THE BLOG
01/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What You May Not Know About Yoga

Last year we considered writing a book called, Can Yoga Save The World? But when we discussed it with other people many were quite puzzled and asked: how can physical postures save the world? Which made us realize that modern-day yoga has, to a large extent, lost touch with the magnificence and breadth of its fundamental teachings. As blogger Waylon Lewis commented on our blog last week, "Unfortunately in the West it does seem yoga is forgetting its roots and is becoming just another cool new exercise."

Isaac, the manager at our local 24 Hour Fitness told us that people think yoga is just sitting in a room and humming, and, more importantly, that men won't go to a class as they think it is a woman's thing. This reminded Deb of when we were teaching in India and the participants were all men. They were very surprised to find a woman teaching yoga, as in India it is mostly men who do it. All this inspired us to talk more about what Yoga really means.

Ed trained at the Bihar School Of Yoga in India in 1969 and became a Swami (Yoga Master). He was taught how Yoga is an art, a science, and a way of life; that it teaches everything from the way we walk and talk to Self Realization. In other words it is not just learning how to stand on our head, but is, as Swami Satchidananda taught, actually learning how to stand on our feet.

There are various forms of yoga, just as there are different aspects to our nature, with a wealth of teachings for each form. Here we mention the five main branches of yoga, as well as Tantra Yoga, which little is known about and is the most misunderstood. The purpose of all forms of yoga is to enable the practitioner to develop a healthy body and mind, deep inner peace and, ultimately, to realize their true nature. For instance, through Bhakti yoga we awaken universal love and compassion; Karma yoga is the path of selfless action, where we surrender our own needs to the joy of service; and Jnana yoga is the path of philosophy and reflection, where we use the intellect to transcend the intellect.

Raja yoga, also known as the King of Yoga, is the most comprehensive and experiential path, and the one that can be most proven scientifically. Founded by the legendary Indian master Patanjali, he outlined eight steps. In the first two steps he gives clear instructions on how to live an ethical and caring life through practicing harmlessness (ahimsa), being truthful, not being greedy, or indulging in addictions. It outlines the importance of having a healthy lifestyle, and the need for self-reflection so that we become more aware of our own habits and mental tendencies.

The third step is the practice of physical postures or asanas, which literally means seat. The idea is to practice different postures so that our body is able to sit comfortably and without tension in meditation. The fourth step is pranayama or breath control, with a variety of different breathing techniques that calm the mind and body while increasing the inner energy. The fifth step is the withdrawal of the mind from the senses, as practiced in deep inner conscious relaxation (see Ed's CD, Yoga Nidra). Here we turn the mind within and do not identify with the objects of the world, with our desires or senses, but develop inner clarity.

Having gained some control over the body, released tensions and developed an inner calmness, the sixth step teaches concentration, bringing our attention to the fluctuating mind with its constant chatter, dramas and daydreams. By focusing on just one thing, such as a candle flame or the rhythm of the breath, the mind is able to rest and become one-pointed. Next we can enter meditation, where the mind is stable with no fluctuation, all sense of a separate self dissolves, and the mind becomes quiet and still. As the attachment to the ego lessons, so our understanding of truth deepens.

Samadhi, or the highest happiness beyond conditional happiness, is the final step of Raja yoga. This is a state of consciousness where there is no separation between self and other than self, there is simply union. The ultimate purpose of yoga is in order for us to awaken to this state. Samadhi is the unconditional, omnipresent, omnipotent reality. It is our true, authentic nature.

In ancient times Hatha was a separate science, with strenuous and challenging asanas, postures, and austere purification of the body through cleansing techniques or hatha kriyas, and the purification of the mind. Within the last 30 years many different types of Hatha have appeared that mostly focus on asanas, with pranayama and relaxation, which are steps three, four and five of Raja yoga.

Tantra yoga is a systematic method of how to make every aspect of our life sacred, yet it is mistakenly thought of as being primarily about sex and relationships. Sexuality is only a small part of tantric teachings, as tantra also deals with very powerful and often negative emotions, such as fear and anger, that are used to awaken the practitioner's dormant potential. What is being taught nowadays is not traditional tantra. The main purpose, as with other forms of yoga, is to transcend the individual ego to attain Self Realization. Also, the tantric master chooses the student, to ensure that the student has a foundation in other yogas and is mentally prepared, whereas in the other paths of yoga the student chooses the teacher.

From this brief outline, we hope you can see the wealth and vastness of this ancient teaching. Asanas are certainly a fundamental part of yoga, but so also is meditation, philosophical teachings, and guidelines for living, for both men and women! May you enjoy this most wonderful gift of Yoga handed down to us from the Yogi's and Yogini's of ancient times!

So do make a comment and let us know what Yoga means to you.

***


Ed and Deb Shapiro are authors of over 15 books and 3 meditation CDs, and lead meditation retreats and workshops. Deb is the author of the award-winning book Your Body Speaks Your Mind. They are corporate coaches and consultants, and they are the creators of Chillout daily inspirational text messages on Sprint cell phones. See their website: www.EdandDebShapiro.com.