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.

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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

Love

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Love cannot be visual as that would dismiss the blind
or audible as that would omit the deaf.

Love cannot be speakable as that would exclude the mute
or scented as that would eliminate cocaine users.

Love is not unconditional as that is still a condition.
It’s not in the body or the heart or the mind.

It’s not even a word.

Love cannot by anywhere – but only everywhere – all the time.
Ignoring that fact is the cause of all wars.

Yoga Biking

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As I understand things, all spiritual teachings are taught, essentially, to allow one to strive for one thing, stillness of mind.  Yoga Asanas are there, as just one limb of eight, to prepare the body for meditation so that it can sit as still and as comfortably as possible without having ones legs turn blue so to be able to calm the mind, and along with the other seven limbs, to realise that all is just thought from which arise our attachments and aversions and ultimately the universe we individually live in.

a-group-doing-yoga-asanas1

Television and the media has managed to shepherd us all into a similar pattern of thoughts and thinking and so we all seem to kind of agree on a similar ish universe.   Spiritual teachings however can, at least temporarily, have us experiencing other new and enticing universes, be it a Buddhist one or an Islamic one or Sufi, Hindu, Jesuit, Jain, and so on, until we are ready to drop that too and to simply be.  In the meantime whilst we are travelling on our own long yellow brick road to our inner wizard, terrible wars are being fought, insanely, because different collectives of people are holding on tightly, very tightly, to the universe that they think they live in, a universe based in religion, a religion that they insist is the only true one. The truth is that the world is squabbling and killing over who has the best imaginary friend.

cuddon- emeraldcity3

Meditation, I am told, is simply a way to let go, to not hold on to anything.

The Tibetan word for meditation “Gom” means “to become familiar with one’s Self” which is different, well slightly different to self familiarity that happens around puberty. The later more grown up familiarity is encouraged for training the mind to understand states that are rewarding such as concentration, compassion, correct understanding, patience, humility, perseverance, awareness and mindfulness.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be done sat in lotus imitating Buddha or Ramakrishna.  It is accepted nowadays that posture is not really that important. Buddha could just as well have sat on a chair and got boomshanka’d but, like most yogis of the day,  he was a wandering sadhu and chairs were not lying around in fields and under enlightening trees. Sitting in lotus is another case of us human types imitating. We no longer dress up as Batman or play air guitar – well not in public at least – but if Buddha got through by sitting cross legged then we seem to think that’s the way for us all, but where does this end?

If Christ had been hung from a gallows, rather than crucified on a cross, Christians would today undoubtedly be wearing nooses around their necks, albeit small ones on a pretty chain – but I digress.  So it’s surely not really about posture,  you can do walking meditation, standing meditation, kneeling meditation –  it’s about stillness  – specifically stillness of mind and recently I discovered a forced yoga if you will, about 3 minutes after driving off on a recently required, not been on one for 28 years, motorbike.

2011-Kawasaki-Ninja-250R
Materially, It’s a great bike, the result, some say, well a lot say to be honest, of a ‘mid life crisis’ though I simply fail to see where there is any crisis happening, I’m having a great time – It does just under 80 to the gallon and it will hit 110 mph (apparently) with road tax at only £37 per year. So, by comparison to cars, it’s very ecological and economical and shockingly, to me, extremely meditative. (oh yeah and a lotta lotta fun)

From moving off you are forced into
1/ letting go of any fear immediately and
2/ having an instant and perpetual lesson in both awareness and mindfulness – and you can’t do any of these if you are not totally focused and full to the brim of concentration.

The roads are clogged nowadays more than ever and the Highways Department consider two-wheel riders approximately not at all. The manhole covers are very rarely level with the road surface, any utility works undertaken are then resurfaced by what can only be the local playgroup. Farmers, bless them, do try to help by adding a layer of mud wherever possible and councils love to decorate them with rumble strips and speed humps.  This is before you encounter any other actual road users , so from the off you are ‘in the zone’ and to understand or at least second guess other drivers you must have a full tankard of both empathy, and to discourage you from giving the finger, compassion.

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one must stay alert at all times

Distraction is limited, unlike being in a cocoon vehicle because it’s very difficult and extremely messy to eat or drink on a bike and you simply cannot hear a word on the mobile phone and texting is particularly trying and turning around to see what the kids are doing would be very illegal. You are simply there. On the bike, there is, no mortgage, no debt, not even a family,  just you and the space around you most commonly referred to as ‘the moment’ though you can never know that you’re in the moment because you’re in it.  I concur with film star and Ducati rider Ryan Reynolds who recently said, “I love the fact that on a motorcycle, riding is the only thing you’re doing”.  Although I’d add saying ‘yippee’ in quite a high voice within the confines of the helmet.
I imagine  surfers have the same feeling of oneness and yippee, except the only obstacles they have to look out for are passing turds. The organisation ‘Surfers Against Sewage’ isn’t in existence for nothing dude.

Kawasaki Yogi 250
And to yoga class – it’s the only way to travel.

And all the time the wheels are moving, you are naggingly, very wide awake aware of the biggest one of all – impermanence but all the time holding an inner smile and something that might be called loveOr maybe delusion

The Human Test

The UK has on its streets, in every town and city, Big Issue sellers. The Big Issue offers people who are homeless the opportunity to earn their own money; a livelihood.  The Big Issue Foundation offers vendors the opportunity of a life. They work tirelessly alongside the vendors to help them deal with the issues that have caused their homelessness or have developed as a result of hitting the streets.

Big Issue blog

The way we can experience the feeling of shame (if buying clothes from Primark hasn’t ignited a conscience) is to realise that those people selling that Big Issue, as mentioned in another post, could very, very easily be your mum, dad, brother, sister, son, daughter, grandchild or of course even you – and the way the world is going currently, that is a possibility. Knowing that and then walking past a seller should, if of course you are human ignite that spark of shame and prove you are not an alien. What reasons do people possibly delude themselves with to justify walking past?

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“Never look down on someone unless you are helping them up. As you go about your daily life please do stop and say hello to a vendor, buy a magazine” ~The Big Issue Foundation.  – besides, it’s a bloody good *weekly* read!

The British Buddhist Holy Isle.

On the 18th April 1992 Buddhist Lama Yeshe Rinpoche bought a whole island off the coast from the Island of Arran which in turn is off the coast of Scotland. It is called Holy Isle and must not be visited, indeed given the widest possible birth, if you can’t cope with peace, beauty, tranquility and serenity.
The island came into Buddhist hands via a devout catholic no less, Mrs Kay Morris, who owned Holy Isle and had been ‘instructed by Mother Mary in a dream’ to pass Holy Isle to Lama Yeshe to be used for peace and meditation. See –  http://www.holyisland.org/

We went there this year as the second part of the annual ‘lads walk’.  We’d spent the first part, a couple of days, walking the wilds of Arran getting sunburned and heat stroke as we’d managed to marry our trip with the hottest weather Scotland has had since Dodo’s were a menace to outdoor chip eaters.

Arrival on Arran


There was only four of us this year and one of us, a freelance writer, was writing an article on our visit for Kindred Spirit magazine. It was the third day of our trip that we caught the small ferry over to this car free paradise. The plus with Holy Isle is that nobody is playing at being Buddhist. There was some disappointment by one of our group as he’d genuinely expected that our boat, on landing, would be met by a line of purple cloaked, bald blokes ringing bells and welcoming us on to their island. I wondered if he also thought they would be saying Aloha and passing garlands of thistles around our necks.
The resident Buddhists are simply average people of all ages who are trying to follow a peaceful existence via the teachings of Buddha. This, in other words, is not a pretentious new age centre.

The main building

The island consists of a main building which houses the dormitories, library, kitchen and dining room. There is no TV room, no amusement arcade or gym because like the world over they’re not really necessary. Behind this there is another building where the courses are held and at the far end of the island, about half a mile away, was a not for visitors retreat centre where twelve women are currently on a three year, three month, three day retreat. They were 18 months in to it at the time of our visit in May 2012.  The disappointed friend drew looks, accompanied by frowning eyebrows, when he inquired if this was voluntary on their part, obviously having decided to himself that we were on some sort of unwelcoming Zen Alcatraz.
In the hillside above the retreat centre there was a couple of eco-lodges for people on a lifetime retreat and once the resident has passed on the lodge also gets passed on to the next person on the waiting list.

The retreat building

The lifetime retreat lodges and the home of Lama Yeshe when he visits.

There is a also a wonderful cafe/shop on the grass beach which caters for visitors and helps fund the island and sells lots of mediation bowls which everyone seemed to try out and I imagine were there as some special meditative training test for the shop assistant.
Above the cafe was a meditation room which I visited at several ungodly hours to spend time, cross legged, cutting off the blood flow to my feet. I didn’t take my reading glasses into these meditations and was put on the spot when given a 2 inch thick set of cards to be able to recite the Chenrezig prayer, which was written in writing so small that I had no choice but to mumble along in a low Buddhisty sounding, throaty tone so as not to be exposed and glared at.

The Holy Isle passenger terminal looking towards Arran


Before meditation one morning as the sun was just up, around 5am as it happens, I decided to practice some yoga outdoors. There was a time when 5am was when I’d think of getting off home from a party and not heading for seclusion to do a yoga practice. I found a lovely spot by the sea edge looking across to Arran. I stripped down to my underpants because 1/ it was already hot and more importantly, 2/ I was alone – and so I began Surya Namaskara A (Sun Salutation A) and by the time I’d reached my first downward facing dog I realised I was not at all alone. I was joined by an ever expanding cloud of wee midges and these midges were not at all Buddhist and brought on what I can only describe as yoga turrets and a quick desertion of my practice as I ran back to the meditation hall with my new friends in hot, biting pursuit.

In the main building one could help oneself to free teas and coffees 24/7 and the food, three meals a day that are included in your £28 a night stay, was gorgeous vegan fayre. We all occasionally chipped in washing and wiping dishes and very quickly became part of the community  and after only three days it was as if we’d never lived anywhere else.

On Holy Isle, you are not expected to go to meditation or to do anything particularly. You are simply free to be. It is relaxation personified and still quite a secret.

Peaced out. Last night on the island. Arran in the background

On returning to Arran the next day with it’s one bus every two hours, seemed akin to being dropped into Manhattan on Christmas Eve. It took a while for the peace to dissolve back into distraction which suffice to say most of it eventually did – except for a small part that now sits there still – I guess, waiting for me.

There are currently plans to put a power plant on Arran which the Buddhist community fear will spoil the tranquility of Holy Isle causing noise, pollution and smoke.
see – http://tinyurl.com/9a387jd