by Kara-Leah Grant
There’s a lot of debate going on in American yoga circles right now about what is yoga and what is not yoga.
I’m no yoga scholar, and I know there’s various yogic texts which one can refer back to that expound on exactly what yoga is and isn’t.
Patanjali is oft-quoted, although he’s not the only guy that wrote about yoga back in the day. His take on it is simply that yoga is:
the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
If our mind was a pond, most of us have got a storm raging, day in and day out – a storm that we feed into and nurture and become so absorbed in that we don’t even notice it’s stormy.
We’re wet and we’ve got no idea why.
You could say that a yogi is someone who first becomes aware that there is a storm, and it’s messing up the pond.
A yogi then figures out he’s the one creating that storm, which leads to an ability to stop the storm… until eventually the pond is still.
Which has what to do with postures?
What’s the point of being able to do a perfect downward dog, or float effortlessly up into scorpion. How’s that going make for a still pond?
Well, lots actually.
It’s difficult to practice withdrawing energy from a storm when the body is too sore or stiff to sit comfortably.
It’s hard to even notice the storm when we’re so busy being the wind and the thunder and the lightening. Focusing our attention on the movements of our body and our breath as we seek to master downward dog is a tool that takes us to a place where we can see the storm, still the storm, and perceive the pool.
Downward dog’s not the end of the journey though, not by a long shot. And here’s where most yoga practitioners (and lots of teachers) get stuck – in asana.
It feels so damn good to learn to move our bodies like this, to learn to breath properly, that we become identified and attached to the very thing which aims to liberate us. (And I don’t mean liberate us from this world or our bodies, I mean liberate us from the illusions of our minds and egos. This world, and this body, rock!)
Even worse, we sometimes get stuck on an asana practice which exacerbates the tendencies of our ego rather than balancing them. Achievement Type A personalities who get right into Ashtanga Yoga and just keep doing it, over and over and over again. That kind of thing.
But getting stuck on an asana practice, or a style of yoga totally misses the entire point of yoga.
Which, by my reckoning, is to be able to dive into that still pool and go for a swim! Practicing Ashtanga over and over and over again isn’t swimming in a pool of stillness. It’s doing laps up and down an indoor Olympic pool while a drill sergent stands over you with a stop watch.
Which why I may never take another yoga class ever again. Screw swimming up and down indoor pools learning a particular stroke. I just want to frolic naked in the pool under a waterfall watching the reflection of the stars in the water.
See, post-LA, when I had the luxury of being immersed in training with Shiva Rea, I decided to go and take an Ashtanga class at my local studio. I’d done a class pre-LA, and it was wonderful. Loved it. Mainly because all the practice I’d done since my last Ashtanga class about six months prior meant I was finally able to get into asana that I’d only dreamed of previously. My ego was getting a boost, my practice was getting somewhere, I was achieving yo!
This class wasn’t like that. Something in me had changed. And I blame Shiva and her damn Sahaja.
The word means spontaneous, natural, born in that moment.
It’s the yoga that arises in the body when we allow Kundalini to dance with us. Shiva’s worked it into the public asana classes she leads, giving students permission to trust the innate wisdom within and follow the flow of their own movement. It’s absolute heaven.
And it’s the way yoga is meant to be practiced.
Yep, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I know how yoga’s meant to be practiced and it ain’t how most of us are doing it.
Oh, we’re on our way to it, but we’re stuck. Stuck in Ashtanga sequences doing a yoga designed for a young Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Which is not who we are. We are someone entirely different. So why are we practicing Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ sequence over and over again like it’s the path to the Holy Grail?
Because he told us to, that’s why. And we believed him.
Do your practice and all is coming.
Well yeah, sure PJ, but isn’t this your practice that we’re doing? (Which is all good and well, I’ve got nothing against Ashtanga. Great sequence. Great starting point. Just. Don’t. Get. Stuck. There!)
A yoga friend who’s studying in the lineage of Krishnamacharya, he that taught Iyengar, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and T.K.V. Desikachar, told me this jiucy little bit of yoga gossip. I’m repeating it in full violation of ahimsa because I reckon it’s the White Elephant in the room of modern yoga.
That Ashtanaga sequence was given to PJ by Krishnamacharya when PJ was a young man. It was tailored specifically for PJ, because that’s how Krishnamacharya believed yoga was meant to be done. Specific for the individual. Krishnamacharya, Shiva and I all have something in common there…
So then, how come, decades later, people all over the planet are doing that same sequence like it’s meant for them?
Maybe it is. Maybe whatever they’ve got going on in their gunas and doshas is similar enough to what PJ had going on in his that it’s working for them too.
Until it isn’t.
Which is what happened to me during that post-LA ashtanga class with a very lovely teacher I was incredibly mindful of not wanting to disrespect. However, as we moved through the sequence I could feel my body becoming more tense, particularly in the hips. The practice was aggrevating me, and it was not what I needed to be doing. Or it was not what I was ready to do in that moment.
Either way, I knew what I needed to be doing, I could feel the divine wisdom of my body whispering to me sweet sahaja, but I was stuck in a class doing a sequence some dude last century gave to another young Indian dude. All respect to said dudes.
Suffice to say, I modified and breathed my way through the rest of class as unobtrusively as possible so as not to disrupt the uniformity of the other students’ experience. Then I went home and did some yoga, albiet incorporating a nugget of wisdom I’d picked up in the ashtanga class which I wanted to explore indepth – something that has completely transformed my experience of downward dog.
A month of so later, I had an opportunity to finally take a class with another dear yoga friend who has such a lovely way about her I was salivating at the prospect of being lead in asana by her.
Different style, different teacher, same experience.
Barely out of our first downward dogs, I could feel my body mind spirit rebelling as it sought to lead me in one direction while the class went in another. I checked in with my experience – was it something within me resisting the class? Was this the ego mind at work, subtly masquerading as divine wisdom? Was I avoiding practice because of some fear?
Nope – the voice of the most-excellent teacher was drowning out my internal voice of divine wisdom, leaving me feeling disconnected and out of flow. All the while providing some beautiful points of wisdom and illuminating alignment cues. Again, I made it to the end of class yielding as much to the flow of instruction as I could without violating my own guidance.
Again, despite the conflict between outer teacher and inner guru, I still gleaned some useful information which has made all the difference to my practice.
And therein lies the paradox of my experience.
My practice has evolved to a place where I can still my mind and tune into divine wisdom and allow Kundalini to dance my body into asana that releases what needs to be released and strengthens what needs to be strengthened.
But I ain’t in Samadhi yet, no enlightenement here.
I still have blocks – places where the astute observation of a teacher or re-phrasing of an alignment cue can make a world of difference.
That ashtanga class has leap-frogged my downward dog into a place I didn’t know was possible. The most recent class has unlocked a vital piece of forward bends. Yet the idea of going into another yoga class and feeling trapped within the confines of the group practice gives me shudders.
Which is why I love Shiva Rea’s classes so much. She knows that Prana will lead the way, she embodies that grace and wisdom in her own practice, and in the way she teaches. Her classes do have set asana, but they also invoke moments of sahaja that allow students to let their own divine wisdom shine forth. She’s found a way to walk the delicate balance between form and expression. Uniform class practice and tailored personal practice.
In Shiva’s world, she’d love it if we all came to class, perhaps started together with a mantra and moving meditation before all diverging into our own practice, coming together only at the end. That would be yoga. That is yoga. Joyful expression of the goddess within.
Which is why all this debate about what yoga is and what yoga isn’t… is so silly.
Because it’s all yoga. At least, it’s all along the path of yoga. Or put another way. It is what it is, the only question that matters is, does that work for me? If so, I’ll use it. If not I won’t. But you can, go right ahead. It doesn’t offend me if it works for you. Why should it? Get all Slim Calm Sexy Yoga-fied if that’s your thing.
Why do I give a rat’s arse what kind of yoga you practice? I mean, really?
The only yoga I care about is my yoga – what works for me. What my body and mind needs. What’s going to balance me. What’s going to help my body sit comfortably in meditation so I can watch the storms begin to abate and the pond begin to still.
And I love my yoga.
My yoga happens often in the kitchen while cooking for my son as he plays in his high chair. It happens in the bath as I ponder the changing nature of my body. My yoga happens when I put Madonna on and dance around in the lounge feeling the joy of Lalita expressing herself through me. It happens down at the beach, in the park, on the trail, on the mountain. Anywhere where I feel nature becoming me.
My yoga is only ever a breath away. My yoga is God. It is Love. It is All.
But it sure as hell ain’t your yoga, and while you’re still clinging to a teacher, a style, a class… you’ll never know what your yoga is. And that’s ok. That might be right where you need to be right now. In that Ashtanga class. So enjoy.
But when you feel like there must be something more… when you can feel the subtle movements of Prana whispering to you from within… I dare you…
Let go, take a dive and sit in the not-knowing, because it’s time to go beyond what yoga is and is not.
It is time for Sahaja.
The tree grows according to Sahaja, natural and spontaneous in complete conformity with the Natural Law of the Universe.
Nobody tells it what to do or how to grow. It has no swadharma or rules, duties and obligations incurred by birth.
It has only svabhava – its own inborn self or essence – to guide it.
Sahaja is that nature which, when established in oneself, brings the state of absolute freedom and peace. ~ Mahendranath