What is Yoga?

As part of the RYT 200, we were all asked to write an essay as titled, ‘What is Yoga?’.
This is my take on it

What is Yoga?

I think it far easier to answer questions such as’ what is the sound of one hand clapping’ or ‘if a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody to hear it, does it make a noise?’

(the answer to the latter at the end)

Forty years ago, yoga, to me, created visions of scandinavian men and women, all in leotards and all with thick moustaches, as I’m sure they were the images impressed on me when I picked up a magazine about Yoga as a child in a dentists waiting room. Initially yoga for me was a memory of painful fillings.

Now, four decades later, Yoga is the fastest growing activity in the world and the leotards have changed to designer spandex and the dentist’s assistant is an Ashtangi.

Of course most people confuse yoga with asana – the bendy, stretchy stuff.

For some, yoga is endless selfies posted on social media showing off circus act feats, from head stands to handstands wearing designer clothes adorned with Om and Lululemon symbols mostly done in exotic locations or in front of a candle lit mandala or an iconic Hindu or Buddhist deity.

However, are these amazing contortionist images, pictures of someone doing yoga?

Of course not.

They are simply pictures of people showing off circus act feats, from head stands to handstands wearing designer clothes adorned with Om and Lululemon symbols mostly done in exotic locations or in front of a candle lit mandala or an iconic Hindu or Buddhist deity.

You cannot, by definition take a photograph of yoga anymore than you can take a picture of a dream. And whether you have long or short hair or wear a Saddhu beard or are clean shaven or dress in woolly Ecuadorian coats (fleece lined or not), play the pan pipes, eat only gluten free, sport Ganesh tattoos or are able to do a turn on a didgeridoo whilst juggling flames does not make you more spiritual or yogic ‘than thou’.

* As a side note I am considering setting up a male yoga shorts empire which will be branded as BudgieSmugglers (© Kev Ollier 2016) *

Some of the earliest photos of a westerner doing Asana were of the eventually- presumed- murdered, Theos Bernard in the 1930’s. Bernard’s  intention wasn’t for admiration or instagram hits but to show how to execute (possibly a bad choice of word) a particular posture to get an inner result.

theos11

 

Bernard was of one of the most influential Western Yogis of the twentieth century, whose guiding light was to know the truth, free from the trappings and tapestries of illusion.

So is yoga, asana?

Yes but mostly no.

Yoga is said to have derived mostly from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali of which there are 196. Compiled 400 years BC/BCE/CE, depending on your preferred acronym, asana is only referred to three times and yet the whole world now assumes that yoga is asana when asana is, in truth, a very minor aspect.

In the sutras, Patanjali suggests, when practicing asana, for it to be “steady and comfortable”.
“The body is held poised with the practitioner experiencing *NO DISCOMFORT*. When control of the body is mastered, practitioners are believed to free themselves from the duality of heat/cold, hunger/satiety, joy/grief, which is the first step toward the non-attachment that relieves suffering”

Surely that’s the whole point. That paragraph just quoted is probably it –  what yoga is, though I think even that can be minimised and summed up in one word……..but we all like to read volumes and volumes of books saying exactly the same thing, from Buddhist philosophy to the Gita to get to that all encompassing and simple word, so continuing on…

Listed below are traditional rules for performing asanas:

  • The stomach should be empty which means not eating for at least 3 hours before asana
  • During asanas force or pressure should NOT be used, and the body should NOT tremble.
  • Lower the head and other parts of the body slowly; in particular, raised heels should be lowered slowly.
  • The breathing should be controlled. The benefits of asanas increase if the specific breathing to the yoga type is performed.Having practiced asanas for 20 years I have witnessed that very few people follow even these. Navasana makes me tremble. In fact if I want to feel like I have rickets, Navasana ticks the box.The heart of Patanjali’s teachings is the eightfold path of yoga of which asana is only one and with modern hatha yoga aka Ashtanga yoga, this is seen to be ‘what yoga is’

    In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follows: Yama : Universal morality –

    Niyama : Personal observances
    Asanas : Body postures
    Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
    Pratyahara : Control of the senses
    Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
    Samadhi : Union with the Divine

     

    Anyone of us can experience something nearer to what yoga is whilst doing asana.

Many fingers point to the moon for us to experience yoga in asana, albeit with a different and revised set of distractions from the usual thoughts occupying our minds during our practice. Following and concentrating on one’s breath, having focus points within each pose (drishti), pulling in or up parts of the body rather than wondering what to make for dinner or being anxious of the day to follow or does my bum look big in this Lulelemon swimsuit?

An asana practitioner can spend a lifetime working out and feeling where the perineum is.
One can usually tell when someone is trying to find it as the face pulled is similar to that of a face that’s just eaten a non-agreeable Vindaloo – and there is someone in the loo.  (For the record, the perineum is  on the ‘bridge’ between the anus and the genital area/scrotum and trying to pull that centre up is akin to riding a see saw – you want the calming centre, not the ends)

The yogic distractions, if followed with meditative discipline, will bring you into your body and by default the postures will be deeper and more comfortable as your mind relaxes and lets go, but most modern classes, only having five breaths to work with in each posture, more often than not don’t allow time to get to those ‘spaces’ – for most people, and this could be why ‘Yin’ yoga is becoming more popular. There is fundamentally no difference between Ashtanga and Yin expect the length of time held in an individual posture. Yang is Ashtanga flow, Yin, Ashtanga slow. If we were to stay in each posture in a Hatha Ashtanga class for just one dedicated minute, it would do what Yin achieves, giving space and time for the mind and body to relax and be comfortable – apparently the whole point of Patanjali’s reference to asana.

This seems to be the whole point of asana. Without this aim, all we are all doing is stretching and bending. The mind has to be fully involved in the moment before becoming eventually uninvolved, which is nearing what yoga truly is, as far as my own understanding goes.

The book of books, the Bhagavad Gita concludes that yoga is simply doing what you do in everyday life without any attachment to ‘the fruit of your actions’

Donna Farhi – currently my very favourite ‘yogi’, once asked, in a workshop, what is yoga?. The usual stock answers were forthcoming of course but one girl said, and I paraphrase, that yoga is clearing up after a workshop, it’s helping the old lady across the road, it’s holding a door open for somebody. It’s doing RAOK (Random acts of kindness)

Currently it could be helping refugees in some way or it could even be feeling so much warmth and sorrow for Donald Trump. If you can do the latter, you’re nearly there.

So, what is Yoga? There are 7 billion people on Earth and therefore 7 billion correct answers but for me it comes down to one word.

Is that word, God? The problem with the word ‘God’ – a word I think should be banished from all language is that people perceive God as a person, a person to many in the west who looks a lot like Santa only with more sensible clothes and a longer, indeed eternal, Hell if you’re naughty, than just no presents on Christmas morning

The word ‘YOGA’, same as the word ‘GOD’ can be changed to another word and that is LOVE.

The ‘secret’ is seeing everyone as one of your own relatives or friends. The BIG ISSUE seller or the lady camping out every night in a doorway is your mum, sister, daughter, best friend. The abusive guy in the car that just cut you up is your son, brother, dad having a bad day. The refugees living in squalor in Calais are your family and friends but with all of these it very simply could be you. Compassion and Empathy is part of Love.

Practicing asana may eventually take you so deep into yourself that you can’t do anything else but to feel compassion and empathy, firstly for your own self and then, like gravitational waves from your own heart, to every being alive

Love.

To me that is what Yoga is.

As for the falling tree in the forest. No

Yoga. Why?

 following on from
https://kevollier.com/2015/05/25/so-18-years-on-to-be-a-yoga-teacher/

I think my decision to do the teacher training has brought up a lot of questions, particularly the one that will I ever teach? I’m not sure I will. I have no intention to but then I hear so many teachers say that they said the same thing right up until they were qualified. But other questions that have been loitering in the back of my mind have come to the forefront and the questioning of yoga has begun; it reminds me of why we should question everything which was brought home to me by David Icke, no less, who’s conference I attended back in 1991, (which was his post turquoise/pre lizard period). He was giving an example of why we should question everything (and in yoga that means questioning the seemingly ‘they know best’ unquestionables).
David’s wife
was cooking something for dinner but before she added this whatever – it – was to a pan, she cut the corners off it and the conversation apparently went something like this:

‘Why do you cut the corners off that?’
‘Well that’s how it’s done, it’s always done like this’
‘Who says exactly?’
‘That’s how my mother has always done it’
‘Yes, but why? Could you ring her and ask her, right now?’
So Mrs Icke calls her mum and asks why she always cut the corners off to which came the reply,
‘We had to, it wouldn’t fit in the pan otherwise’ !

Kev Ollier - David Icke

How often do we leave a slug of tea in the bottom of a cup still? A memory from when there were tea leaves and I always leave a pool of tea and yet I’ve never had tea leaves!

It was at a workshop with Nancy Gilgoff – who is one of the original western students who studied yoga under Sri Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India – where I learnt why we ‘supposed to’ do a 6 day a week practice ( I say ‘we’, but I really mean ‘they’) and not a full 7 days. It was simply because Mrs Pattabhi wanted to go shopping with her husband and so it was changed from a 7 day to 6 day practice to placate her. This would then follow, that had she insisted on three days with her beloved, then the western Ashtangis would be doing a 4 days a week practice.  Who says it has to be so many days a week? Was it just Pattabhi or was it Krishnamachurya, Pattabhi’s teacher, who insisted, and if so, why? Was it because he had nothing better or more pressing to do?

Pranayama-Circle-Encinitas-75-1
Nancy Gilgoff practicing with Pattabhi Joisback in the day

At a Kino Macgregor workshop in London a couple of years ago, she explained that it is not essential to take your arms out to the side coming in to the first sun salutation in a crowded space, particularly if you’re likely to smack your neighbour in the face on the way up. Lifting the arms over the head and joining hands is all that apparently matters.
It was also Kino that expressed that there is so much dogma attached to yoga, especially with Ashtanga, in practices such as Nodi Shodhan (alternate nostril breathing) where she called the action of pressing the fingers into the third eye on the forehead as simply ego – it’s closing the nostrils alternately that matters.

kino_macgregor@yogaconference
Kino

It seems we all expect (without question) that Yoga, especially Ashtanga, has to have tropically heated rooms, so hot that if you close your eyes you could hear tree frogs. Gregor Maehle says that if you want to age prematurely in yoga then heat the room. I quote from a post he sent to Facebook about this very question

“I keep receiving questions regarding whether it’s important or good to heat the yoga shala and whether this aids in detoxing. I also hear people reasoning that the shala should be heated to emulate the heat of the gangetic plains in India, which is supposed to be the native environment of yogis. Now during the 1980 and 90’s I travelled extensively through the gangetic plains but I must say that I found them surprisingly bereft of yogis. On the other hand if you went up into the freezing Himalayas you found that the yogis were stacked up to the rafters. Surprising, isn’t it!
Do you remember that even Krishnamacharya went up into the Himalayas to practice tummo, yoga of inner fire, while sitting on the ice? You can’t practice that down in the gangetic plains.
Nowadays Western yogis are really emphatic about keeping the windows of the yoga shala closed. I remember that neither KP Jois old shala in Lakshmipuram nor the Parakala Matt in Mysore where T Krishnamacharya taught ever had any windows. And I remember that in January at 4.30 AM I always froze in those drafty windowless rooms. And nobody offered to turn on any heaters because there weren’t any!
People who practice in such a fashion usually age prematurely and if you look at them 10 years later they have a washed out and drained look to themselves because of all the prana they lost, by practicing too vigorously under too hot conditions.
Notice that the yogis were very concerned about loosing tejas (inner glow) and one of the ways of preventing that is to rub the sweat produced during pranayama back into the skin.
**This is a technique, however, that should ONLY be used in the context of pranayama and NOT during asana, during which excessive sweating should be avoided**
Hence, do not heat the room too much and if it’s warm outside keep the windows open. Many yogic texts (shastras) state that the shala should be well aired.”

Ekapada-Gregor
Gregor Maehle

Then there was the time that I was at one of the Brian Cooper workshops in Glastonbury. I respect Brian immensely, particularly for his ability and total honesty and his very dry sense of humour (at least I think it is). He was asked by one student as to what is the point in getting a leg behind your head and his answer was “there is no point, what’s the point to any of the postures, fun? To show off at a party?”  I love Brian.

brian
Brian Cooper

Of course, the BIG question is why do yoga? Usually you have to keep asking why to each answer you give yourself before you get to the crux of an answer and one that might surprise you. Was it really to be fitter? You could ruin your knees and go jogging to do that. Was it to try and stave off the inevitable, to look good, to feel young again-  or was it to go within, to your ‘true’ self? Maybe the first answers are what you think are honest ones yet maybe deep down it was the latter we seek. Eventually in yoga, to those that stay the distance, that turning inwards, will happen to everybody and surely that’s the idea? Yoga is a non-religious spiritual practice. It is not for atheists. If you’re an atheist and you’re practicing yoga then it’s simply not yoga – it could be exercise, it could be gymnastics but it certainly is not yoga, whatever the sign says above the door, and it really should go without having to keep reminding ourselves that there are eight limbs of yoga and the physical is just one, the lesser one at that, and more ‘yoga schools’ would be beneficial to teach, or to at least discuss, the heart of yoga – the other seven limbs.

Asana is by far the easiest limb to master. One’s self is the holy grail.

kala

So 18 years on, to be a Yoga teacher……….

Today, approximately 18 years after entering my first yoga class I am filling in the form to take the 200 hours teacher training. This, has been a difficult and soul-searching decision to say the least.

Kev Ollier acro yogic flying

It was all those years ago and being the owner of a security alarm business that stress got the better of me. Running a 24 hour business and having to respond at any time to a false alarm was trying at best and I lost my two best friends that year, one to cancer and one to suicide and I pretty much sort of flipped.

My very best friend was also my spiritual friend as we had both got on to that path together simultaneously a few years earlier getting quite heavily into Ram Dass and Buddhist teachings as well as dabbling in dowsing and visiting crop circles, stone circles, holy wells and ancient sites. Our choice of music changed from AC/DC and Motorhead to Enya. And when you go from Motorhead to Enya virtually overnight you know that something has shifted.
So his death was a terrible shock and was followed by my other great friend who having a poorly tummy that led him to go to the doctors also led him to his death just 6 weeks later, leaving two kids the same age as my own.

I spiraled into anxiety and depression.

Death was real. Loss was real. Fear was very real.

I went through months of thinking I was going mad, being outside of myself, avoiding crowds and supermarkets (though the latter I think is still advisable) and it was around this time that I was walking along Glastonbury High Street when I got talking to a hippy girl and found myself opening up to her – though this was normal at the time. I think I was so fearful of what was happening to me that I opened up to all and sundry. Anyway she advised I try yoga – which in my mind produced a picture of camp Scandinavian men in dodgy leotards and bad moustaches doing improbable body bending. (there are a lot of guys who, until very recently at least, hold some or all of those images of yoga guys- trust me on this).

Kev Ollier yoga .17

Besides this and having read the Celestine Prophecy I took this suggestion as a message and so I went along to a class with a wonderful teacher, published parapsychologist, Serena Roney Dougal. I was blown away. The class followed the teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati mostly from Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha – a renegade yogi apparently that shocked the yoga establishment at the time. (However Satyananda’s other significant move was to bring yoga into the domain of medical science, and explain esoteric techniques in terms of western anatomy and physiology). We did humming breath, stared at a candle for ages, nodi shodan, meditation and asanas and I left that class each week so calm, so clear yet as high as a kite, that lasted three days and seeing how Marijuana lasted only 4 hours and resulted in mostly talking bollocks, three days of renewed and organic clarity was literally a Godsend. I don’t think I missed a week and I never saw that girl who suggested the class again (and some of us may have a name for those beings).

41DGAtJpY4L

In time Serena moved on, spending 6 months of each year in an ashram in India but I couldn’t stop the yoga so I went to various hatha yoga teachers, all very good, drifted into an Ashtanga class about 12 years ago going a few times but not keeping it up for more than 3 weeks thinking it missed the spiritual element too much but 8 years ago, aging as one does and seeing the futility of the ‘staving off the inevitable’ gym life, I revisited the Ashtanga and got hooked and have been practicing ever since with the odd Hatha here and there thrown in.

It is my own Glastonbury teacher, Jane Piddington, student of Brian Cooper, who is running the teacher training in Glastonbury over 10 months, rather than a month intensive and it’s at least 30% less cost than other teacher trainings and Brian will be there to teach over two weekends.

For those who haven’t (unbelievably) heard of Brian Cooper, he was hailed by legendary yogi David Williams as ‘the real deal’. Brian has also co-founded Harmony Publishing which publishes out of print yoga classics and he is the Honorary Secretary for Scotland for the International Yoga Federation, an Honorary Member of the World Yoga Council, a member of the Advisory Board for the World Yoga Council, and on the Advisory Board of Yoga Alliance UK.

Kev Ollier with Brian Cooper

And – there are about 6 or 7 places left on the training if you’re quick!
http://www.ashtangavinyasayoga.co.uk/index.php/6/

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