philosophy

The Yamas – A Western Interpretation

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Ymas

Yoga has always been practiced in both the East and West, so it would be an error to consider yoga as exclusively “Eastern”.  In fact, yoga, with its powerful techniques for creating a sense of inner peace, harmony, and clarity of mind, is absolutely relevant to the modern world – both East and West. Given the increasing pace and conflict present in modern life, with all its resulting stress, one could say that yoga has become an essential tool for survival, as well as for expanding the creativity and joy of our lives.

Although yoga does not “belong” to the East, it is easiest to trace its roots there, because cultural change has not obscured the origins of the science, and an ongoing tradition of yoga has continued to the present day. No one person “invented” yoga – yoga is a living tradition, a set of practices that dates back for centuries. And as such I would like to introduce some thoughts on the 5 Yamas that might make it easier for the Western yogi to understand and assimilate into his/her life.

AHIMSA – THE ACT OF NON-VIOLENCE

For many Western yogis this Yama is problematic in the sense that many yoga teachers immediately associate it with their diets and going vegetarian, not harming animals by not eating them and some teachers will paint the horrors of abattoirs to the yogis to drive home their point. However, those same teacher’s fridges are packed with amazing veggies, fruits and nuts flown in from the Middle-East, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. All the linen, plates and glasses in their cupboards are imported from China – because it was so cheap!

My approach is to consider the violence that was perpetrated against the Earth to get those magnificent veggies, fruits and nuts to South Africa. How much Ahimsa is in your decision to buy imported stuff from China if you consider their poor human rights record (think Tibet here), disregard for the environment and life in general, lost jobs in your own country because you support them by buying their goods?

For me Ahimsa starts with the little things we do. Support local farmers and their produce, that way you keep people in a job and you minimise your violent carbon foot print on the Earth. Support local industry by buying what is produced in your country at much better quality usually that the stuff from China. Once you have done that, then consider more challenging issues such as vegetarianism, again nobody says you have to be a vegetarian to do yoga, but perhaps you can support Meat Free Mondays or cut back on your meat consumption to say three times a week initially?

I know many yogis who are vegetarians who commit so much violence against their bodies because they insist to follow a lifestyle that is strictly speaking not suitable for everybody. They are ill, have all sorts of muscular problems, so many is diabetic and most of them are severely depressed due to a lack of B-vitamins in their diets and resort to violent medication to help them “cope” with life – not much Ahimsa in such a life either.

SATYA – THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE

Most of us try not to lie, we earnestly strive to be honest in our daily life and for most Western yogis this Yama is actually the easy one. Thou shall not tell lies, is one of the 10 Commandments so we grew up with it, we are experienced in this Yama.

However, Satya is more than just not telling lies. It is about telling the truth about yourself as well. It is a known fact that people, who are honest about themselves to others, are in fact much happier than individuals who withhold info about themselves or who pretend to be straight if they are in fact gay for example. This extends to your truth on your spiritual life as well; do you live two spiritual lives – one for the yogis and one for the friends and family not to upset them too much? Sometimes it is difficult and scary to that honest as we all fear rejection, judgement and criticism. But, living in fear constitutes living a lie and it is not worth the sadness and anger that comes with such a life.

Satya has wonderful benefits and here are a few to ponder and consider:

  • Truthfulness grounds you in yourself. We weather the emotional storms much better when we are truthful, we are less dependent on approval from others and the pressure to conform is reduced.
  • Truthfulness makes you trustworthy—both to yourself and to others. Other people see your transparency and feel that they can trust you.
  • Truthfulness deepens relationships.   It opens the door for genuine intimacy.  Your honesty promotes honesty in others.  It empowers them and gives them permission to be honest themselves.    When people share honestly with each other about their feelings and their needs, everyone is more likely to have their needs met.

ASTEYA – DO NOT STEAL MY ENERGY

Again Asteya is a Yama that we are familiar with in the Western and Christian view of the world. It is one of the 10 Commandments and a Yama that we practiced since a very young age. But I want to look beyond the physical act of not stealing to the subtle art of spiritual stealing that most of us commit.

When we speak about theft at its core, it is when a person believes that anything is his – his money, his belongings, his spiritual growth, his spiritual connection. When a person is of the consciousness that these things are mine, he is stealing. Why? Because the truth is that everything is from the Divine. Nothing is really ours.

Your daily life is made up by the concept that this is mine and that is yours and we get upset when people intrude and “steal” from us. When we start to implement and practice Asteya it is inevitable that our worldview will also start to change from mine to ours. As long as we belief this and that is mine, it obscures our truth (Satya) and almost every argument and every form of negativity that comes about in a person’s life is based upon this concept of mine. And that is the stealing, to which I would like to refer here.

BRAHMACHARYA – A LIFE WITHOUT SEX?

In the classical understanding of yoga Brahmacharya refers to exactly that, celibacy, life without sex and this is a ghastly thought for many Westerners as most yogis in the West today are not monk, sannyasas or ascetics living in mountain caves or ashrams somewhere in the Himalayas. No, most Western yogis are householders, they are already married or in relationships and this will be an unfair expectation to most. On another level we refer to it then as fidelity in your relationship, being faithful and trustful to your partner in life. However, I want to look at the spiritual aspect of Brahmacharya.

We live in an age where we are bombarded with new spiritual ideas and concepts on a daily basis. And the temptation to take from that path and from this one and from that one is great, because we see in each of them something that rings true for us. However, my yoga teacher, Sri Durga Devi, was adamant that once we have investigated and explored all the paths, we should choose a path and stick to that path. Be faithful to that path, defend it no matter what and this is the spiritual Brahmacharya we all must practice at some point. My path is the path of yoga, I’ll defend it always and first and foremost I will promote it as one of the best paths to follow, I’ll always answer a question with yoga philosophy in mind, I’ll always ask myself what would my own teacher have said. The value of practicing spiritual Brahmacharya to your path is legio, but the greatest is that your focus is concentrated and you can make much bigger spiritual jumps than when you are unfaithful to your path and take a little from this path and a little from that one.

APARIGRAHA – DO I WANT OR DO I NEED

The principle idea behind Aparigraha is that we should strive to live a life that is not ruled by greed. Problem is in the World today we have constructed a world economy and financial system that is inherently based on greed. It is also in the nature of humans to want to have more and big business knows this and they pounce on this human trait by means of advertising which is based on fear most of the time.

In South Africa there is an advertisement for a large banking group where a man stands in a shop looking at a pair of shoes and he really desire to have those shoes. Then there comes a voice that asks if he wants it of if he needs it? His answer is:”I want to need it!” Unfortunately this is where the good part of the ad stops, next moment they offer him a credit card with which his greed is then fulfilled.

Most of us are on a daily basis torn between what we want and what we need and the practice of Aparigraha becomes so much more important for us. When I am torn between what I want and need, I always take a moment and ask myself do I really need this or is it just my greed, my fears that let me belief I want it. It’s a simple practice, but it has helped me not only to save thousands of Rands over the last ten years of my life, but it has paved the way for a simpler and less complicated existence as well, and there in is the value of Aparigraha for the yogi.

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Be the Force of Change

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Flow with change as the tree would!
Flow with change as the tree would!

 

My dear yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to say that the only constant we can be sure of is change. Change is inevitable. No matter what we do, it is busy happening right now, even while you are reading this article, change is happening in the NOW all the time. Change is the way of the Universe and of the Divine, change is the creative Force that ensures the evolution of our souls, without it we cannot make our spiritual jumps.

However, humans are afraid of change and for that reason we resist change. Change challenges us on too many levels and it brings greater awareness into our consciousness and that relentless wave of choice after another we have to make can be tiresome and scary for many. Instead of embracing change, many of us choose to rather live in a fearful place, where we lie to ourselves about the Truth of change. How we deal with change can change how we create a better life for ourselves. How we accept change into our lives as part of our spiritual evolution cannot only change you, but also the world around you. It is a law of the Universe, when you start to change, the world will change with you. The secret is how to successfully deal with change and how to ensure that we make positive changes and I hope my article will inspire you to incorporate change in your life.

Change happens

This is the way of the universe. And this is the dilemma for most people. If we keep on resisting change it usually happens in any case with a huge bang, calamity or crises in our lives. Either you make the change or something is going to make the change for you. The secret is to learn how to deal with the force of change in our lives. So instead of resisting, why not try to flow with change, anticipate the change you need to make and implement it in a structured way in your life before the Universe force the change onto you!  Yes, I know, sometimes change is forced upon us through events and people outside of us over which we had no control. But, instead of going into panic mode, try to look at the change in a calm way and see you can deal with it immediately and how you can accept the changes it will affect in your life.

Control your Response

So, we have learned that change will happen, no matter what. The next logical notion will be instead of fearing change, why not rather focus our energy on our response to change? And this boils down to the choices we make in life. While most of us like to see change as just another obstacle in our way, we are frustrated by that obstacle and the choices we must make and we choose to ignore it. Instead of ignoring it or seeing it as just another negative in your life, change your mind about how you perceive change itself in your life. See the choices you have and see them as opportunities, a window opening, a fresh approach and become a vehicle for change and not the one that tries to block change all the time. And the approach starts with making choices that you are happy and comfortable with. Yes, sometimes we must make difficult choices, but those choices will serve you well in the long term.

What we resist, persists

The truth about this statement from Jung has another side to it: that which we resist not only persists, but also grows in size! When we start to accept that change is part of us and who we are to become, then only can we start to dissolve the many issues arising from resisting change in our lives. We will try to erect many barriers to protect ourselves against the onslaught of change, we have our comfort zone where things are so good we don’t want to change them. We prefer the familiar and known rather than the unfamiliar and unknown. We don’t like surprises and will avoid them at all cost. And finally, ignorance is bliss, or so we think! We can live just so long in ignorance until change will force you out of it and usually in a violent way if you don’t implement change.

In order for the tree to sprung new leaves, blossoms and fruit in spring and summer, it has to give up something and as such, we need to learn that change means to give up something in order for the new to come forth in our lives.

Allow change to become a positive force in your life, let it not be the monster you fear, but make it your friend, allow it to become the force that helps you to improve your life, finding new meaning and a different way of seeing your life. And lastly, realise that if you hold onto things for too long, they will start to hurt you. Out of denial and fear we may choose to ignore the signposts along our journey, but ignoring those signs will only lead you to more trouble and difficulty. Read the signs, pay attention to them and if it says the road will curve to the left in front, don’t try to force straight ahead, rather follow the curve and you might be surprised about what is around that corner!

Awareness expands

This is the great outcome of accepting change in our lives: our awareness grows exponentially with it. The quality of our lives will change, because we come from a place of positive energy instead of negative resistance.  The beauty of change is that it expands our wisdom. We come better prepared for our world and what it will throw at us and we have peace about our path in life. Changes afford us new ideas and experiences and this in turn develop our understanding and expand our awareness not only of ourselves and our place in the Universe, but also of others and how we impact them.

We sit in a room with many windows and doors around us, but due to fear and denial, we become too fixated on this one door or one window, that we tend to forget to see the other windows and doors in our room. Close your eyes, now take a deep breath in, open your eyes and look around you, your room is full of other windows and doors, beaming with opportunity for you. In the words of Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Mudras – Spiritual Non-Verbal Communication

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meditation_0Introduction

We are all familiar with non-verbal communication – it is that aspect of our daily communication that requires no words, but rely on facial and body expressions, hands gestures, frequency of glances, pupil dilation, blink rate of the eyes, aspects such as pitch, volume, intonation and rhythm of the voice it also includes aspects such as the space and time around our bodies and environment. Non-verbal communication represents two-thirds of all our daily communications. All these indicators help us to code and decode messages from and to other people and as humans we are very good at it. We are constantly busy interpreting what other are saying to us non-verbally!

Only a small percentage of the brain processes verbal communication. As infants, non-verbal communication is learned from social-emotional communication, making the face rather than words the major organ of communication. As children become verbal communicators, they begin to look at facial expressions, vocal tones, and other non-verbal elements more subconsciously. We are fluent in non-verbal communication long before we are fluent in words and sentences.

Spiritual Non-Verbal Communication

Mudras (the word means gestures) are the non-verbal communication aspect of yoga and Spirit. We employ our hands, face and even full body to activate certain energies on the subtle level of our existence and we communicate these energies to Spirit with the help of mudras. A mudra is a spiritual gesture and an energetic seal of authenticity employed in the art of communicating with Spirit.

When we sit for example in Padmasana (lotus pose) we not only stimulate the process and flow of prana or energy in the body and on the subtle levels, but we are also indicating to Spirit our intention of sitting for meditation and thus inviting conducive energies to flow while we are in this state of meditation.

Different Mudras

In Tantra Yoga there are 108 mudras that we use to communicate to Spirit what we want to change, achieve or influence during such a performance. It is not the goal or scope of this article to give a description of all of them, but I would like to share a few general and powerful mudras with you and encourage you to please use these mudras when you feel the need for them.

8 Basic and Important Mudras

Mudra Prayer1. Atmanjali Mudra (Gesture of Prayer) – The gesture is used for both greetings and farewells, but carries a deeper significance than a simple “hello” or “goodbye”. The joining together of the palms is said to provide connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and represents unification or “yoking”. This yoking is symbolic of the practitioner’s connection with the Divine in all things. Hence, performing Atmanjali mudra is an honouring of both the self and the other as the gesture acknowledges the divinity of both practitioner and recipient. On a spiritual level it communicates our devotion and readiness to give gratitude to the Divine for all our blessings. It also expresses our reverence to the Divine.

 


Mudra Comp 12. Abhaya Mudra (Gesture of Promising Protection
) – Is a hand pose that is the gesture of reassurance and safety, which dispels fear and accords divine protection and bliss to the devotee. In Abhaya mudra, the right hand is held upright, and the palm is facing outwards. This is one of the earliest Mudra found depicted on a number of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina images. This mudra is usually used by a spiritually stronger person (like a deity, master or guru) to dispel fear in his/her disciples and to bring calmness into their hearts and situation. This is also a mudra that is depicted in Christian Iconography of Christ. We see Christ promising protection though this mudra to his flock.

 

Mudra Comp 23. Varada Mudra (Gesture of Granting Wishes or Mercy) – It indicates a gesture by the hand and symbolizes dispensing of wishes or mercy. For Varada mudra, left hand is used. It is held out, with palm uppermost and the fingers pointing downwards.  Again this mudra is mostly used by a spiritually advanced soul like a deity, master or guru, and is used to indicate that you need to practice the art of forgiveness in order to receive certain wishes or mercy. We see this mudra being used extensively in Christian depictions of the Christ when he shows his wounds in his hands to his disciples, which demonstrates the Great Act of Mercy the Christ performed on behalf of all his followers when he granted forgiveness to all by his sacrifice.

Mudra dhyani4. Dhyani Mudra (Gesture of Meditation and Contemplation) –  This mudra forms into a sort of bowl in your lap and is commonly used in meditation. This is symbolic of emptying yourself to be filled with light. The gifts of light might come in many forms, like expansion of consciousness, greater insight or ease of mind. The point is to let whatever comes come, and trust that you are being cared for. The hands and fingers form the shape of a triangle, which is symbolic of the spiritual fire within all of us. When we assume this classical meditation mudra, we are indicating to Spirit that we are ready allow the Divine Force to act within me and for me. It is an indication that we surrender to Divine Will.

Mudra jana5. Jnana Mudra (Gesture of Knowledge) –  In Jnana mudra the hands are placed on the knees in seated meditation with the palms facing up. This mudra gives a feeling of spaciousness and has a subtle uplifting effect on the body and mind. In both Chin and Jnana mudra the connection made by the thumb and index figure is said to create a kind of circuit by connecting the terminus of certain nadi thus re-circulating the body’s vital energy. This mudra connects us on a subtle level to the vast body of spiritual knowledge in the Akasha (ether) and increases our spiritual wisdom.

Mudra Chin6. Chin Mudra (Gesture of Consciousness) –  This mudra is used in either seated meditation or pranayama such as ujjayi. The hands rest on knees or thighs facing down. This Gesture has a grounding effect on the mind.The middle finger, ring, and little finger represent the three classic qualities of all of nature (the Three Gunas). The middle finger symbolizes sattva, (purity, wisdom and true understanding) the ring finger rajas, (action, passion and movement) and the little finger tamas, (inertia, lethargy and darkness). Classically the yogi is meant to transcend these states, progressing from darkness into light and from ignorance to wisdom. This mudra symbolizes the connected nature of human nature (prakriti) to that of Divine consciousness (perusha) and that we strive for greater connection with the Divine.

Mudra yoni7. Yoni Mudra also Uttarabodhi Mudra (Gesture of the Highest Enlightenment) – Yoni is the origin of life. The yoni is also considered to be an abstract representation of Shakti and Devi, the creative force that moves through the entire universe. This mudra connects us with the Mother Principle in the Universe and as such serves to inspire us. It connects us with the Divine Mother and as such to the creative force in the Universe. Yoni is our muse or Divine Inspiration.

 

Mudra Pran8. Pran Mudra (Gesture of Life Flowing) – In this Mudra the tips of the thumb,ring finger and the little finger are touched together while keeping the other two fingers straight. It awakens the dormant power of prana within us and as such provides us with energy when we need it most. On a spiritual level it keeps us alert and helps us to maintain clarity during meditation. It anchors us in our meditation and as such strengthen our meditative resolve.

Spirit provided us with powerful communication tools, of which mudras are extremely powerful, but also safe to use. I encourage you to explore the use of mudras in your life and use them on a regular basis, they have a profound influence on your spiritual awareness and evolution.

 

 

Maya: The Illusion is True

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If there is one idea in yoga philosophy that is difficult for most Western yogis to grasp and to get used to, it is the idea of Maya. Over the years as a yoga teacher I have come to realise that even harder than karma or reincarnation to digest, is the theory of Maya for Western yogis and I hope that this article will shed some more light on the subject for them.

The Goddess Maya

From Samkhya

Samkhya, also Sankhya, is one of the six (astika) schools of Hindu philosophy and classical Indian philosophy. Sage Kapila is traditionally credited as a founder of the Samkhya School. It is regarded as one of the oldest philosophical systems in India. Samkhya is an enumerationist philosophy that is strongly dualist. Samkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two realities; Puruṣa (consciousness or God) and prakriti (phenomenal realm of matter or nature). Jiva is that state in which puruṣa is bonded to prakriti through the glue of desire, and the end of this bondage is moksha(liberation).

From this dualistic view flows the idea of Maya. Maya is part of prakriti, it is the realm in which we as reincarnated souls function within the limits of our karma and Maya serves as the catalyst through which we can experience prakriti. However, Maya is also part of this bondage or Moksha and we need to remember that all these constructs, Prakriti, Maya and Moksha are not real, they are part of illusion, the unreal, hence the famous words from the Shanti Mantra: “Om asato maa satgamaya, Tamaso maa jyotir gamaya, Mrityor maa amritam gamaya” (Lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to immortality.)  The only aspect that which is then real is Puruṣa as it is God or that part of us which is Light, Real and the only Truth.

The world of names, forms and constructions is then Maya. It is our human nature (prakriti) to names things, to put them in categories and to organise them down to the smallest atom and even name those atoms into smaller parts. And this is Maya, while in a body it has purpose and it helps us to make sense of a very complex world, but once we are dead this system has no use to us. We don’t know what awaits us on the other side and even if we will need these Maya constructs to function. It is generally accepted that we forget them as we exist then in Puruṣa, pure consciousness and there is no need for these constructs that we have created and learned while in prakriti.

The Western Dilemma

The main dilemma for most Western yogis are that we grow up with such a strong sense of our world and our bodies, that to tell us suddenly that your body is only an illusion is a bigger shock to the system than the law of karma. As one of my yogis once challenged me in class to come and feel, smell and even taste her body and tell me it isn’t real! For the Western mind the world around us is very real and no illusion, it is a place of joy and sorrow, ups and downs, love and hate and much more. So, to tell a grieving mother and yogi that the death of her 11 year old daughter is only an illusion is no comfort to such a person, but adds to the confusion and sorrow.

True vs. Truth

For me illusion or Maya is true as long as I have a physical body and ego! Yes, my body is true: – I can feel it, smell it, taste it and even sometimes hear it function. I can perceive my body with all my senses. My emotions, my nature, my personality, all these aspects of me and the world around me are true as well. There is no illusion in that. There is even no delusion in that as well. It is also true that we construct words and ideas to describe and categorise our world around us and these constructs are also true and necessary to function in Maya. It is important to realise that all of Maya is true; there is no need to deny our prakriti of even Maya, in doing so we delude ourselves even more and association with our ego becomes stronger.

But is it the Truth? No, it is not the ultimate Truth, this body, this world with all its constructs is not our ultimate Truth. It is not really who we are and that is the path of yoga, to guide us to understand that while Maya is true, Maya is not the Truth! The ultimate Truth, that which is Real, the Light, call it what you want, that is what Maya serves us to discover, Maya is the great reminder that while certain things are true, it is not the Truth and that we are on a path of discovery. The discovery we need to make within Maya is to realise the Truth – and at that a very hard thing to do as well. So Maya helps to differentiate between that which is true and the Truth.

Brahmacharya – a modern interpretation

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brahmacharya_blog_imageIn classical yoga the yamas-niyamas are very demanding obligations. They represent the yogi’s commitment to a life where ethics, discipline, constraint and self-control plays and integral part in the spiritual as well as mundane life of such a yogi. For the serious yogi they are his/her way of life and there is no negotiation. In Patanjali’s framework they are absolute in their compliance and meaning and very little room for interpretation.

In classical times, yoga used to belong to the sphere of the Ashram where monks and sannyasa (final stage of the ashramic life, total renunciation) and other spiritual aspirants practiced yoga. The yamas-niyamas were their guidelines for right conduct and they were prescribed and followed to the letter. However, by 1947 when India gained independence from Britain, yoga was practiced as an exception and not a rule. Many of the gurus and swamis of the time were extremely worried about the lack of interest in yoga in India during this time. This prompted great yogis to send disciples to the West to promote yoga and Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh to send his disciple Swami Vishnu-Devananda in 1957 with these words ‘many souls in the East are reincarnating in the West. Go and reawaken their consciousness and bring them back to the path of yoga.’ And the stellar growth of yoga in the West is from there astounding till this day.

But with it came a huge problem, many of the Western yogis were normal householders, they were married and many were initially part of the Hippie Movement in the 1960’s where especially the Brahmacharya yama was extremely problematic in an age of free sex. I have read many interpretations and as a teacher it remains the most difficult yama to explain to students who are married and have a duty and obligation towards their partner regarding sex. All the explanations of being constantly aware of the universe, immersed in divinity, divine conduct, continence, celibate when single, faithfulness when married etc. has never really satisfied me or my students and I hope my interpretation might add another view on this very important yama.

Unfortunately in the West we had mistaken the yamas-niyamas as a canon of behaviour, describing what is preferred and what is not. We have classified and codified them as superficial guidelines to regulate and explain certain behaviours, choices and even personality traits. The problem is they are not any of this, no matter how much we want them to be the above, the yamas-niyamas represent distinct classes of human manifestation and need not be narrowly interpreted as doing this or that.

Brahmacharya or “abstinence from sex” is a classic example of loss in translation. I do not think for one moment Patanjali was so naïve to overlook a need for the perpetuation of the human species and sex is the vehicle for that. I also am certain the Patanjali realised the pleasure factor that goes with sex. And in a way I think if he wrote the Yoga Sutras, which contains the yamas-niyamas, for the ordinary man, he would have most probably worded Brahmacharya completely different.

I think that Patanjali had no problem with sex between two people in a loving relationship per se. I think he most probably would understand the need for sex and also the pleasure we as humans derive from it. What I do think would have been problematic for Patanjali in this context would be total over indulgence and our mind’s attachment. And I think for that matter Patanjali would have a problem with over indulgence whether it was sex, eating, gambling, gossip, judging other, internet surfing, addiction or anything else.

One of the great pitfalls for many yogis is attachment. Our attachment to indulgence in anything is then a problem. For me in a modern Western context, Brahmacharya is then not a warning not to have a sexual life, but it is a warning against something much deeper – our attachment to such acts as sex and the pleasure we derive from it.

I know may yogis who are guilt ridden because they find Brahmacharya just so difficult to adhere to. This guilt burns them up and instead of becoming more joyful and contends with life, they fall into depression, anxiety and a life of guilt. They way out is to realise that Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras for a completely different audience than who is doing yoga today. I don’t even think that Patanjali contemplated the possibility of yoga in the West and how it morphed into different branches and styles. The way out is to understand the necessity for sex, but without the over indulgence and attachment to it.

Right Student vs Right Teacher

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On the social media networks, i.e. blogs, Twitter and Facebook, I recently followed a hot discussion about how to find the right yoga teacher and issues such as qualifications, ability to do intricate and all asanas, ability to explain yoga philosophy and to understand yoga in the larger “Hindu” context, all came up as relevant “qualifications” for a competent yoga teacher. The discussion even went so far as to discuss reasons for having an affair with your yoga teacher and then morphed into a discussion when and why you should dump your yoga teacher. The issue of one teacher versus a variety of teachers, styles and classes also came up for discussion.

However, the entire discussion failed to mention the role of the “student” in this whole process. Basic issues like the duties, responsibilities and commitments of the student were never even mentioned. No one touched on the inherent nature of the teacher/student relationship and the way we learn any discipline like yoga. Yes, yoga is a discipline and in the word discipline you can even read the word disciple and while most yoga students are looking for a teacher, most teachers are looking for disciplined disciples. The “teacher” question is handled more like I am going to shop something these days rather than this is my teacher, this is my student, what do we mutually bring to the mat – discipline and commitment.

Yoga student

  1. Interaction: You have shopped around, phoned a round and looked around and have been to a few classes and suddenly most students think they are now able to make a judgment based on a single interaction of not even two hours. Allow yourself plenty of interaction with your new or chosen yoga teacher before you decide he/she is not for me. Take at least a month and then make the decision.
  2. Senior in training and experience: Many students walk into a class and simply forget this simple fact; most teachers are still very much senior in training and experience. Period. And even though they might not be able to do all asanas, they do have an intimate knowledge about yoga and how it can help you.
  3. Odd and weird behaviour: So you have your eye on a teacher, but he/she has a few odd behaviours or he/she talks about topics such as karma and reincarnation and you don’t agree with it? This is the most dangerous trap you can fall into! To simply judge a teacher based on odd behaviour, they way they look or talking about stuff I don’t like or agree with, that is subjective and extremely short sighted and will rob you of the opportunity to actually learn something. To say that there is not a single thing to learn from any senior person is highly pretentious and makes such a person a ‘bad’ student.
  4. Your commitment: Regularity, urge to learn, passion for practice, humility, desire to transform, perseverance and much more is needed by a student to learn even from the ‘best’ teacher. Do you have these qualities? There are many yoga aspirants, but few yoga students and teachers are looking for those students who have the commitment to stay even in the face of the humiliation when the teacher starts to expose your ego.

Yoga teacher

  1. It is a spiritual path: Yoga is a spiritual path. You may wish to ignore it, you may think that you teach just asana, but eventually yoga leads to the spiritual even though you may just teach asana. One can see it as anything else only if there is an overriding personal agenda or a conditioned, anaemic view of spirituality. Unlike other religions, yoga upholds a 3-tier model of spirituality of which the physical is an integral part and gross asanas go hand in hand with subtle meditation. That’s why yoga can be viewed as absolutely material or absolutely esoteric or anything in between. Being essentially spiritual, a yoga teacher has to have a different kind of relationship with the students. A yoga teacher has to show a much deeper understanding of the psyche and the spirituality than physical wellness.
  2. Sharing insight: A yoga teacher has to go far beyond the qualifying few hundred hours of training and be open to the opportunity to learn and gain insight from your own practice every day and your students.  If you think you are above learning then you are wrong and shouldn’t be teaching.
  3. You are the mirror: If you see your student only as a source of income, you have to think twice about why you are teaching. Yes, the exchange of energy, physical for monetary, is important, but you are the mirror for your students and as such a ‘source of redemption’. Can you reflect back to them and ensure that what they see is what they need to learn? And vice versa, can you look at them and see those aspects of yourself which they reflect back?
  4. End it now: A yoga teacher should know instinctively how far he/she can guide a student and at what point to hand over to the next teacher. If a student has any amount of discomfort it is the teacher who would know that first and care for it. A student is his/her ‘total’ responsibility. Such a teacher is called ‘guru’ and by that yardstick many certified teachers may be just ‘demonstrators’ of athletic skills. Like a true leadership is not residing in a leader but embedded in the followers’ mindsets, a yoga student’s allegiance to a teacher has to be born in the student’s self-view and not on a signed form. Know when to end the teacher/student relationship with a student, no matter how painful it may be.

Learning

All our learning is incremental. We learn a new thing only as an addition to the already known, and also use the known as a filter in the learning process. It is difficult to learn to learn; especially with the pedagogic constraints of school education. Mind plays a catalytic role as well as an indulgent one. So, in learning how we learn we have to use the mind to discover its mischief and finally keep the mind away. In the process we have to change our natural outbound orientation to inbound. An external teacher can help us tremendously in the external practice, but progressively less & less once the student is firmly rooted in the inner domain. In yoga too we get launched like a satellite; need a booster rocket of an external teacher for the initial lift off but the same rocket becomes a drag after reaching a desire altitude. Then, the teacher can only guide, protect and sync leaving the bulk to Ishvara, the inner guru. After all, yoga is considered largely a ‘process of unlearning’ and how will we ever begin to unlearn by not knowing how we learned in the first place.

Looking at it this way makes it easier to understand why the Vedic literature often assures us that ‘your guru will find you ’. It pays to take whosoever happens to be your teacher. Even an ‘apparently not-so-good teacher’ may fall in certain scheme of things, odd for common sense logic, but will enhance your yoga. Trying situations are meant to be teaching situations.

Wishing all aspirants well in their search for a teacher and all teachers well in their search for those committed yoga students.

With gratitude to Suhas Tambe, author of The Making of a Yoga Master: A Seeker’s Transformation.

The Basic principles of spirituality

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Many BuddhasThe importance of spiritual practice

If you go onto many yoga websites and especially yoga forums and start to read through the issues and comments and pay attention to who publish them, one soon realises that there are two huge misconceptions prevalent under most users.  The first misconception under Westerners is that yoga is just a set of exercises and they don’t want to acknowledge or have anything to do with the spiritual side of yoga. The second misconception is prevalent under the Asian users, especially Indian, who think that yoga in the West has been perverted to a set of exercises only by those who want to line their pockets. Both misconceptions of course carry some truth in it, but both also generalise tremendously.

My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to say that it doesn’t matter for what reason you practice yoga, whether it is purely as exercise or for more, the spiritual impact and implication of yoga on your soul is inevitable. I am doing yoga now for 14 years of which I am teaching 6 years. In all these years I have seen it over and over how people come to me for yoga and they are only interested in the physical exercise aspect, but end up so absorb and enchanted by their spiritual growth en newly found spirituality. At this point I usually remind my students that yoga is a process of transformation and every aspect of you are touched by that transformation, you cannot avoid it, as sure as the sun will rise and set, so sure this will happen.

Why does this happen? All beings strive to attain and maintain a level of happiness and in yoga this happiness is referred to as Ananda or Bliss. The truth about Ananda is that it cannot be acquired through education, wealth, toys and gadgets or the fulfilment of other earthly desires through entertainment. But Ananda is achieved through a spiritual practice and discipline such as yoga and the spiritual practices associated with yoga such as meditation, satsang, karma yoga, bhakti yoga and more.

When students become aware of this spiritual growth and evolution in themselves, they usually ask me what they can do to ensure greater progress and maintaining this level of Ananda.  As with most things in life, we needs rules and discipline to ensure that we hold onto that what we have achieved and spiritual progress ask for a spiritual practice which is aligned to a few basic principles. These are my basic principles and I trust that you will find their value in your own life as well as they have proof themselves over the years to be highly effective:

1. The summit of the mountain is the same for all

When we start out at the foot of the mountain we are usually not even aware that just a few metres away somebody else is also starting to climb the same mountain. The paths start far apart, but as we progress up the mountain and the paths draw closer to each other and the summit, we suddenly realise we are not alone on the mountain. There are others as well and we all are heading to the same place – the Divine.

It is important to recognise that there are as many spiritual paths as there are people. As a yogi and spiritual traveller we need to understand this and respect each path as truth, no matter how much we might feel that ours is the one and only and correct path. The notion of correctness must be abandoned and replaced the awareness that all is appropriate.

In a spiritual context each of us is a unique blend of the the following parameters.

  • According to the composition of the 3 subtle basic components (Trigunas) i.e. whether one is sattvic, rajasic or tamasic by nature.
  • According to the five cosmic elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether)
  • According to the degree to which, different aspects of spiritual practice, have been completed in prior births.
  • According to the individual karmic account of give-and-take, destiny and wilful action.
  • According to our temperament – person may also adopt a certain path depending on his/her temperament.

2. Our essence is One

For many Western yogis who come from a Christian background this is an easy concept to understand and grasp as we grow up with the notion that God is One. From a spiritual point of view we have to take it a step further. We need to realise that “the kingdom of heaven is within us” and as such our essence is the same even though we may differ on the outside. The underlying awareness is that we are ALL Divine in essence and that we need to recognise the Divinity in each other and respect it.

Just as we realise that the true essence of the gold earring, necklace and armband is gold, although each looks different and functions differently, we recognise and realise that the underlying truth of those items, their commonality, is gold.

3. Progressing from gross (tangible) to subtle (intangible)

As we progress on our path the next step is to cultivate awareness regarding the states of existence around us. If we want to make progress we need to transform our spiritual practice by going from just physical actions to a practice at a more subtle level. A subtle spiritual practice is more powerful than a gross one.

To explain: Sometimes you will meet a person at a meeting, you will shake hands with that person and will be courteous and cordial even to the point where others around you might think you two are good friends and like each other. However, the physical display of friendship was merely a façade from both sides in order to get a favourable outcome to the meeting. On the other hand, two people may feel genuine goodwill towards each other, even though there may be no physical contact.

Likewise, when it comes to practicing Spirituality, simply going through the motions of external ritualistic worship (gross level), with no devotion, needs to be replaced by having real inner devotion to  the Divine and an intense desire for spiritual growth (subtle level).

4. Your spiritual practice must reflect your inner level

This is one of the great dangers of the spiritual path and can throw many off the path if they are too impatient initially on the spiritual path. I have seen this many times, people discover their spiritual path and the more you as the teacher try to caution them to take it slowly, the more they push forward. It is like going to school, just because you can suddenly read and write doesn’t mean you can now skip grades and progress instantly from grade 3 to grade 6! Many aspirants look at the teacher and think teacher has attained his/her level overnight, not realising that their teacher and fellow travellers are on their own paths for years now already.

However, for the patient student who is willing and prepared to follow the teachings of their teacher, progressing according to their spiritual ability and capacity, the reward at the end is great. Just as we must heed against impatient and forced development, so we must heed against getting stuck on one level of our spiritual practice as well.

Let us go through the various stages of development from the more gross forms of worship to the more subtle forms as per the level of the seeker:

  1. At an initial level, we feel that we can make contact with the Divine, only by going to a place of worship and through praying to a statue of God or a Divine being.
  2. As we progress the next steps is when we feel a connection with the Divine, not just through rituals, but through reading spiritual books whilst sitting in the place of worship, while doing yoga or just watching nature.
  3. Usually the next step is that we even feel that words are too gross and we become aware of the “vibrations” of a place. Just experiencing the vibrations in a church, temple or at a spiritual place such as the Buddhist Retreat in Ixopo or going to India are enough to spiritually nourish a person.
  4. After that we do not need to even go to a place of worship but can experience the Divine in the beauty of Nature, high up in the mountains, at a serene lake, watching a bird feed or the sun setting.
  5. At an even higher level, we do not need nature anymore but can experience the Divine even in daily living and at great will. No matter where you are, there is a quit presence within that permeates all in your life now.

5. Making your spiritual jumps now

The parable of the sower in the Bible immediately comes to mind here. I know many would like to read this parable as an indication that karma and reincarnation is present in Christian dogma and I am myself very partial to it. However, I also feel this parable has a deeper lesson for us and that is that we need to understand that there is an appropriate time for all things to happen in life. If seeds are sown in the dry months instead of the rainy season, then we will have no harvest. Similarly on the spiritual path, certain spiritual practices are more conducive according to the time (yuga) or era we live in.

Yuga in Hindu philosophy is the name of an ‘epoch’ or ‘era’ within a cycle of four ages. These are the Satya Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dvapara Yuga, and finally the Kali Yuga. According to Hindu cosmology, life in the universe is created and destroyed once every 4.1 to 8.2 billion years, which is one full day (day and night) for Brahma. The lifetime of Brahma may be 311 trillion years. The cycles are said to repeat like the seasons, waxing and waning within a greater time-cycle of the creation and destruction of the universe. Like Summer, Spring, Winter and Autumn, each yuga involves stages or gradual changes which the earth and the consciousness of mankind go through as a whole. A complete yuga cycle from a high Golden Age of enlightenment to a Dark Age and back again is said to be caused by the solar system’s motion around another star. Currently we are in the Kaliyug and as such we are very far from the Sun. The ages see a gradual decline of dharma, wisdom, knowledge, and intellectual capability, and life span, emotional and physical strength, here follow a brief explanation of each yuga:

Satya yuga: This was a very pure era when the average spiritual level of a person was 70% (this is the level of a Saint). These people were so pure spiritually that the Path of Knowledge was best suited to them as they had the potential to spontaneously understand the implied meanings of all the spiritual scriptures.

Treta yuga: This was the era when the spiritual level of the average person dropped to 55% and so they lost their potential to follow the Path of Knowledge. But they were spiritually capable enough to undertake penance (the kind that allowed a seeker stand on one foot for 12 years) and meditation (the kind that made a seeker meditate long enough for an ant hill to grow all over him).

Dwapara yuga: In this era, there was a further decline in the average spiritual level to 35%. People lost their potential for rigorous penance and sustained meditation. Thus it was Divinely ordained that they would be able to make progress through ritualistic worship. These rituals and sacrificial fires (yadnyas) were very time consuming and laborious as they had to be done after searching for the right ingredients. Along with this there were numerous steps that had to be followed to the last detail. But in this era people were religious-minded enough to spend the time, effort and money to do these rituals.

Kali yuga: This is translated as the ‘Era of strife’ and is the current period. The average person’s spiritual level has dropped to only 20%. Our capacity to do any of the above spiritual practices has greatly reduced. But considering the turbulent times we live in and the extent of the spiritual pollution we experience – the Divine has made a simple provision for us to still grow spiritually. And as Sri Durga always pointed out, your greatest spiritual jumps you can make in the kaliyug as the opportunity to grow spiritually is also magnified for those who stick to their path and their discipline.

6. Give according to your talent

All of us have some kind of resources at our disposal. A basic principle in spiritual practice is that we use these same resources to serve the Divine as part of our spiritual practice and grow spiritually. The resources we have fall broadly into four categories: our body, our wealth and worldly connections, our mind and intellect and lastly our sixth sense.

We can use our body to serve the Divine by for example cleaning a venue before a yoga practice or spiritual lecture starts. We can use our body to drive other seekers to the venue or we may offer our body to assist with the lecture or teaching.

When we are unable to offer our body, we can offer our financial resources as way to serve the Divine. We can help to pay for others who don’t have enough, we can ensure that out contributions to our spiritual teachers and institutions are regular and on time in order for them to serve us spiritually.

It is important to apply your good intellect and mind to spiritual practices that may advance others on the path. For example, you can be a guest writer on a blog such as this one if you feel you have something to share, or you can share your knowledge and experience of yoga and spiritual forums.

Lastly, all of us were born with a sixth sense; some just allow it to develop further than others. If you are gifted with a strong sixth sense the onus is on you to use it to facilitate spiritual growth in yourself and others.

In conclusion

The spiritual path is like any other path, there are signs that will indicate where you must go now or what you must do next. Some signs will stop you for a while and then there may be obstacles on your path which will require much effort and persistence to overcome. Sometimes there are exits on the path and we are tempted to take those exist, but I implore you to stay on your chosen path. If you cannot even see you hand in front of you so thick is the fog on your spiritual path, realise that you are not alone and ask for help as well sometimes or accept help when it is offered – it might just clear the fog for you. Stay on your path, but if you need to change tyres or even the vehicle, then follow your instinct and do it.

Same on the spiritual path, to make progress we must traverse all the signs, obstacles, spiritual potholes and other conditions to make progress. Sometimes we need to change from one teacher to the next, but ensure that it will further you on the path. Sometimes your own teacher might give you warnings about upcoming dangers, heed these and don’t think your teacher is just difficult or feeble. However, also take time to enjoy the journey, stop sometimes and remember to just breathe as well!