When I started on the path of yoga, I became constantly aware of ways to get to the next level. After practising yoga intensively for six months in London, I decided to take the plunge and come to India. Here, I came to perfect my āsana practice and understand more about what yoga is. Here are five things that I’ve learned while practicing yoga in India.
1. Yoga Is More Popular In The West
In the West, yoga is literally everywhere. There are yoga schools at every corner, with all kind of styles. Even gyms are expected offer yoga classes as part of their package deal. The awareness for yoga and meditation in the West is growing at the speed of light, and yoga has even become something sexy, cool and visible everywhere in magazines and online.
After five months in India I’ve realised that although yoga originated here, the image of yoga is far from being what it is back home. Surprisingly, most Indians are not aware of the many benefits of yoga and many only see it, as a last resort ‘go-to’ measure for someone who has a problem, be it physical or psychological.
Yoga doesn’t have the ‘cool’ image that it has in the West, so youngsters don’t easily come into yoga — but slowly things are changing. Thanks to free yoga programs on TV, the declared International Yoga Day and all the cool, hippie Westerners around act as brand ambassadors for Indian youth.
2. Spirituality Is An Important Part Of Yoga
Before I came to India, I never thought of spirituality as part of my yoga practice. To me, spirituality and religion meant the same thing, and as far as I was concerned both were to be avoided. I was practising yoga as a way to fix daily pains and discomfort in a very methodical way, and although I quickly felt some benefits, I never thought yoga and spirituality could go hand-in-hand.
After starting my yoga courses in India it became clear to me that there is simply no yoga without spirituality. It would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower! I’ve also learned that spirituality is different than religion. Courses include things like chanting mantras, which are Sanskrit prayers, but at no point do you feel that you are being converted to Hinduism. Mantras are just one way to reconnect with yourself and call out to your own spiritual power; for example, the chanting of AUM at the beginning and end of each and every class.
While at the beginning it felt slightly awkward, experiencing the benefits and learning about the scientific evidence helped in enjoying this powerful practice. Everything in the universe is pulsating and vibrating – nothing is really standing still! The sound AUM, used in mantras, vibrates at the frequency of 432 Hz, which is the same vibrational frequency found throughout everything in nature! As such, AUM is the basic sound of the universe, so by chanting it we are symbolically and physically tuning in to that sound.
In addition the vibrations and rhythmic pronunciation also have a physical affect on the body by slowing down the nervous system and calming the mind. Beginning and ending our yoga practice with AUM helps to connect in a deeper way than with physical postures alone.
3. Yoga Is A Lifestyle
When I first started yoga, I became crazy about it. Why not? I felt amazing after the first class only, and quickly felt the need to go again and again. Again, at that point yoga only meant performing series of physical postures after which I could return to my ‘normal’ life, feeling refreshed and more relaxed.
In India, I have learned that yoga is a way of life. It’s a 24/7 mind-set that starts from the moment we wake up until bedtime. Of course we don’t all need to become full-time yogis. For some people, an hour of yoga twice a week after a long day of work is enough, but the way I see it is, why stop a good thing? In coming to India, I got a glimpse of the enormous potential that yoga can provide at all levels of the being, physically of course, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Once here, I started changing my routine to fit with a more genuine yogic lifestyle. This meant things like waking up when it’s still dark outside, preparing diligently before stepping on the mat, and practicing every day no matter what.
Then comes food. No matter how committed I was, I realised that the food I eat will directly set the mood for my next yoga class. Not only should meals be light and evenly spaced out, but I‘ve also learned to listen more to my own body. Something that is good for others might not be good for me. Even more surprising, my body started refusing certain types of food! This turned out to be a common side effect. Beware, after practicing yoga for a while your body may naturally start rejecting certain food that doesn’t work. Apparently, this is absolutely normal, and can even be a good thing!
4. Ulterior Motives Are Not Allowed
Practicing yoga to only lose weight, to look fitter, or be part of a ‘cooler’ crowd, is not even close to what yoga really is. Yoga is not about increasing flexibility and strength because if that were the case, then all Olympic gymnasts would be enlightened. What India has taught me is that the ultimate and only purpose of yoga is achieving balance, by bringing the body and the mind into harmony. Six-pack abs can’t compete with that!
5. Yoga Off The Mat
A couple weeks ago, I was attending a yoga course in Dharamsala. I had been in India for a few months by then, and I’d started to feel like I had made a lot of progress. I felt comfortable holding my āsanas for longer, I could synchronize my breathing and keep my awareness in the right places. I really felt proud of myself — all my efforts were paying off.
At the end of the course, the teacher immediately turned that on its head by saying, “Although the yoga class is over, remember that when you step off the mat, that is when yoga really starts.”
This was a great reminder about what yoga is. Everything that we do on the mat — the tension, the struggle, the pain — it’s all there to help us when we step off. It improves our capacity to withstand life’s obstacles, increases our flexibility and resilience and pushes us constantly to achieve a better version of ourselves. Ultimately, yoga will not only enhance our own lives, but all those we interact with as well. And so far, I think that’s what yoga is about.