"Grace, beauty, strength, energy and firmness adorn the body through Yoga."
Yoga Sutra III.47

Why do Yoga?

The benefits

Some of the beneficial effects of practising yoga are:

  • improved flexibility
  • increased strength
  • relaxation
  • stress-relief
  • improved health
  • increased feelings of well-being

These benefits are well known and are a few of the reasons many people take up the practice of hatha (pronounced hat – ha) yoga (bodywork, breath work and relaxation). Less well known or spoken about are attributes which have come to be important in my own practice – self-knowledge or self-understanding, personal integration and a move to wholeness.

Returning to wholeness

The word yoga is a Sanskrit word commonly translated as union although I prefer wholeness or integration. All too often this "union" is described in flowery words as some sort of idealised, utopian state. But if we think that we are going to bring that about by mindlessly doing a few exercises and a bit of chanting we are kidding ourselves. No – it's more arduous than that.

Self-understanding comes through awareness – being aware of our actions, thoughts and feelings without labelling, condemning, judging or commenting upon them. And through awareness of our actions, our thoughts, our feelings comes the discovery of and understanding of their cause and an integration of all aspects of ourselves.

We are human beings, perfect in our imperfection. Self-understanding and transformation is not to be had by denying or suppressing the less pleasant aspects of our make-up. We have to look all aspects of ourselves straight in the eye and understand them, when we do they are transformed and loose their power over us. If you try and suppress the ones you don't like then you just make them stronger (like the urge for chocolate). When we are aware and we understand ourselves we see things as they really are – not coloured by our conditioning, habits, likes, dislikes and desires.

To be aware is hard work. Oftentimes, when we are unaware, we just have to be aware that we are not aware – with no judging remember! There are no techniques to make you aware, you either are or you aren't. The practice of yoga can show us when we're unaware, it can reveal our habits and conditioning and help us understand them. When we understand them (intuitively rather than academically) we are free of them. We have to find out the truth for ourselves. Following a system or acquiring knowledge is just replacing one set of conditioning with another and it's second-hand living because we've adopted someone else's conditioning.

You might be thinking that, as a yoga teacher, I'm talking myself out of a job. I agree that a world without the need for yoga teachers would be the ideal state! But, as I said before, it's hard work because we have to be very attentive if our minds are not to deceive us. If it was easy then we'd all be enlightened beings and the world would be a more joyous place. The role of the teacher is to help us discover our habits and conditioning and release them so that we discover a more intelligent way of being. It is not to 'fix' us according to some ideal (which is only based on thought and wishful thinking and not on reality) or to impose new habits upon us.

Phew! This is getting a bit heavy perhaps that's why these things don't get talked about that often. I hope that you are still with me and that I am not putting you off. It may all seem a bit daunting to you and you may be wondering where on earth to begin. Well, we start with that with which we are most familiar and which is easily accessible to us – the body and the practice of hatha yoga.

Hatha Yoga

When we perform the physical postures with awareness we notice our habits and things which aren't working as well as they might; we gain understanding of our movement patterns and habits and we can explore and maybe discover more intelligent, freer, less forceful ways of moving.

Each posture (asana) of itself is of little importance and contorting the body into some idealised form is of no value. Achieving a pose means nothing. The gift of the asanas is that they teach us about our bodies and, indirectly, about our mental processes. Without awareness we bring our habits onto the mat and then our practice re-enforces them making transformation more difficult. It is the transformation that brings the many benefits associated with yoga.

Creating Utopia

What about creating utopia? Well someone who has self-understanding exerts an unconscious influence on others. So working on yourself is your greatest gift to mankind. Understand yourself and you help others to understand themselves. But be warned – if you consciously try to influence others you just become part of the problem!

Further reading

If you are interested in reading more about yoga for transformation then I recommend these two articles:

A New Look at Yoga (Yoga Journal 1977) Joel Kramer presents yoga as an evolutionary process and introduces the Yoga of Mind as a powerful approach to self-exploration. Mental yoga reveals the mind's nature and its filters, and is an important part of physical yoga practice. Read this article if you're trying to get your head around Jnana Yoga!

Yoga as Self-Transformation (Yoga Journal 1980) Joel Kramer explores the use of yoga as a psychophysical tool to confront our limits and transcend them thus bringing about transformation.

To find out more about awareness then read 'Awareness' by Anthony de Mello. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Read it, wake up and smell the roses! You can buy 'Awareness' by Anthony de Mello from Amazon

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