This talk is an exploration of Yoga (primarily hatha yoga) as one of the arts or skills held and enjoyed by humanity in it's great cultural tradition and heritage, what are known as the lalitakala or 'playful arts' in Sanskrit. I am also concerned with revealing Yoga's greatest potential, as a means to personal growth and spiritual awakening.
I am aware that most people may come to Yoga simply as a means to stretch, relax, work out and chill out. That's fine and Yoga is a great form of body work. However, in this discussion I wish also to inspire others to consider Yoga as a means to working more deeply on one being, a means of transformation of one s being in terms of spiritual growth and development.
I have asked myself, 'Why practice yoga?' and also 'Why not practice yoga?' It is useful, to ask why we are doing something from time to time and this may help us to be more clear as well as provide some material for reflection. I also wish to inspire ourselves to practice Yoga more wholeheartedly, more passionately.
The yoga I will discuss is Hatha Yoga, which is primarily a physical discipline. Hatha Yoga has its origins in India and as a practice has been handed down orally from guru to disciple, teacher to student for many generations to this day. There are a variety of approaches to Hatha Yoga emphasizing different aspects of the discipline. However, as an art and spiritual practice I am concerned with principles of practice rather than specific forms, so this material will be of use to anyone whose life, work and activity is orientated to spiritual growth and Awakening.
As a Buddhist following in the great lineage of Buddha Shakyamuni through to my own teacher the Venerable Urgyen Sangharakshita I am presenting this material from the perspective of
1. as an exploration of hatha yoga as an art and spiritual practice
2. as a spiritual practitioner dedicated to the Awakening of all beings
I want to look at a number of themes related to the practice of Yoga bearing the above in lieu of the above;
* Physical and mental wellbeing
* an art
* spiritual discipline
* teaching practice
and I also want to look at the potential dangers of practice asking;
* 'Why one would not want to practice?'
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL WELLBEING
Hatha Yoga is primarily a physical discipline. It is system of physical training. Exercise benefits the body and Yoga is a form of exercise par excellence. One of the very immediate effects of practice is that one simply feels better. The body becomes energised, more vital, more alive.
Yoga particularly promotes freedom of movement by stretching tight muscles, loosening hardened joints and undoing accumulated tension held in the body. It relaxes the body.
The practice can be physically challenging and making Yoga a regular practice will make the body stronger and develop stamina. Indeed the practice can be as challenging as one would like, to suit all tastes. It can be very gentle emphasizing rest and recuperation or fast and vigorous emphasizing its more dynamic aspect.
Yoga can be a very pleasurable physical experience, once one is accustomed to stretching and opening the body in this way. There is of course the danger this becomes ones sole purpose for practice. One can really enjoy ones Yoga practice, an important point to remember, especially when doing a lot of teaching.
Yoga in the correct hands and perhaps, through experimentation on oneself can be used to deal with specific ailments and problems, such as a bad back, digestive disorders and headaches e.t.c. Yoga is a form of preventive medicine for those who are not sick and therapy for those who are. It promotes physical wellbeing and helps dispel ill health and sickness.
In practicing Yoga one is able to cultivate a number of positive, skillful qualities in the mind. Doing Yoga cultivates concentration and presence. To be successful, to execute a posture carefully, safely and precisely requires a concentrated, aware mind, one that is present and has a sense of where it is going. Basic mindfulness, awareness.
Yoga is energizing physically and mentally. As a result of practice the mind becomes bright, awake, alive more adaptable, more flexible, more radiant.
YOGA AS AN ART
'What is art?' Now there's a question.
I want to promote Yoga as art form. That is Yoga as one of the many arts, skills and creative activities pursued by human beings throughout our history, such as music, dance, painting, building, construction and craft-work, enjoyed as part of the cultural heritage of humanity. It is a creative act and Yoga is an art that we can engage with, take part in, transform ourselves with. Here we have the yogin or yogini as artist or perhaps artisan would be more accurate.
One could talk of art as a movement or the process toward a greater harmony and beauty. I would like to suggest that Yoga can be seen as an aesthetic experience. The body takes up various shapes and forms and when performed well and with care can be really beautiful to do, to perform. Here we can think of balance, poise, grace and precision. Moving through a sequence of postures gracefully and mindfully, we can develop a sense of aesthetic appreciation of what we are doing as we do it, simply as an activity in itself, regardless of the material or utility benefit the practice may also have. There is an important link here to the cultivation of Wisdom which I will come to later.
We can also think in terms of expressing ourselves through our Yoga practice, expressing the beauty of form, making shapes, being present to our experience, enjoying this expression.
In the Buddhist path to awakening, the end or fruit of practice is talked about as wisdom or prajna. Wisdom is the seeing of things as they really are, the direct apprehension of Reality, which suggests we don't usually see things as they really are. We tend to see things in terms of a hardened sense of me over here and it over there. There is a strong sense of separation between perceived objects and people and ourselves. The Reality is that things are deeply and profoundly interconnected and interrelated. Each and every thing conditions each and every other thing and we are no exception.
I am also concerned with art as spiritual practice, that is art that conduces to higher states of consciousness and further, Insight into how things really are.
So there is an important connection with art and wisdom, prajna. Prajna has been translated as analytical aesthetic appreciation and vidya, opposite to avidya, ignorance, translated as aesthetic appreciation. To approach 'things as they really are' requires a shift from the more utilitarian, acquisitive mode of being to a more appreciative, non-acquisitive mode. Rather than just seeing our yoga class as a means to stretching out tired muscles and chilling out for a bit we could consider our Yoga practice as a means to shifting into or towards a completely different way or mode of being. A mode of being which is freer, more present and closer to Reality. We can loosen the hardened sense of separation between subject and object.
Yoga has been translated as union, the bringing together. The bringing together of what? The bringing together of body and heart, body and mind, the integration of parts, the integration of subject and object perhaps?
Like all arts to become skilled in Yoga requires practice, it requires discipline and in order to perfect one's art one needs to apply effort, will and determination. We need to come back again and again to our practice, repeated the same movements again and again looking to work more effectively, more deeply each time, or simply see where we are this time. I often recollect this as I perform Trikonasana yet again, trying to look once again more carefully at what I am doing.
YOGA AND DISCIPLINE
Discipline can lead to liberation. How so? Yoga is a discipline in that it is repeatedly practiced, one keeps coming back to it. The benefit in terms of personal and spiritual growth is that discipline takes one beyond one's immediate subjective desires, so there is an element of self overcoming. Discipline allows us to overcome a limited way and mode of being, to become or discover the bigger, more objective picture or Reality, to embrace a bigger more spacious mode of being.
Ideally Yoga does become a practice, it becomes part of one's life and one goes back to one's practice each day. This provides an objective continuity and is the key to a number of physical and mental benefits as well as the key to Yoga as a spiritual discipline.
Discipline clearly has to be applied subtly. Discipline is a gentle art and effort must be applied so that challenge is made but one is not simply bludgeoning through ones practice with a willful and aggressive approach.
YOGA AS A SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE
What is this spiritual dimension and how can we practice it?
We undertake spiritual practice in order to become Awake, in order to transform our minds, abandoning the unskillful states of greed, hatred and ignorance or unawareness and cultivating those of love, generosity and wisdom or awareness.
The key to Yoga as spiritual practice is awareness. There is this expression, 'the mat is your mirror'. When we come to our mat to practice yoga we bring ourselves, we bring our being and probably, we will do our yoga in the same way that we live and do the rest of our life. Hence, if we practice consciously, with awareness of ourselves, we can come to learn what we are like, how we act, how we react and therefore enable us to change our mind, change our way of being, transform our minds, which in turn will affect the way we live and are in our day to day lives. It is awareness then that makes Yoga a spiritual practice, without awareness, yoga is simply stretch exercise, a system of techniques of mental and physical discipline.
Looking at spiritual practice from the Buddhist point of view, yoga can be seen as part of a set of practices that we engage with, in order to work on ourselves and help others to work on themselves. It is worth remembering that yoga is just one of several approaches to practice along with our work, study, friendship, meditation and puja (devotional practices) and no matter how much I would like to say that Yoga is the 'One True Path' I recognize that it has its place amongst a coterie of practices aimed to bring about transformation of our being. I have had fantasies of being a 'full-time' yogi, but here we are talking about the full-time yogi meditator living the forest renunciant life and I am sure for those that can happily live such a life, hatha yoga would have its place. For most of us we can see our yoga practice as complementary to our other spiritual practices.
My own teacher Urgyen Sangharakshita, talks about a number of 'Indirect Methods' of spiritual practice; right livelihood (work), friendship and hatha yoga. Yoga is an indirect way of working on the mind, meditation being a 'Direct method'. The techniques of Yoga allow us to see what we like exposing our limitations and potential, restrictions, habits and innate skillful qualities. It seems to me what is crucial here is the attitude we bring to our practice, it is the overall perspective that we bring that can make all the difference.
I think Yoga does have a number of direct and intrinsic benefits in terms of physical and mental wellbeing but there is a danger that if we don't bring awareness to our practice it will remain simply a system of techniques of physical and mental discipline and lack a spiritual dimension. Yoga can be a great work out and way to relax but it's greatest potential is to reveal our Real nature.
Yoga was meant, as a method of spiritual practice. According to Patanjali, who first systematized Yoga in his Yoga sutras around 100/200 C.E, 'The activity of Yoga is passionate and devoted self enquiry or reflection' and that 'Surrender (i.e. giving up) of the projections (mental defilements such as ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and self clinging), comes from the serenity of practice and practice is the implementation of stability and is well established through consistent, lengthy and judicious application'.
In other words through practice one transforms one's being; one abandons greed, hatred and delusion and develops love, generosity and wisdom.
Two keys here are ethics and awareness.
Patanjali outlines the path of yoga as an Eight fold or Eight limbed path, the first two stages or branches being concerned with ethics; our attitudes and orientations, which are to be cultivated. These bear a very similar resemblance to Buddhist ethics. They set the context, the scene for practice and bear reflecting upon. Yama define our attitude and niyama our orientation to practice. Both make it clear what our overall purpose and goal is. They inform us of our direction and how we are going about it. In a sense they show us the path and what progress on that path is. They will develop an ethical awareness.
Hence progress on the path of Yoga is not measured in terms of external factors such as strength, flexibility, stamina e.t.c. but in terms of these ethical principles, which are rooted primarily in ahimsa, or love. The five yama are; ahimsa (sensitivity), satya (honesty), asteya (openness), brahmacarya (focus) and aparigraha (generosity). The five niyamas are; sauca (commitment), samtosa (contentment), tapas (passion), svadhaya (self reflection) and isvara pranidanah (devotional surrender to the infinite within - or perhaps orientation to Awakening or Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels in Buddhism).
Patanjali goes on to say,
"sensitivity generates love honesty leads to fulfillment openness generates abundance focus confers vitality generosity leads to selflessness commitment gives detachment, independence, focus, integrity, joy, freedom and self knowledge contentment generates peace of mind passion purifies the bodymind of restrictions self reflection reveals the inner divinity devotional surrender gives the highest realization" (yogasutras II.35-II45)
(Translation by Godfrey Devereux -see www.yogadarshana.com)
What more could one want and what higher ideal for revealing our humanity could there be?
That gives plenty to think about regards the Yoga tradition itself but now let us turn more deliberately to the Buddhist tradition. Clearly the Yoga and Buddhist traditions overlap.
I have said enough about ethics but I think one can see it would be helpful to bring our practice of ethics to the arena of our hatha yoga practice, are we being careful, are we being honest, generous to ourselves as we move through our postures, is there sensitivity, are we present, focussed on what we are doing e.t.c.?
As I said, doing Yoga cultivates concentration and presence. It cultivates awareness. Primarily it cultivates awareness of ourselves, our body and heart/mind. Potentially it enables us to cultivate an awareness of Reality. The mat can become our mirror of awareness.
To do posture work carefully, safely and precisely requires a concentrated, aware mind, one that is present and has a sense of where it is going. Because yoga is in itself an enjoyable activity, the mind naturally takes interest in what is going on. Our mind, as in the flow of desires, intentions and attention naturally flows toward our yoga practice, our sense experience as we are practicing. Yoga practice will draw our desires in the direction of our experience, especially our physical experience. This will all help in terms of concentrating the mind more fully. This can then be refined and deepened when we come to sit in meditation or lie in savasana.
Being aware of ourselves can be further detailed in terms of the Four foundations of awareness or mindfulness talked of in Buddhism;
1. mindfulness of the body (kaya) and its movements
2. aware of the feeling, in the sense of hedonic tone (vedana), both in the mind and in the body, is it pleasant, is it painful or somewhere in between or a mixture?
3. aware of our emotions, our states of mind (citta), are we bored, angry, afraid, happy?.
4. be aware of our thoughts i.e. the contents of the mind (dharmas). These are the four foundations of mindfulness.
But then why cultivate a concentrated, aware mind? A concentrated mind is a happy mind and a mind that is aware is able to be creative. Being aware of the unskillful mental states in our being we are able to take the initiative with them, give them up, surrender them and cultivate skilful ones. Awareness gives us the creative edge with our experience, 'awareness is revolutionary'. An ethical awareness, an awareness suffused by love and generosity will enable us to approach Reality with confidence and well being.
Finally, I want to explore a specific area in connection with awareness and Wisdom, the link to awareness of Reality.
There is the business of things not being how we want them to be. We can't do this and we can't do that, this is painful, that hurts. Working with the body deliberately as one does in yoga one inevitably comes up against one's limitations in one way or another. Confronting these limitations can be a very rewarding and interesting experience. After you can only work with what you have got, and as a result of challenging oneself with diligence and application we are presented with our frustrations at things not being how we want them to be. This is especially the case when working with injuries, which bring there own particular fears and restrictions. One is confronted by Reality and reality begs the question, what are you going to do about it? Get angry, get frustrated, or respond creatively with kindness and care. there is that famous quote of Sangharakshita's from his Survey of Buddhism where he points out that Reality can never be arranged to suit our desires, but that we have to transform our desires to deal with Reality.
So we can reflect, as we perform our asana, on the nature of the human condition, the nature of the human being, the human state. Traditionally in Buddhism, conditioned existence (samsara) is described as painful or at least, one has the experience of riding in a cart with an ill-fitting wheel, along a bumpy road (dukkha), things don't go exactly how we want them to. Conditioned existence is impermanent, and all things are said to be insubstantial, that is there is no fixed, permanent thing anywhere that possesses any fixed, unchanging intrinsic nature. Contemplating the body in our yoga practice we can see for ourselves the ever changing state of the physical condition.
Here I am interested primarily as teaching yoga as altruistic activity and exemplification.
The teacher can first and foremost exemplify. He or she can exemplify values and embody them. One can exemplify kindness and generosity, care and attentiveness. One can encourage and exemplify energy, perseverance and determination. One can exemplify playfulness and enjoyment. One can encourage and practice awareness, awareness of oneself and awareness of others.
As a teacher being aware of others is paramount, one is there, in the classroom, teaching and communicating to others, so being attentive and present is the task. One needs to be concerned for others hence an outward, altruistic dimension is introduced.
Through teaching, it is possible to communicate values and encourage and promote an ethically skilful perspective in others. One can communicate an approach to practice which is imbibed by an ethically positive outlook. This may not be communicated through words themselves but through ones being, how one is. How one is how ones being is, communicates a lot, and thinking in terms of offering oneself wholeheartedly and honestly to others as a spiritual practitioner has intrinsic value. Ones yoga teacher is an important figure in ones life. We can probably relate to this in our own lives.
We can also, perhaps surreptitiously communicate ethical and spiritual values more directly, encouraging others to present to their experience, be clear, be truthful.
Teaching yoga gives us the opportunity to practice generosity, dana. Generosity lies at the beginning of the Path to Awakening. We give our time, energy and knowledge and thereby benefit others. We can give ourselves as wholeheartedly as we can and we can share our enthusiasm and love for practice.
Teaching yoga also provides us with a means of income, a livelihood, earned in an ethically skillful manner (right livelihood), doing something which we love and enjoy. If we are successful it may allow us to give away our monies to others, perhaps supporting a Buddhist Centre or some other project
WHY NOT PRACTICE YOGA?
To present the other side of the picture I ask myself; 'Why not practice yoga?' What are the potential pitfalls and dangers.
Vanity, pride and ambition
Practicing yoga may lead to over involvement with our body. Such unskillful states such as pride, vanity and ambition may creep in, as we try to hone our bodies toward perfection, performing the perfect trikonasana. We may become engrossed in our own physicality at the expense of others. We pursue physical perfection in a competitive and aggressive way.
We can become caught up in attaining a particular form or way, desiring a body that can do this, or do that, not acknowledging where we are. Here there is the possibility of self hatred, not being happy with the way that we are especially physically but also mentally.
This may lead to injury. We have probably all got our yoga injuries. If one pursues any physical activity without care some kind of injury can result.
Then there is the danger of distraction. Distraction by our own body, becoming intoxicated by our experience. Pleasure and health can be intoxicating. And we can become distracted by other peoples bodies, both in terms attraction; 'I like her', and aversion; 'I want to be able to do that as well'.
Fatigue and being 'wired up'
Practice, particularly a high energy practice may result in one becoming over stimulated and 'wired up' making one more restless and more anxious, or may waste and deplete ones energies. Care must be applied here, and making use of the more passive receptive dimension of practice may be necessary as well as taking adequate rest. Yoga should bring harmony and ease to our being.
Effect on meditation
A related aspect of pleasure in the body was recently brought to my attention with regard to sitting meditation practice. Clearly pleasure in the body is a helpful thing as is pleasure in meditation, but this may result in an inability to rest still as a result of trying to attain to the must comfortable, pleasant posture possible. Yoga should be letting us know pain is a part of embodying the human form and that we may well simply have to tolerate a certain amount of dis-ease in our experience.
Time and energy
Finally there is the amount of time and energy our Yoga practice takes up. A little bit often is best of course, but it can easily become one, two, three hours each day, could we be doing something else more useful.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
In this discussion I have promoted hatha yoga as a means to a number of physical and mental benefits.
I have suggested Yoga to be an art and discipline to be enjoyed simply on its own level.
I have considered through the approach of hatha yoga as an art and discipline and more importantly through the application of an ethical awareness, that hatha yoga can be a spiritual practice, a means to transforming our being. Yoga potentially can lead us to a state free of greed, hatred and confusion to boundless love, generosity and wisdom. I would like to end with some lines from Santideva's Bodhicaryavatara. In his guide to the Bodhsattvas way of life he tells us how we should regard our bodies.
Chapter 5 Guarding of awareness
70. Apply to the body the notion of a ship, on account of the way it comes and goes. At your own command, set the body on course to fulfil the needs of beings.
86. The body serves the True Dharma. One should not harm it for some inferior reason. For it is the only way that one can quickly fulfil the hopes of living beings.