Hip-hop artists debate the realness of their art. What constitutes real hip hop? There is something in the essence of this debate that I appreciate; a continual questioning of what makes the art authentic, true. So I borrow the framework of this questioning when I think about the proliferation of hatha yoga – asana practice - in the western world today. What is real yoga?
The teachings from the yogic mothers and fathers of the sub-continent - spiritual practitioners, innovators, and cosmic luminaries – illuminates for us the true core of yoga and its path is to practice with the intent of experiencing deep infinite stillness, consciousness. Sharon Gannon captures this perfectly with her statement, “You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state.”
The Yoga Sutras, in which Swami Patanjali codified the teachings, science and practice of yoga is estimated to have been written in the second century CE. This Classical era text provides 196 threads of yoga wisdom from practices which historians estimate to have been taking place as early as 3000 BCE. As early as 3000 BCE! In the first few sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind in which the Seer abides in his natural state (Sutra 1.2 yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, Sutra1.3 tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam). Paramahansa Yogananda’s beautiful prose inAutobiography of a Yogi echoes the same, “Yoga is a method for restraining the natural turbulence of thoughts, which otherwise impartially prevent all men, of all lands, from glimpsing their true nature of spirit.”
Yoga, in western mind, is widely synonymous with asana practice; a series of physical postures or poses. Asana or Hatha yoga practice aims to liberate the bodymind through physical transformation, asana and pranayama practice to achieve deep stillness. The Yoga Sutras’ single reference to asana,commonly translates to asana is a stable, firm and comfortable position (Sutra2.46 sthira sukham asanam). The etymological root of asana guides us to the essence of the practice; ‘as’ means ‘to stay’. Yogi masters know, practice and impart this. Iyengar and Ashtanga lineages hold poses for a minimum of five breaths. Hridaya, yin, and restorative yoga hold poses in excess of five minutes on the short side. Sri Dharma Mittra continually reminds his students to remain steady and feel comfortable in an asana. He cautions that an obstacle to progression is not staying in a pose long enough and instructs us to perform the pose according to our own physical condition. (You are likely going beyond your condition if you lose stability, firmness and comfort!)
Stillness of body, stillness of mind. Real yoga.
To me, the diversity of asana practices today is a beautiful unfolding of the yogic way. Each lineage and practice, when infused in the spirit of these ancient sutras, offers the bodymind an opportunity to transform and move toward stillness. And, the diversity makes yoga accessible, it lets us gravitate to what we like, what resonates.
How does your yoga asana practice bring you toward stillness?