Tears welling up in his eyes, the young yoga teacher looked me in the eyes. "What people think of yoga nowadays is simply a joke. What my teacher taught me and what my clients want from me are two totally different things!"
His own teacher was a yoga expert and had spent quite a few years being trained by him. He told me of his lifestyle, doing his practices at regulated times, the diet was monitored and how by following a simple life his mind was peaceful.
"What people want is a 15 minute workout before lunch. But yoga is more than that, it's a lifestyle!"
Is yoga just about the stretches?
It wasn't the first time I had a conversation like this. Many view yoga as gymnastic exercises done in the yoga studio for the sake of stretching the body at best. I was no exception. Just because I saw the billboards and advertisements I labelled yoga as just another way to exercise the body.
Now, however, being armed with a bit more spiritual knowledge, I sympathised with the yoga teacher.
The Bhagavad Gita, the prime yoga text, explains yoga as a process that helps us go beyond the body and mind. It helps us understand that we are not the body or mind rather the spirit within and how we can connect to the Supreme Self, the Absolute whole. The physical postures or poses (known as asanas) are part of the preliminary steps in the hatha yoga (also known as astanga yoga) system. In Chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, the topmost yoga mystic, explains the step-by-step process of hatha yoga.
First one needs to learn what to do and what not to do. For example you have to live in a secluded place, on a particular type of mat, sitting in a particular posture and you have to follow a strict diet. Krishna mentions more items but you get the idea. It's definitely not the standard lunch-time work-out!
After this you learn the asanas (the postures) then the breathing exercises. Following the breathing exercises one learns how to meditate and withdraw the senses from perceiving the world around you. I suitable example is like how a tortoise withdraws its limbs within its shell to prevent being harmed, a yogi (a practitioner of yoga) withdraws his or her senses within so it does not get distracted and carried away by external stimuli.
Gradually one is able to sustain a focused concentration in one's meditation to the extent one becomes completely absorbed (trance) being in contact with the Superself. In this state one is free from all anxieties and distress.
In the stage of perfection called trance, or samadhi, one's mind is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of yoga. This perfection is characterized by one's ability to see the Self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the Self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact. (Bhagavad Gita 6.20-23)
This is just one yoga process. Can you imagine yourself doing all of that? To top it all off if you fail to perfect your yoga practice you will have to start again.
Krishna gives us a better process. One without any pre-requisites and you get the maximum return. Whatever advancement you make remains with you like having a permanent bank balance. If you stop your practice you start from where you left off. The yoga process is called Bhakti yoga, the art of devotion.
Spiritual credits never disappear like a permanent bank balance
The primary practice of this process is mantra meditation. You can do it anywhere and at any time. All you have to do is remember the Maha mantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.
Repeat it loudly and clearly hearing each word carefully. The idea is that by engaging the sense of hearing we start where the other yoga practices finish and even go beyond that for a more complete spiritual perfection. By chanting the Maha mantra you can get free of all anxieties and distress. What's more you can come in contact with the Superself.
That's when you go from escaping the monster of distress to tasting and relishing genuine spiritual happiness.