What is Yoga? You’d think that this would seem a silly question to ask, but many still really don’t deeply understand what it really is.
Since the beginning of 2015 I’ve become very skeptical of classical yoga. This marked a deeper questioning of yoga teachings and yoga truths. I began to be less interested in the original texts and to move further away from classical ways of practising asana. So is what I’m practising and teaching now still yoga? What makes yoga, yoga?
Bihar School of Yoga Abuse Scandal
Last Christmas I learned that Swami Satyananda and several of his colleagues, were part of a prolonged abuse scandal.
The matter is currently being investigated by the Australian Royal Commission. Satyananda was one of the most respected, loved and revered “yoga gurus” of our time. I was shocked, disgusted and angry. His actions make a mockery of the great trust and devotion many fellow yoga practitioners had for him. These revelations literally turned my thinking about yoga upside down.
If such a revered teacher can be so vile and depraved, then what on earth puts them above you or me? What gives them the right to guru status? The answer is, of course, nothing.
It is not only yoga gurus that suffer from this patriarchal disease. Catholic church leaders, politicians, entertainers have all been found guilty of similar crimes. The actions of the these men represent pure moral degradation and abuse of power. Perhaps as a consequence of suppressing their natural sexual desire, it has become twisted and distorted.
Yet rather than getting into a situation of heaping blame upon these abusive, corrupt yogis, we might consider the possibility that they were abused themselves and are thus stuck in a cycle of perpetuating the trauma. True yoga (which may not have anything to do with orange robes, mala beads or incense) does not advocate such suppression or denial. True yoga aims to free up suppressed energy, it encourages energy to flow in a way that does not cause harm to oneself or others. This my understanding of this ancient practice, which was at the height of its deepest, fullest expression invited anyone from any caste or background to be not only a practitioner, but a teacher.
Freedom From Yoga Dogma
After I came through the initial shock and outrage, these revelations enabled me to feel less restricted in my teaching and my practice. There is a kind of unspoken rule amongst the yoga community that it is better to adhere to classical yoga teachings, such as Satyananda’s. This is the way to preserve the integrity of the yoga teachings. I now feel myself to be fully absolved of the need to adhere to any classical guidelines unless I resonate with them personally.
[su_pullquote]It’s been my great blessing to learn from rebellious and open-minded teachers. They told me repeatedly: the true guru comes from within. The guru is in fact our own intuition. [/su_pullquote]Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten were two of the first certified Iyengar Senior Teachers to be certified. They were then banished from the Iyengar organisation, by Iyengar himself. Their crime was to question his methods.
They felt that his teaching was becoming too rigid and dogmatic. The systemisation of his teaching allowed Iyengar to train larger and larger groups of students. However Angela and Victor felt that the essence of his teaching was getting lost. Their more personal, fluid and feminine style of Underground Yoga has always been a great influence on my teaching and helping me answer the what is yoga mystery. Vanda Scaravelli, was also trained by Iyengar, she also declined to follow his guidelines.
She practiced as she pleased according to her intuition, without ceremony or self flagellation. Scaravelli found that the roots of yoga were not only to be found in India, but in Africa and China too. Yoga is a truly universal practice. In her book, Awakening the Spine, there are wonderful ancient Egyptian cave paintings of people in “classical” yoga poses.
Other Paths to Yoga
Now I look at classical practices more critically, in a broader context. OM chanting may be viewed as as part of a wider tradition of singing, voice work and sound therapy.
Classical pranayama can be looked at from a scientific viewpoint through the work of the Russian asthma specialist who devised the Buteyko Method. Good posture has been studied in depth by non yogis such as Alexander Technique teachers and somatic educators. Jean Crouch, a former Iyengar Yoga teacher, found her posture and back pain improved when she did the opposite of what she was taught by him.
I love the insights that my training in Hanna Somatics is bringing to the yoga teaching. Somatics truly reached the tissues in my neck and jaw that yoga practice could not reach.
Life Force (Prana) is Universal
This is where I am at now. Exploring how connecting to a deeper stream of energy or life force, prana if you like, can enable the body to release the patterns imposed on it by the thinking mind. If we tune into this life force, we create a greater sense of wellbeing and balance in the body-mind. We begin to resonate with this life force at a body-mind level. This creates feels of peace and calmness. In this state we are more able to show patience, compassion, tolerance and appreciation.
Love is the Answer
Near the end of this year, in October I usually go and see Amma, the hugging lady. She has hugged over 34 million people worldwide. Her incredible determination and endurance has raised millions for her charities which alleviate poverty and care for earth’s ecology.
She visits Ally Pally every October and fills the Great Hall with compassionate energy, transcendent chanting and devotional music. Amma is Hindu by birth but rejected all religion and dogma from an early age. Religious dogma caused people to frown upon Amma for hugging people (including men) when she saw they were in need.
She is known affectionately as Amma, which means mother. Amma says that Love is her religion.
“Love is our true essence. Love has no limitations of caste, religion, race or nationality. We are all beads strung together on the same thread of love.” —
Amma’s pure example of love, acceptance, compassion is the true essence of yoga. Yoga is a state of being as well as a practice. By resting our loving awareness on the present moment, we radiate peace into our environment. This positively affects our homes and families, our communities and the wider world. What makes true yoga, yoga is LOVE and anyone can practice it.
With love and good wishes to you all,
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