Tagbhagavad gita

Time to get reading – getting into Yoga Philosophy during lockdown

Time to get reading - getting into Yoga Philosophy during lockdown

As yoga teachers and students, how important is it to know about the philosophy of the yoga we teach?

Yoga Philosophy is a vast subject; the Vedas, the Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads, to name but a few. You could spend a lifetime studying just one of these. But yoga is a physical practice, so do we need to know about the philosophy of it to be fully-rounded yogis?

The answer is – why don’t you try it to see?

While we’re in lockdown, we have no choice but to become stiller. We can’t rush about, make plans and run into the future. We have more present moments. So let’s take this time as a gift to expand our mental and spiritual worlds, while our physical world can expand only as far as the local park.

Why study yoga philosophy?

Let’s look into the ‘why’ a bit more. In ancient times yoga was passed from guru to shishya (pupil). The knowledge of yoga was passed on orally, but most of this teaching is now lost.

What was retained is now written down in books. ‘It is difficult to learn through books, but they are our only means of progress until we come across that rarity, a true teacher or master’ says B K S Iyengar in his introduction to his ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’.

The yoga that we practice is incredibly important but, once we add in the theoretical knowledge, there comes a deepening understanding of WHY we do all this stretching stuff in the first place.

It becomes less about how many likes we can get for our latest yoga post on Instagram and more about the deep-seated motivation for getting on the mat every day.

But it’s important to remember that knowledge without experience is meaningless. It is better to come to the philosophy of yoga once you have an established home practice; then the meaning of what you’re reading is illuminated by your own experience.

A (very) brief history of Yoga Philosophy

We don’t really know when yoga began, but the estimate is around 2,500 years ago. Modern Yoga is an amalgam of lots of different Indian forms, but the earliest mention of yoga in a written form is in the Upanishads and the Mahabharata.

The Upanishads are part of the Vedas (meaning ‘wisdom’) – ancient Sanskrit texts, which are a collection of spiritual teachings and the basis of Hinduism. The Mahabharata is an epic tale (the other one is the Ramayana), which tells of the wars between two groups of cousins, as well as lots of devotional and spiritual teachings.

Within the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna’s teaching is infused with yogic concepts.

Following on from these works is possibly the most important philosophy of Yoga; the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Written somewhere between 500 and 200 BC, it is a collection of 196 aphorisms covering all aspects of a yogic life. It is called Yoga Darshana, which means Yoga Mirror, as the effect of yoga is to be like a mirror held up to show the seeker their true self.

In the 15th century, the sage Svatmarama wrote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Light on Hatha Yoga), which is much closer to a manual than the other works and is more like the yoga that we recognise and practice today.

Where to start

But where do we start? As yoga teachers, the most obvious place to start is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. As an Iyengar yoga teacher, I start all my classes with the traditional chant to Patanjali, so it would be a bit remiss of me to chant away to some sage I have no idea about.

However, if you’re expecting a handy guide on how to do yoga, you’ll be disappointed. The sutras are a series of aphorisms that take you deeper and deeper into the heart of yoga.

First of all, it helps to invest in a good translation, as it’s not an easy text. The one that I go to is B K S Iyengar’s ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’, but there are other good versions out there.

There are four sections or padas of the book.

  1. Samadhi pada – on concentration, or contemplation
  2. Sadhana pada – on practice
  3. Vibhuti pada – on properties and powers
  4. Kaivalya pada- on freedom from attachment

The first deals with where you’re heading – samadhi. It’s an aspirational way to start and is directed at those who are already well on their way to enlightenment. The second sutra in this section is the definition of yoga that most of us have heard of:

Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness

The second chapter is for the less spiritually evolved (so, most of us) and covers the eight limbs of yoga, as well as the three great paths of yoga; Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga.  The third chapter is about the divine effects of yoga and the eight supernatural powers, or siddhis. These siddhis include the ability to change size, weight, to attain every wish and to gain power over all things – so eat your heart out, Marvel.

The final chapter is about achieving kaivalya when the sadhaka (seeker) attains liberation from the extremes of pleasure and pain and lives in a state of virtuous awareness.

Things to bear in mind

It’s not a religion. According to Patanjali, those who practice yoga can be of any faith, colour, creed, or sexual orientation (well, he didn’t say that, but I’m extrapolating). Anyone can do yoga, and their beliefs and values will be strengthened by the practice and philosophy.

Don’t be overwhelmed. Yoga philosophy was studied by sages who literally did nothing else, for their whole LIVES. Even in lockdown we still have a whole host of ‘things to do’. I return to the same chapters of my books over and over again. Sometimes, if I have 5 minutes, I just open the book at a random page and read what swims into view and just digest that one section.

Take notes. Have a notebook that you keep to hand, and then when something makes sense to you, jot it down. Or keep a handy guide of the meanings of some of the recurring words, like samadhi.

Where to finish

This is a tongue-in-cheek heading, as anyone who even delves just the tiniest bit into this vast subject knows that there is no ‘finishing’ this subject. Just as we never stop being students of yoga, we never stop being learners of yoga philosophy and where yoga strengthens body and mind, the philosophy of yoga brings spiritual health to enrich your yoga journey.

Poppy Pickles

Four Paths to Yoga: Karma Yoga

Four Paths to Yoga: Karma Yoga

The subject of yoga is like Doctor Who’s tardis. Despite its apparent simplicity, yoga, once opened up seems to be as vast as the universe itself. Take, for example, the path of yoga. It’s the eight-limbed path, right? Well yes, but, no, wrong. There are actually three other yogic paths, that are also routes to the same end.

These four ‘routes’ all lead to the ultimate goal of Moksha, or liberation.  They are; the path of action, the path of devotion, the ‘royal’ path of yoga (or the eight-limbed path), and the path of philosophy or knowledge. They are called, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Rajah Yoga, and Jnana Yoga.

The yoga that most of us think of us ‘yoga’ is Rajah Yoga. But we’re going to focus on the first of these paths, Karma Yoga.

Why are there four paths?

Just as all of us have our unique strengths and natures, there are different ways to find the path to bliss. For the intellectually-centered, Jnana Yoga, the path of philosophy is the route to take. For those that are heart-centred, they will be drawn to the devotional aspects of Bhakti Yoga. And the doers amongst us will find their route to self-realisation through selfless actions – Karma Yoga.

However, while some natures are better suited to one path or the other, they are not separate or non-interchangeable, and most of us can walk all these paths at different points in our lives.

What is Karma Yoga?

karma yoga others heart wellbeing
Image Credit: Eternalhappiness via Pexels.

We already know the term ‘yoga’, and most of us are familiar with ‘karma’ too. Karma is the sum of our actions, built up over our lifetimes (and previous lifetimes too if you believe in reincarnation). If your actions are for the good of others, then you’ll accrue good karma, and if your intentions are greedy, lazy or selfish, then equally you’ll build up bad karma. Karma Yoga is about learning to act with completely pure intentions, without any motivation of reward or recognition.

The Bhagavad Gita also gives an explanation of the term Karma Yoga:

Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive, and never cease to work. Work in the name of the Lord, abandoning selfish desires. Be not affected by success or failure. This equipoise is called Yoga.’

How do we do Karma Yoga?

Karma yoga is the active pursuit of good actions without thought for oneself. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” This doesn’t mean just be really busy. Most of us are pretty good at being busy already, without any further encouragement. It also doesn’t mean just being a doormat, rushing around and looking after everyone else.

It can be as simple as volunteering for a local charity and giving your time without any thoughts about how great it will make you feel or how good it’ll look on your CV. In the small, but perfectly formed book, Yoga, the author, Ernest Wood, explains:

When the actions of daily life are permeated by the buddhic devotion to life, those actions become yoga, karma-yoga. Every action can thus be yoga. Washing dishes with love is yoga. The actions going on in a dishwasher are not.

Here when he says ‘buddhic’, this doesn’t relate to the religion of Buddhism, but to the Buddhi, which is our intelligence centre.

Karma Yoga and Dharma

There is also an element of dharma, or duty, to Karma Yoga. Doing one’s duty, as our dear old Queen would say, is pretty unfashionable these days. Being dutiful is seen as being passive and dull. But having a sense of duty, or knowing one’s duty, can be part of acting in a Karma Yoga way.

Karma happy smile wellbeing
Image Credit: Mentatdgt via Unsplash.

The idea of duty as set out by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is that all beings are dependent on each other, and therefore, it is your duty to use your natural talents and abilities, as well as your position in the world (such as a position of power or responsibility) for the welfare of everyone around you.

 

In other words, it is your duty to be as wonderfully you as it is possible to be, not to show how wonderful you are, but because it will benefit the world.

Karma Yoga and Yoga

In Yoga, Ernest Wood writes that it is the duty of the yoga teacher, not only to teach yoga but to encourage their students to do ‘right actions’. This means not acting out of a desire for bodily pleasure or self-satisfaction, but acting with a sense of sacrifice, so that there is no personal attachment to actions.

How can we do this ourselves as teachers and students of yoga? We can spend a little more time on self-examination. How do we know whether our actions come from the ego, or from a place of intelligent sacrifice? We have to use our ‘buddhi’ – the intelligence centre mentioned above.

karma yoga open arms
Image Credit: Lucas Pezeta via Pexels.

In the end, the purpose of Karma Yoga is not to label each action, ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  It is that it gently encourages us to use the deep-seated wisdom that is already present inside all of us. To use this wisdom to move away from habitual actions and to really live our lives in as present a way as possible. As Ernest says:

Joy goes with the whiteness of the karma-yoga, because there is more life in it.

Poppy Pickles
For inspiration

What’s the Story with Kirtan?

kirtan music story sing

Yoga is a vast subject, and just when you think you know all about it, a whole new yogic practice hoves into view that you know nothing about – step forward, kirtan. So what’s the story of kirtan? Put simply, it is yogic chanting, meditation through song, or communal meditation. It is an ancient practice that is being brought bang up-to-date and steadily rising in popularity here in the UK. So here’s a handy guide to kirtan, from its ancient origins to its modern-day form. (more…)

Poppy Pickles