanga as it is being taught these days. Although the full practice of Ashtanga does include many aspects of the following model, what is being presented is basically a hybrid of Raja Yoga and Hindu/Tibetan tantric tools as practiced by some people. Ashtanga simply provides a useful context for the discussion,
Some prototypical examples of asanas (and their psychological effects) would be:
The asanas will captivate the body. How about the mind? In the Ashtanga work, a practitioner keeps a steady ujayi pranayama breath going through the session. Ujayi breathing is just a controlled and focussed breath which, in this context, is applied to the upper throat/back mouth region. Such breathing brings steadiness to the mind and can be used to awaken energy vortices in the body known as chakras.
To capture the heart and encourage it to be present during the workout, one marshals up and uses all the love and devotion one has available. This devotional attitude and feeling is, in effect, beamed toward a preferred deity, teacher, force or even simply an idea. For, example, in the Hindu tradition, a yogi might remember one of the many forms of Vishnu, the archetypical deity of providence and nourishment. The yogi could call upon Lord Krishna (the blue being pictured in the chariot at the top left of this page) to be present with him or her during the exercises.
To complement the devotional aspect, the yogi also at times brings awareness to specific points--often chakras. In the Ashtanga practice as it is taught, in each pose one brings the gaze to a certain point, for instance, the "third eye" between the eyebrows.
Body, mind, heart. Mindfulness is next. Mindfulness refers to being able to ground attention in the present moment--to be fully available to experience what is happening in the here and now. We all are capable of moments of mindfulness but to live a life constantly poised in this ultimately real and satisfying place requires a lifetime's investment of effort. Zen and vipassana masters exemplify this form of present moment awareness. Now, this skill, however nascent, is vital to someone engaging in the practice being described.
To pull some of these strands of body, mind and heart awareness together, during certain sets of poses, a simple devotional formula will be repeated in each position. In the Ashtanga series, for instance, the initial postures are all standing and often the gaze is meant to be directed upward in accord with the pose. To continue the Krishna example, a yogi would settle into a posture, say a standing posture with legs a meter or so apart, rotated to the side, front leg bent, back one straight, spine erect and arms straight up with head thrown back and eyes looking up past the hands. While holding the pose and keeping the ujayi breath, she/he would also add a prayer, or mantra, to Lord Krishna.
As an expression of the yogi's heart, the same prayer would be repeated for each standing pose that involved looking upwards. And mindfulness would be used by the yogi to attend to how he/she stayed with the prayer. For instance, when the yogi's thoughts drifted off to some other event of the day, her/his mindfulness would eventually recognise the lapse and gently bring attention back to the prescribed task. This can be a great help in developing a sense of humility and clarity.
Mindfulness down. Concentration is next. To add fuel to this fire of a practice, the yogi brings in visualisation as a form of concentration. In this instance, she/he would see a radiant Krishna overhead being directly present to her/him as she/he salutes this blessed representative of the divine. Depending on the yogi's capability, the visualisation could be extended to see Krishna also in the yogi's heart--and further, in all of the yogi's chakras--and further still, as present everywhere--in each sensation and thought and experience--and beyond all that too.
Whew! Sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? And there is more. Psychology and energy are yet to go. Much of what has been described so far, follows classical raja yoga lines, but it is the tantric traditions that begin to broach on what we now refer to in the west as unconscious process. Although, at times not as effective as the directly focussed and empathic relational work of psychotherapy, these tantric tools, through their archetypal potency, can at other times be even more energised and penetrating than most western approaches to psychological well-being.
For this practice, in certain sequences of poses, for instance the ending seated postures in the Ashtanga primary series, the yogi visualises himself or herself as a deity. Literally a deity. That is quite a promotion on ordinary experience but it can be vastly empowering when approached with a balanced humility and wisdom. To continue the ongoing example, the yogi might feel as if she/he is dissolving and Krishna then reappearing. The yogi still acts as a person but also is a channel for Krishna to work through her/him. This can be understood as a form of Karma Yoga, namely a form of complete surrender of all one's actions and even experiences.
The psychological factor comes in because one must also cultivate "divine pride" at the same time as surrendering. The yogi attempts to rejoice in being an actual deity--not only as a form of surrender but also as an offering of the yogi's individuality. This seems almost too good to be true but what it means is that the yogi must also "have a good time and enjoy life, simply being who the yogi is". This reflects the backbend postures--individuation out from a greater whole. The Karma Yoga of surrender mirrors the forward bends--integration into a greater whole. To "get it right" the yogi has to balance both aspects simultaneously. A lot of diligent perseverance--but that's divinity for you!
And finally energy. What of it? This whole practice activates the yogi's pranic and meridian circuitry. At the very end of the workout, there is time for a posture known as the corpse pose. One lies flat on one's back arms and legs stretched out slightly away from the body and its midline. And one simply let's go. This is restorative for the body but also can be much more.
With keen intent, the yogi simply rests the mind in "ordinary awareness" and lets life run its own course. Due to the vigorous and focussed work, energy patterns and channels in the body will become apparent, as will thoughts. The yogi steadfastly greets these experiences, accepts them, embraces them and then lets them go on. In this seemingly nihilistic denial of self and all experience, the yogi finds real relation and groundedness. This is subtle work but verifiable. Many ardent spiritual practitioners can attest to the miracle of letting go. If one lets go sincerely and skilfully enough, one finds embrace and company--in a quiet and pleasing sort of way.
Thus energy is an expression of what in Homoeopathy is known as "the line of cure". To wit, every being has a trajectory through this world and can be more or less in tune with this "tendency" toward experience. Energy will flow in the body more easily when one can "get out of the way" and let life live through one. That is, the more subtle impulses from the divine that, in part, help to shape our experiences in this world, can be best harmonised with when we "tune in to the big Self (our more subtle nature) and tune out of the little self (our clinging and over-attachment to ordinary experience and sense of self)".
The Ashtanga primary series usually takes about an hour and a half to complete. And when some of the aforementioned yoga tools are added to it, the practice takes on a significance far beyond mere exercise. Even including one or two components of this practice to a regular "physical workout" can dig deeply into the human psyche and heart and begin to help heal some of the many wounds and sufferings that we all must share along our way hOMe.
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