“My studio is doing a special 2 hour yoga class for Yoga Day. Looking forward to practicing the poses.”
“Guess what? The YMCA is adding an outdoor yoga class this evening. And, the studio in my neighborhood is also hosting a lunch time yoga class along with some healthy snacks. I’m planning to go to both.”
“Did you hear Kathy’s gym is holding a four hour yoga class today? Can’t wait to sweat it out on the mat.”
What did you do this Yoga Day?
Sept 27th, 2014 was the day Mr. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, proposed International Yoga Day at the United Nations General Assembly. A day dedicated to create awareness to the practice of yoga with an intention to spread peace and harmony across the globe. June 21st, 2015 marked the first celebration of this day and it is gaining popularity each year.
Over the years, many of us have been a part of yoga awareness seminars and workshops before a day was dedicated to yoga. June 21st being summer solstice, studios usually plan special classes surrounding Surya Namaskar, sun salutations or various ‘sun’ meditations. A few times, a handful of fellow practitioners planned an outdoor practice of asana and meditation, followed by music around a camp fire, a healthy picnic, celebrating Mother Nature with gratitude. One year at the YMCA, we dedicated a whole day to yoga practices where students could walk in at their convenience and try variety of classes (asana, meditation, pranayama) offered within various levels (beginner, intermediate, senior, kids) by different instructors all the day long. Each year I have looked forward to these gatherings and am grateful to have enjoyed many a summer solstice celebration under the blue skies.
It is surprising that the word yoga continues to be synonymous with asana, poses. While asana is an appetizer and has its wonderful, and a much needed place in yoga, this tells me that there is more work to be done to dispel that myth and educate the masses about the depths of yogic practices. Understanding ‘what is yoga‘ may be the place to begin.
Yoga is the embodiment of the eight fold path, Raja Yoga. Each of the eight steps help us work towards transforming our body, purifying the mind and consciously dwelling in the spirit. Once you have been initiated into Raja Yoga, it is up to you to begin your efforts to employ any means to cultivate the discipline for a regular practice. These steps awaken inner subtler parts of ourselves to become aware of our habituated patterns of behavior and thoughts in order to begin this transformation.
The key word here is “cultivate”. Discipline can be cultivated. Just like you have repeatedly trained yourself to perfection in certain negative habits, training in the opposite behaviors is also achievable. You must have a burning desire and indomitable will to achieve it. And, companionship with other ‘buddy’ practitioners is essential to build a network of support to sustain these practices.
So, if we proclaim that we are students of yoga, we certainly know it’s benefits. Then, our intention must be to spread the word about Raja Yoga – as to its practice and benefits. Each bringing a friend or family member join us to partake in the yoga day celebrations is a good start.
In Samskritham, the word ‘yoga’ comes from the root- युज्, yuj, meaning “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach”, “to harmonize”. It is empowering to know that we – as a collective can make a difference by practicing yoga together. Imagine going to a neighborhood studio or gym to participate in various yoga practices with lofty intentions – starting with wanting to become healthy by alleviating aches and pains, to attaining peace and joy. Of course, we begin with baby steps to initiate transformation within ourselves and by extension, become a catalyst to bring peace and harmony to the world.
And, if we proclaim to be teachers of yoga, then our responsibility is much more. While it is a great beginning to take students through an enjoyable asana, pose practice followed by a restful relaxation in shavasana, corpse pose, we must also teach specific tools listed in the Yoga Sutras that have clearly proven their efficacy in creating a transformational practice. For example Y.S. 1:33-34 gives us a fantastic tool called Pratipaksha Bhavanam, the yogic practice of opposites. Here, one begins to consciously understand the presence of duality and becomes empowered to look at life through the lens of healthy, positive opposites. In fact, each of the eight steps of Raja Yoga is a technique in itself. How amazing is that!
As a yoga teacher, it is exciting when new students walk in, as I get to introduce them to this life changing practice. Each time a handful of students who practice regularly ask questions about how to deepen their yoga, it is a pleasure to lay out the next stages of this glorious practice and support them as they make their way navigating each new territory.
Each of us who have had good teachers know how important it is to say encouraging words at the outset, to demonstrate the correct techniques, and to follow through with our own practices. Most importantly it gives us, teachers, an opportunity to practice sharing the joyful seriousness of yoga practices as egoless actions in the spirit of service, and at the same time, reminding ourselves to be eternal students.
Yoga Day, 2018
Instead of sitting within the four walls and complaining that the world we live in is becoming more corrupt- ask how can we – each one of us contribute to steer it in the positive direction. Transformation starts within each of us first. One can only change the person in the mirror.
Here are some questions we can ask ourselves frequently in order to initiate and sustain a wholesome transformation. For example, do I practice asana with competition? Did I learn a breathing technique that helps me calm my anger and cultivate compassion? Or did I learn a meditation technique that supports my daily activities – at work and at home?
Yes, transformation is a slow process – it takes patience, perseverance and practice. Industrial revolution did not happen because people sat on their front porches, playing their ukulele after a scorching day of cotton picking. Electronic and Computer revolution did not happen because people spent their evenings watching movies at the neighborhood drive-in. Then again, in spite of ukulele and drive-ins, we are reaping the benefits of these revolutions now.
In this age of internet addiction, even yoga mat creators and yoga tights designers spend laborious hours in the processes of designing and have been extremely successful in marketing them to you, the customer – that the whole experience of yoga is a fancy outfit and a designer yoga mat with its various accessories of non-skid gloves, socks, etc. But where is the transformational philosophy?
As much as I enjoy a new yoga mat, cultivating the restraint of ahimsa, non-harming in action, speech and thought has been exciting as well as an exhausting practice. For example, becoming aware of my tone of voice in the spirit of ahimsa, to convey the right message has been the hardest. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Likewise, learning the ethics of Yama and Niyama so that the values remain at the forefront while discussing controversial issues or when gossiping; or understanding that the effect of pranayama in movement and it’s calming effects on the mind, can deepen the practice of yoga. And, training the senses in Pratyahara to help us withdraw the mind from temptation, redirect it inward and attach it to a higher purpose in Dhyana, meditation will bring us closer to the true meaning of yoga – perfect peace and spiritual union.
It is hard work but persistence pays. Find a teacher who can introduce you to the philosophy of Raja Yoga. You will not regret it. Together, let’s help spread the word that Asana, pose practice is only the beginning – this is the message for this year’s yoga day.
Happy Yoga Day!