As a spiritual practice, Yoga is slightly different than others. It is not only a mental and emotional exercise in devotion, selflessness, and personal evolution, but also a physical trial that pushes aspirants to higher levels of discipline in every aspect of life. Without approaching Yoga as a holistic practice, the full benefits will not be gained. Yoga, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is an eight-part holistic system meant to purify the mind and body so that it is possible for the individual to consciously ascend to the level of oneness with God. Not only just a practice of raising levels of conscious, Yoga is a process by which the yogi remembers the essential nature of him or herself as an individualized and materialized manifestation of God’s own consciousness, one and the same. Yoga removes the illusion of separation between creator and creation. In order to get to the place of Samahdi, realized oneness, one must peel off layers of delusion about the nature of reality from the mind. One must remove all attachments, all ego, and all behavior patterns that add to suffering. It takes an incredible amount of discipline.
Traditionally, the teacher or spiritual director in the path of Yoga is called the guru, which means the one who brings us out of darkness and into the light. In the ashram setting, this is usually still the case. The guru is recognized as one who has already attained Samadhi, who is a direct channel of God’s conscious, and who serves as an example for the devotees to follow. The guru has absolute authority, and is literally worshipped as an image of the divine consciousness, in some cases thought of as God incarnate. The idea behind this practice is part of Bhaktiyoga, or the path of devotion. Devoting oneself entirely to the teachings of the guru leads to complete selflessness, complete lack of ego, and pure spiritual direction. The one-pointedness of mind that occurs when one no longer thinks of anything but devotion to the guru serves to burn away the fog of the hindrances clouding the way to Samadhi. The guru is thought to be able to see quite clearly what the devotee needs in any moment for his or her spiritual and personal growth because the guru is divine consciousness manifested and clear. In the appropriate cultural setting, and for people who have a devotional nature, the guru/disciple relationship can be one of great beauty and growth (Chapple, 2003).
In the West, the guru/disciple relationship is all but irrelevant and non-applicable due to a combination of reasons including cultural differences, the demystification of Yoga, the removal of the spiritual aspects in regular practice, and quite a few highly publicized scandals involving very popular gurus (Dilanlan, 1997; Johnson, 2012; Roig-Franzia, 2012; Roseanne 2012; & Tilin, 2015). In the West, Yoga has come to be known as a fitness program that is very good for cultivating flexibility and strength in the body. Although some studios will still display statues of Shiva Natraj or Ganesha and chant the OM at the beginning of the class, most regular classes do not indulge in the spiritual practice of Yoga at all and simply teach one of the limbs, Asana (physical postures). On a very good day, one might get a little Pranayama (breath control exercises) or a brief sitting meditation.
Yoga instructors in the West are no longer Yoga teachers. What I mean by that is the average instructor is more like an athletics coach. Training for certification now only requires a minimum of 200 hours according to the Yoga Alliance. The vast majority of that training time is spent on the practice of the physical postures in an instructor-led Asana class with little explanation. Most basic-level training programs do not even approach the meaning or energetic implications of the Asanas themselves. Although most students and instructors are familiar with the images of the rainbow-colored chakras, very few know them by name or understand what they actually are and how they function, which is an absolutely necessary aspect of understanding the Asana and what they’re for or what they do to the body.
Because of its popularity amongst young affluent women in the West, the average teacher is now an upper-middle class, college educated, mid-20’s female (Yoga statistics, 2015). The average teacher has little real experience in the holistic practice, and more often than not has little real wisdom to impart. Instructors are far more likely to quote popular new-age spiritual authors than Patanjali’s Yoga sutras if they make spiritually inclined statements at all. Being a good Yoga teacher in most circles amounts to being physically talented and popular. This has created a rather unstable environment within the Yoga community. Teacher training programs are churning out an average of 20-60 Yoga instructors a month, glutting the market and opening the door to a total collapse of the path. People are getting confused as to what Yoga really is, students are injuring themselves in class because instructors don’t have the experience to provide alignment directions, and what used to be a devotional practice has been twisted into a fashionable trend.
Yoga, as an eight-part system, consists of the following parts: Yamas (non-violence, non-lying, non-stealing, non-greed/grasping, and sexual/energetic continence), Niyamas (purity of mind and body, contentment, perseverance, self-study/self-awareness, and contemplation of Self/God), Asana (postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sensory deprivation) Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (oneness with God).
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Iyengar, 1993), the Yogi must first attend to the behavioral cleansing process of acting according to the Yamas and Niyamas before even thinking about the physical cleansing processes of Asana and Pranayama. If the Yogi does not follow this method, then the real work of Pratyahara, Dharana, and Dhyana will be too clouded with hindering thoughts and impurities in the body for it to ever amount to alignment with Samadhi. By removing the first steps in the path, focusing only on one step out of eight, and rarely advancing past this point, Yoga in the West has lost it’s spiritual direction.
An experienced Yoga Teacher does not have to be a traditional type of guru, but he or she does have to pay more than $3000 and spend 200 hours in a resort to really be able to direct anyone on this particular spiritual path. It’s not possible to truly understand Yoga without actually practicing it, though it’s not imperative that the final goal of Samadhi be already reached. Teaching Yoga is its own form of spiritual direction because the teacher must guide the student in all aspects of purification. That means explaining and providing guidance through the Yamas and Niyamas and how to apply both to everyday interaction with self and other. This process in itself is a type of cognitive behavior modification process that requires quite a lot of personalized attention. The behavior modifications are meant to reduce or eliminate the type of actions and thoughts that lead to upheaval in the inner dialogue or conflict and bring about emotional stability. To even reach the place of effective meditation, the Yogi must have achieved a certain level of basic maturity through this process of behavior modification.
For instance, the very first Yama, Ahimsa or non-harming, has deep implications that extend all the way down to dietary choices, how one thinks, feels, and acts. Satya, truthfulness, requires one to look deeply at every single thought and word uttered, and him or herself totally objectively. If the Yogi is faced with a situation that requires speaking the truth, yet having the possibility that the truth might be hurtful, he or she must know when to revert back to Ahimsa. Non-stealing, Asteya, doesn’t just refer to not taking the property of others. It also means not taking the energy of others, not taking the time of others, not taking anything at all that wasn’t given freely. Aparigraha, non-grasping/non-greed, is core non-attachment. This goes all the way down to releasing attachment to everything material, releasing desire for certain outcomes, every relationship, and even immaterial things such as ego or previous definition of the self. Bramacharya, often defined as celibacy, is much more than that. It is energetic continence on every level, including not speaking too much so as to retain the energy that one loses in interpersonal communication. Essentially, it is the ability to keep God/Brahma/the Higher Self in mind at all times, good or bad, and act accordingly. These behavior modifications incorporate just the very first limb of the eight-limbed path. Without having a guide that has lived these ideals and understands them utterly, the aspiring Yogi can be rather lost on the path. Without practicing them clearly, issues will continue to come up that will hinder the spiritual evolution of the Yogi.
For effective spiritual direction on the path of Yoga in the West, I propose something in between the traditional guru figure and the 200-hr Yoga Alliance certification. Something more along the lines of a 4-year university degree with a continuous practice would be ideal. This would allow the proper time for personal practice and instruction, integration of the practice, study of the scriptures and sutras, and really understanding the whole process personally because one will have lived it him or herself. What would be an ideal situation in terms of spiritual direction in Yoga, to me, would be a close relationship between student and teacher. Not unlike the guru/disciple relationship completely, but without the asymmetrical overtones. The teacher should always be a perpetual student, open-minded to the views and experience of others, accessible, and always learning from his or her practice through the sharing of that practice with others. In this case, the guru isn’t God incarnate, but a confidant and trusted friend who is also on the same path albeit more advanced.
Part of this close relationship would include sharing of the personal practice of both teacher and student, possibly in a group setting. In the traditional ashram environment, this is usually done in a setting called Satsang. The teacher in that setting would share some of the teachings of the sutras or the scriptures or a personal insight and invite the class to participate with questions or discussion. Then using that space and that theme, the class could engage in meditative practices. These would be provided by the teacher, explained and demonstrated by the teacher, and then questions and discussion could again be held if issues arose for the students. This would be an ideal time to discuss the Yamas and Niyamas and to also practice Swadhyaya, or self-study/self-awareness. The Asana would, of course, be practiced, but more emphasis could be given regarding the nature of the poses and what they affect in the subtle body or what type of benefits they have for particular organs or mind states, for example. Average Yoga classes would consist of longer periods of meditation with instruction and purpose, extended pranayama practice, and throughout the class the theme from the sutras or scriptures discussion would be interwoven while the poses are held.
This could also be done in a one-on-one setting with more discussion and sharing between the student and teacher as well. Individualized attention would be given with regard to working through the unconscious material that the physical and mental cleansing processes will inevitably bring up that might be getting in the way of a clear and focused meditative practice. Teacher and student should engage in dialogue about shared experiences that could bring insight into the spiritual evolution of the student. This in turn aligns and reaffirms the teacher in his or her own path as well. Bringing the guru down to a more personal level, where it is accepted that he or she is just another human being with the capacity to make mistakes and be flawed, would go a long way towards healing both the teacher and student. In this way, perfection is not required to help lead one another into the world of light.
The nature of the beast is that in the West, many students are actually only coming to Yoga class for the physical benefits that they see in it as a fitness program. A large number of students are never going to undertake the path of the Yogi, and those students would most likely be uncomfortable if presented with the spiritual aspects or other limbs of Yoga in a class. Essentially, Yoga has roots situated firmly within the ground of Hinduism. One cannot get too far into the spiritual path of Yoga before coming up against this reality. For some in the West with different religious views, this constitutes a direct affront to their belief systems and therefore Yoga possibly shouldn’t be practiced. But the for Western Yoga student who is more invested in the practice and comfortable with the spiritual and religious implications, the holistic method should be applied and guided by an experienced and practicing Yogi.
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