In the West and the East, we practice yoga in gyms, parks, classrooms, living rooms and studios. Yoga has become globalised – another product of the wellness revolution offering tranquility and a lithe physique for a pretty penny or two. More than a passing fad, yoga has perhaps become symbolic of modern middle-class culture. Like all sub-cultures, there are unspoken rules and regulations concerning dress, class etiquette and entry. Expensive lycra attire, delicately inked tattoos on wrists and feet, and BPA-free water bottles tucked under arms. We are a culture who express ourselves via our consumptive patterns, and yogic practice provides an interesting snapshot of a generation who buy KeepCups yet drive 4WDs. We practice a philosophy of ‘wellness’ – considering the impact of our choices on our own health, rather than on the broader community or environment.

Of course these are generalisations, and not negative or positive in their actual manifestations. Not everyone who practices yoga drives a 4WD or wears expensive leggings to class, and those who do may be truly enlightened. However, a simple case study of studio class price lists in the Melbourne metro area hint at exclusivity. Even if you do not subscribe to an urban yoga subculture, access to and awareness of yoga is perhaps an indicator of affluence and accessibility in itself.

Yoga has had an interesting journey from ancient India to modern day Western society. Originating from the Sanskrit root yuj, to practice yoga literally means to ‘bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply’ (Iyengar 2001:1). It is a practice of ‘unity’, ‘union’ or ‘communion’ of the mind, body and spirit to achieve total ‘presence’ in life. This means living in the here and now, not in an imagined future or in memories from the past. The physical manifestation of this journey- asana or ‘yoga’ as we recognise it – is actually only one element of yoga as a holistic life philosophy.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga:

Yogic philosophy is comprised of eight stages, or ‘limbs’, originally consolidated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras sometime between 100 BC and 500 BC. These limbs are broken down into:

  1. Yama (universal moral commandments);
  2. Niyama (self purification by discipline);
  3. Asana (posture);
  4. Pranayama (rhythmic control of the breath);
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal and emancipation fo the mind from the senses);
  6. Dharana (concentration);
  7. Dhyana (meditation), and
  8. Samadhi (a state of superior consciousness at which the individual becomes one with the Universal Spirit)

Complications of a Fluctuating Consciousness:

Attainment of Samadhi through practice of the eight limbs of yoga is complicated by five classes of what Patanjali termed as chitta vrtti which create pain, pleasure or both in the conscious mind. From the Sanskit, chitta translates as ‘mind’ and vritti as ‘waves’ or the action of rolling or modification (Patanjali: The Maturity of Joy). The motion communicated in the Sanskrit description of consciousness presents a strong visual description of the push and pull of the conscious human mind. Upon consideration, one can almost feel positive and negative thoughts, values, memories and imaginations rolling like waves in the mind.

The chitta vrtti that cause both pain and pleasure are:

  1. Pramana (a standard or ideal which has been accepted through direct evidence, inference or trustworthy testimony. For example: ‘I know this to be true because….’)
  2. Viparyaya (a mistaken view which is recognised as such after study. For example: the formerly held belief that the Earth is flat)
  3. Vikalpa (fanciful imaginations about positive or negative future circumstances. For example: fanciful imaginings of winning the lottery or life improving ‘in the future’)
  4. Nidra (sleep and the interruption of sleep. For example: restless nights and reoccurring dreams)
  5. Smrti (memory – the holding onto impressions and perceptions of past experiences. For example: remaining chained to the past through positive or negative memories).

The chitta vrtti that cause pain are:

  1. Avidya (ignorance or nescience. For example: strongly held beliefs and values which create a myopic world view – black and white perspectives)
  2. Asmita (the feeling of individuality which limits a person and distinguishes her/him from a group. This may be physical, mental, intellectual or emotional. For example: a man who believes that he is distinct and different from another group of people)
  3. Raga (attachment or passion. This may manifest as attachment to material/ worldly possessions)
  4. Dvesa (aversion or revulsion. For example: aversion of that which may cause pain or discomfort – seeking only pleasurable experiences)
  5. Abhinivesa (love of or thirst for life, the instinctive clinging to worldly life and bodily enjoyment. This may manifest as a fear of death)

Overcoming Chitta Vrtti through Asana and Pranyayama

The obstacles can be overcome through the fourfold practice of Mairti (friendliness); Karuna (compassion); Mudita (delight) and Upeksa (disregard).

In his text Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar states that:

The deeper significance of the fourfold remedy of maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksa cannot be felt by an unquiet mind. My experience has led me to conclude that for an ordinary man or woman in any community of the world, the way to achieve a quiet mind is to work with determination on two of the eight stages of Yoga mentioned by Patanjali, namely, asana and pranayama. 

(Iyengar 2002:8)

The physical and meditative breathing practices of yoga have become the most recognised and accessible of the eight limbs of yoga to ordinary men and women the globe over. Through conscious asana practice, we learn to be present with our bodies first and our minds second. We learn to be present through the transitions from one posture to another, to honour and make peace with our own bodies with each hold. With time, we learn not to compare ourselves to others in the room, not to internally criticise or judge our movements and bodies.

With rhythmic breathing, we learn to trust the wisdom of our bodies as separate from that of our fluctuating mind. Even when the mind is distracted, the body continues to breathe and move. We learn that breath can be directed to generate heat and peace in certain postures. We learn that breath can heal and calm, where the mind can fluctuate and unsettle. In short, with yoga asana and pranayama, we learn to be present and to know ourselves stripped of the story lines and values that we layer ourselves with in modern society. When practicing yoga, we are not our leggings, we are not our cars or our jobs, we just ‘are’. And that is why it is surely important that the practice is not presented as exclusive in all of its studio incarnations.

References:

Iyengar, B.K.S (2002) Light on Yoga

Iyengar, B.K.S. (2003) Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali