When I first started with Yoga, it felt that simply by performing the physical postures, was entering into a magical realm where things would be very different. Which, they certainly did become, but, not in the way I thought this would happen. I gained self-control and esteem where I really needed it, changed my life towards looking after rather than destroying myself, and to that ends, stopped drinking and embraced a vegetarian and wholefood diet. All positive changes, which I didn’t really credit enough to Yoga, for my eye was distracted by the more transcendental promises I held out for.
Therefore, the opportunity to work further in daily life remained somewhat hidden, as did the refinement of a practice constituting awareness. Instead, it’s all to easy to fall into the subconscious wish to obscure the difficulties of living as an individual, with the idea attributed to yoga that this is all ego, and, therefore, irrelevant to the higher aims of Yoga. Instead, the goal of practice, we are lead to believe is so much greater than daily experience, so it’s easy to practice in an unreflective way, with this in mind alone as a source of hope and comfort away from the difficulties of daily life.
On the other hand, what if Yoga is an activity, not to produce by magic a wholly transformed future, but something done each day in the present? Of course, it’s desirable and easy to avoid this notion, for at this point the present has to actually be faced, the way life really is, and patience and honesty are required. The popularity of the ‘challenge’ these days; or any other promise of quick-transformation, shows how its all to easy to want to escape, rather than stay and face working slowly and methodically with small changes – the only ones that can ever be made in the present moment. However, living in the imagination is so attractive for then no actual change and the struggle that this involves, has to be engaged with.
Even if the conclusions of the traditional Yogis are, perhaps, out of our likely experience with Yoga, their aims are still consistent with this; to differing degrees, greater awareness and clarity in the present moment through discipline and focus of the mind and senses. So, even if we aren’t ultimately aiming for enlightenment, the method of Yoga demands current work, in other words, unreflective practice, just another modern conception of religious observance designed to bestow divine favour on the practicioner isn’t enough.
This it to miss the unique opportunity offered through Yoga, which is a practical methodology to be used in and for the benefit of our present awareness. To this ends, the most reasonable and honest approach with practice must constitute looking at what it actually seems to be doing and working with this. That is, efficient changes in daily life, rather than mystical conclusions; which it may not be our luck to behold in daily Yoga practice.
A careful consideration of material and emotional benefits then must be made, and practice must be conceived around working to enhance this observable trend in the results of Yoga. This is not to say that these won’t occur anyway in a less reflective moving and breathing, but, they contain infinitely more possibility of being worked with if they actually are acknowledged, rather than simply hanging-out for enlightenment. But, this means more thoughtful and skillful effort, for it’s relatively easy to sacrifice oneself on the Alter for transcendence, not so much to work consistently each day with awareness.
Therefore lowering ones immediate aims are hard, but if anything tangible is to be done, other than an unknown hope in the scriptures to reveal their rewards one day, it has to happen by working with Yoga in coming back down to the task of daily living. That’s not to say these higher rewards of practice aren’t real, instead, perhaps, they are available to the degree that Yoga is taken up. Not being able to give up life completely and find a teacher who will tutor us day and night in a cave, realistically ones aim might also be adjusted.
The aim of Yoga being generally slightly amended then, on a practical-level , the means, the actual method of yoga might also be appropriately re-imagined. This is the root of the problem these days, as general Yoga practice and teaching is not fitted to the needs of an individual who wants to stay an individual living in the modern world, not transcend this individuality altogether. The gap between the original context of Yoga, and it’s current presentation remaining without a reasonable attempt at explaining it through adapting degrees of aim and hence degrees of attitude and effort, remains unpicked from its roots, and so then vulnerable to any kind of non-sensical and random ideas to be inserted around it instead.
However, the fact that Yoga doesn’t have to be for transcendence and enlightenment these days, doesn’t mean it can’t also be conceived in a deeper way than simply feeling good, Instagram, the latest food and fashion trends. Yet, it is in not wanting to enter into a more realistic view of Yoga, that all these superficial conceptions can enter into this vacuum, so it’s easily adopted as just another form of escapism. This leads to either paying lip-service to practice, or, in the same way, making too much effort. In other words, zoning-out, or, over zoning-in.
In contrast to this, a middle-ground needs to be struck whereby the Yoga system can be pragmatically used in the way it is meant to be. For, the self reflection that was originally conceived of by the Yoga-sages of old was neither a turning away from the self, or an excessive indulgence in it either. To this ends, the two most well-known Sutras of Patanjali on physical Yoga practice might be considered; Sthiram Sukham Asanam (yoga is a steady and comfortable position), and abhyasa vairagya tan nirodhah (yoga is achieved by practice and detachment).
Both of these suggestions involve a grounded and practical approach involving the attempt towards a tangible sense of balance, in other words the Yuj or union that Yoga is aimed at, a bringing together oneself, rather than pushing to escape it.
For, a happy life would be considered in similar terms, to be the easeful and consistent living with oneself rather than to deny this self in the simple aim of transcendence. I believe this was always at least the preliminary aim of Yoga instruction in the traditional texts. However, not taught gradually in modern-times but taken as one, homogenous source of teaching, ones eye is always led to the exiting conclusions, whilst easily forgetting the very different, seemingly mundane in comparison, groundwork.
Which means, if we have not been clear enough already, demands a system that is formulated around suiting the needs of an individual, rather than the other way around. Whilst this does not mean laziness and lack of exertion, neither does it mean harming oneself for the sake of Yoga is if Yoga is just a modern-day source of penitence and our wish to atone for an innate sense of guilt. Nor, can it be trusted to be a kind of magic spell either, whereby, all that is necessary is to incant this ritual in the way it has traditionally been done in order to guarantee results.
Instead of this, the responsibility is ours to find a middle-ground, a balanced and efficient way of life based around Yoga. This does not mean the rejection of teachers, simply, perhaps, the Guru-model of ancient India, may contain a level of authority no longer appropriate for the average student and the way they want to use Yoga. For, again, a student of Yoga is most generally aiming for a better life through Yoga, not the original aim of Yoga, that of escaping life altogether.
Whilst a sense of letting-go and deference can be positive, it is not always so. It very much depends on the context and circumstances, and my feeling is that Yoga in the modern day is not a cohesive and comprehensive enough of a structure of teaching to make this truly relevant. In daily life nowadays, unlike ancient India, most of us cannot live life in this way. Society demands of us personal responsibility and individual expression in order to be valued a member, and this is essentially, in all honest, our immediate aim. An enlightenment that is defined by self-negation is so far out of the suggestions contained in modern daily life as to aims and meaning, it can only really be of interest to our curiousity.
In which case, this means paying more attention with our daily choices, if enhancement of life is what we really want. Yoga can be used invaluably to make this process more skillful and efficient, but, only if that is the attitude around it which is cultivated, rather than as this source of delayed-gratification in body-mortifications or simply the wish to just tune-out. Again, this tuning out can be as done as easily with under effort as it can be with over-effort, which equally covers over a more refined experience in an over-stimulation of the more superficial outer body alone.
This all transpires to mean that thinking, intelligent action, and looking at reality as honestly, as square in the face, as we possibly can is the method and remit of modern-practise if it is to be done efficiently. Contrary to what is assumed, there is no significance or mysticism in a damaged knee, other than that contained in the question as to why we do this to ourselves for the sake of transcendence all too often. Causing oneself pain is not a practice, nor a journey, it is only unnecessary and arbitrary suffering. This is very different from the discomfort that may come through actual work with what is, which is distinct from the injury that results from pushing against it.
The confusion creeps in through the fact that two different worlds are being straddled, not only in Yoga, but in our own selves. On one hand, there is the wish for transcendence, on the other, living a happier and more contented material life in the world we know. However, as I envisage it, these don’t have to be as mutually exclusive, the choice of one or the other, as they are currently seen as. For, really, both these aims, as different as they might be, involve the very same method in order to work towards them. In this way, they are nothing more than degrees of the same thing; for control and discipline of the body and mind is at the heart of reaching past the limits of the conditioned individuality, but, it is also the way to live a happier existence in the world too.
Focus and concentration leads to greater awareness, which affects skillful action and relations in the material world, albeit, that its implications may spread, as they are envisaged to the traditional Yoga texts, far beyond this. Therefore, it could be Patanjalis’ no-mind state of citta vritti nirodhah (Yoga stops the mind) that is achieved, or it could be the more pragmatic one involving the attempting for more emotional clarity, which always takes restraint and management of a whole range of competing desires experienced in one body in order for this to occur.
There is no need to abandon then, the higher aim; only to appreciate that there are many steps on this ladder, and the method alters a little depending at which step we are on. It isn’t that the form actually changes, instead, in its refinement the practicalities may look different. For example, at the beginning, lots of outer action is needed, but in the long-term, if this is not moved past, it becomes a distraction and hence an obstacle to Yoga.
However, one thing that needs to be re-formulated from the very beginning as to the practicalities of a modern Yoga practice, is the inclusion of more time and effort to balance of the effects of intense nervous stimulation induced by the dynamic spinal manipulation contained in Yoga=movement. For there is no doubt that moving the spine so dramatically does produce considerable affects on the physical system. In this intangible action, impulses and emotions stored deep in the nerves will be released to the surface of the body where if there is no practical attempt to work with balancing and stabilizing them, they will only lead to more suffering in life, not less. This is to say nothing of counteracting the pressures of an infinitely more stimulating modern life than was the case at the inception of the Yoga tradition.
In order that Yoga then does not overwhelm the system in the modern day, reasonable steps towards strengthening and stabilizing need to occur. If these do not get put in place by a lack of ability to also accept a pragmatic aim for Yoga, the coming face to face with the subconscious will only produce more problems. If daily life is more challenging, more painful, and tiring than before, it may be that the true message of Yoga hasn’t yet been fully taken up. For it’s a gradual effort towards more clarity in awareness, which to stay true to this ends, must also involve the quality of gentleness (Ahimsa) and sustainability. Not bothering about this stuff in the hope of enlightenment through the sacredness of a few bodily movements, we do so at our peril.
As the saying goes then; why let the great get in the way of the good? There is no need to give up Yoga or its higher possibilities, simply to try to make the practice a lived reality also. Yoga may be the ends, but it is also can be the means; a method of living and a lifestyle for nothing less than the most basic aim that can be envisaged, that of making our own life and the lives of those around us a more positive and comfortable experience. This doesn’t always feel like the kind of alchemy of our imaginations to do with the mystique of Yoga, though it does feel more like really being alive. Which, as it happens, is the very departure point into this further inquiry.