India's Subtle Treasure: Yoga


I have not been in India long and I am not very good at being British. I have lived there for about 8 months in the last twelve years, though I spent a lot of my childhood there. I think I find it easier to be a stranger in a strange land. I feel it helps me to study the human condition. Perhaps it is that you learn more about yourself in a world where things are conditioned differently to how you were raised. You are challenged to look into the mirror of strange experiences and question "who am I?"

A Swedish fellow asked me recently "What are you doing in India?" I replied "I have come to study yoga." "On your own?" he said. "Yep." "So no one sent you here?" "No, I was inspired to come." He seemed pretty shocked. I do not work for a multi-national and I do not have a driver (I have a bicycle that just got hit by a driver today! Man the road rules here were written by blind monkeys! - illiterate blind monkeys!). But I am in India and dead serious about yoga.

I once read a wonderful book about British travel writers. Few nations have quite as strong a tradition of travel writers. I was struck by one of the lines in a chapter entitled "Greece and Tibet." Apparently these two countries have had an almost quixotic spell on literary nomads from the British Isles for centuries. I lived in the US for many years and know the country and it's people fairly well. I love the clear light of California, the spacious calm of the Great Plains...I still believe, despite the hard times that America is bound to face in coming years, that it has great potential to help the world. The spirit of Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and Lincoln is not entirely lost despite so many appearances to the contrary. Such a spirit is formidable.

One comment in that travel book though struck me as very true. It was a short and full-blooded line - "Greece is a thousand times bigger than America." If you have been fortunate to travel in the States and Greece...perhaps that line will have some meaning for you. Greece is a tapestry of many histories that include the roots of our western civilisation. It has a patchwork quilt-texturing of a thousand myths in every island, in every cypress grove. America, by comparison is a land of newcomers. Yes, there is the wandering trail of the Native Americans, but somehow it lacks the epic scale of the land of Socrates. India in the same category, if not one all of her own. She has had countless Socrates of her own. She is equally vast and just as rich in gods and legends, sages and wisdom.

So what is yoga? What is this jewel in the crown of the subcontinent that draws me here? To introduce yoga in so few words is not an enviable task...for it heralds from an ancient and great body of knowledge (the Vedas). There have been as many definintions as there have been practitioners...for, like anything worthwhile, it takes on a shade of personal significance in the hands of each individual who takes it up. Yet, as a science yoga is basically the technology of linking the mind to the source of creation (in essence, yoga means to "link to something" or "to be related." ) That takes discipline. The original meaning of the word "discipline" means "to learn." You have to learn about the nature of ignorance and what lies behind it to link yourself with discrimination and meaning. You have to watch very carefully and unravel the riddle of the mind-body complex. You have to ask questions. And not settle for verbal answers. As the flower of the Greek civilisation - Socrates said - "the unquestioned life is not worth living." Over the centuries, the yoga system has developed out of some very serious questioning by many wise and genuine beings.

There is something tremendous within us which we have forgotten. Using the many tools of the yogic tradition, we can learn how to build a relationship with that essence which we find ourselves divorced from. With great attention we can gain profound understanding of the nature of suffering..so that we might find a way to emancipate ourselves from it.

To confront the conflicts within us is where harmony begins. It seems to me that in a world such as ours - one so bogged down by fear, selfishness and anger; one where we are all chasing some form of pleasure or security....it is intelligent to ask if there is something sacred, something holy - beyond doctrines, beyond images and effigies, beyond the scope of the hands or the limitations of the mind.

Classical Yoga - Ashtanga yoga (the eightfold path of Patanjali's yoga sutras) is dedicated to the search for meaning in the context of the above statement. It starts with asanas. "Asana" has several meanings - but basically it can be translated to mean "position." Asanas are stretching exercises which serve to bring about a strong and flexible body. Then there is pranayama which is the science of conserving and directing the life force. Practically speaking, working with the breath is the focus of pranayama. Pranayama can help in so many ways when learned under the guidance of an experienced teacher - it can calm the mind and heal the body. Then there is meditation which is a spontaneous action totally free of effort. Right speech, right conduct, practice of asanas and study of pranayama all contribute to the kind of refinement and sensitivity that is necessary to make space for that sacred awareness which comes upon us in meditation.

Yoga leads you back to your Self. What is the Self? It can be described, but the actual discovery is far, far more important. It is the unending ocean of presence. It is the awesome, ever-happy home of the mystic. Discovering it is the purpose of all religions and yoga alike. The difference with yoga is that you do not have to believe in anything. Yoga is a science of discerning what is actually true and what is illusionary. The tools of that science are observation and that marvellous instrument known as the mind. There are no problems beyond the mind and all the solutions lie there too. When the mind is quiet, the Self naturally shines forth and one is in the state of yoga.

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Mind is the closest thing to our Reality...Be careful how you use it. Businessman, yogi, teacher, addicted to laughing...