As a long-time advocate of meditation and yoga, no one is happier than me to see the rise in popularity of Eastern wisdom in the West. People are enjoying spiritual practices all over the world now – from meditation in Sydney to pilates in New York, and from yoga asanas in London to Ayurveda in New Delhi. As more and more friends take up yoga, though, I often wonder about how their paradigm of “yoga” compares to my own.
To most, yoga means physical postures. They think of yoga as a particular style of stretching. Few people realize that the physical postures, or asanas, are very much distinct from other systems of stretching, and are just one aspect of a much broader field of spiritual knowledge. Yoga literally means union, and in the deepest sense, it refers to union of the individual self and the cosmic self.
The Yoga Sutras of Maharishi Patanjali, composed around 200 BC, are considered the most authoritative text on the philosophy of yoga, and they contain three sutras that I think every Western yogi should know:
1.2: Yoga is the complete settling of the activity of the mind.
2.46: Asana is steady pleasantness.
2.47: Asana is perfected by relaxation of effort and the dawn of unboundedness.
To me, these are the yardsticks for measuring up effective yoga asana practice. These are also what set yoga, and in particular, asanas, apart from any regular system of exercise or stretching. Regular exercise actively engages the mind; Yoga results in the complete settling of the minds activity. Stretching is tough; Asana is steady pleasantness. Stretching involves strain and effort; asana is perfected by the relaxation of effort.
Next time you practice yoga, measure your practice up against these sutras – these yardsticks of true yoga. Does it result in the complete settling of your mind? Do you experience steady pleasantness? Does it involve the relaxation of all effort? And last but not least, the dawn of unboundedness… do you feel a growing affinity between your individual self, and the cosmos as a whole?
If so, you’re practicing true yoga!