“Faith is taking the first step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.” Martin Luther King Jr.
There are many firsts in life; a first step, first bike-ride, first hike, first job. Yoga-asana practice, has many firsts as well – first yoga-mat, first yoga teacher, first yoga class, first yoga retreat, first yoga chant, first yoga text. Of course, if you didn’t have a ‘good first yoga’ impression, it is difficult to get a second chance to create a first impression. This becomes a hurdle to get to the next stage of practice. But once you cross this ‘first’ hurdle, and seriously commit, practice becomes surreal.
My first yoga experience is an amusing story. I did not frequent many studios or try different styles, although this is how many make their choice. There is some wisdom in doing this as long as one doesn’t fall prey to their likes and dislikes. That makes commitment to a style or studio challenging. I am grateful to have skipped this step.
Anyhow, at 6 months pregnant, I was introduced to Prenatal yoga by my husband’s cousin; my first exposure to yoga. She, at that time, had been taking classes at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India. She gave me a handbook specific for prenatal issues published by the institute. I read through the book and was diligent with the practices as they helped keep my back pain-free and my mind calm. Having had lower back issues for a few years and frustrated with not finding a remedy, this was a welcome relief. I promised myself to continue ‘yoga’ after delivery as well.
But first, I had to find a yoga studio. Few had heard of Phoenixville, a little town in eastern Pennsylvania, where I delivered a beautiful baby girl and where we settled for 11 years. Six months after my daughter’s birth, I discovered YogaLife Institute, a small studio that had recently opened 3 miles away. The name sounded familiar, but I was focused on the short drive to my first class. The thought that the studio in Mumbai, India and this one in Phoenixville, PA were related, never crossed my mind.I remember being excited, ready for my first class, my first impression. There was a room in the back where the students were filing in, books shelves on the left with small plant, an incense plate, a small couch and a couple of chairs. Bob (my teacher) was at the desk on my right, speaking with a student. After a casual greeting he told me that the first class was free. I remember thinking that was good and that I did not have to worry about coming back if I didn’t like it. Obviously, that’s not what happened at all. I signed up for the next session on the spot and haven’t looked back since.
Here is what some might call a coincidence, while I feel that I was truly blessed. As I was signing up for the session, I was surprised to see a set of thin books on a corner table titled Yoga for Total Health, Rs.15, currency of India. Curious, I asked Bob about it, he said that he had done his training at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, where those books, a monthly journal were published. My mind overflowed with questions for him. Since I had just met him, I decided to hold off the inquisition. Anyways, it didn’t matter; the decision was already made. I paid for the sessions, thanked him and left.
My first impression; was it the day I was introduced to the prenatal practice or the day I took the class at the studio? I chose YogaLife Institute, without knowing that the prenatal practices that provided physical relief and emotional respite, came from its parent studio in Mumbai. But I also chose YogaLife because I was inspired by the introduction to the eight limbs of yoga in the first class. So began my first phase of Raja Yoga study with Bob, which continued for the next 10 years. I am blessed.
Eight-Fold or Eight-Limb yoga is referred to by many names. In the text, Yoga Sutra, it is called Kriya Yoga. Self-Realization Fellowship by Paramahamsa Yogananda uses the name Kriya Yoga, which involves other breathing protocols as well. Moreover, in Sanskrit, the term for eight limbs is ashtanga, (ashta – 8, anga –limb). But, Ashtanga Yoga that is popularized, is a set of asanas (primary & secondary series) taught by Sri Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. The term Raja Yoga, was propagated by Swami Vivekananda, as the eight-fold path that is complete within itself. Whatever the name, it is the wisdom within the eight limbs that matters the most. For those who put their effort, the Yoga Sutra gives clear instructions on how to enable the practice. I cannot begin to explain what the practice of these eight limbs has taught me.
First and foremost, these eight limbs must be studied frequently. Each time I read through them, new insights emerge that support my practice. I have slowly and tediously applied them to my life, experiencing both failures and successes. Being in the YogaLife Institute setting initially, helped me as I was able to study it each time the topic came around in the teaching cycle. Experimenting with them in daily activities has brought them to life. Raja Yoga has certainly kept my yoga practice fresh and dependable. I am on this path for the long haul.
I can be the first to tell you that the eight-limbs of Raja Yoga is good for you. But you already knew that. I can be the first to also tell you that it takes hard work and commitment to persist in the practice. But, you know this too. Then, I can be the first one to tell you that there will be failures and successes, although the failures (opportunities to do better) may outnumber the successes. Of course, you know this as well.
But please, let me be the first to tell you that when and not if you begin on the path of Raja Yoga, you will be guided all the way. Moreover, Sage Pathanjali assures us that these practices will transform our personality from selfish to selfless, from uncaring to loving, and ultimately from human to divine. This is the privilege of yoga that we will receive. There is no doubt about that.
The first draft refuting this privilege is yet to be written.
Rama, Swami. 1979. The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA
Vivekananda, Swami. 1920. Raja Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, NY, NY
Butera, Robert. 2009. The Pure Heart of Yoga: Ten Essential Steps for Personal Transformation. YogaLife Institute, Devon, PA