It is said that today, out of three Americans, two are practising yoga. This is wonderful. Nevertheless, we find in the West – and sometimes even within India – Four main misconceptions about yoga.
First, its origin: yoga is a gift from India to the world. Let me rephrase that: yoga is a Hindu legacy to humanity. A few years ago, the prestigious ‘Time’ magazine did an entire issue on yoga. The word “India” was hardly mentioned at all, and the word ‘Hindu” never appeared. It is also partially the fault of modern Hindu gurus, as to better partake of these ancient techniques to a western Christian audience and make it more acceptable, they often omitted to mention that it was a Hindu inheritance. Notice that Swami Vivekananda, the First Pioneer to bring yoga to the west, had no such qualms, and he was not ashamed to tell the Americans that he was a Hindu and was greeting the World Parliament of Religions “in the name of his Hindu brothers and sisters”.
The second confusion is that westerners believe that the only yoga that exists is Hatha yoga. Yet, there are so many different types of yogas: Bhakti yoga, the path of devotion; Karma yoga, how to reach the Divine through work; Jana yoga through knowledge; Kriya yoga, etc… “All life is yoga”, said the great Sage Sri Aurobindo, which means that whatever we perform and do on this earth, can be done in a spirit of inner concentration and awareness.
The Third confusion springs from the fact that hatha yoga has been made a hotchpotch khichuri in the west – all kinds of gymnastics, and aerobics. yoga in heated rooms, yoga in water, etc. All these offshoots have forgotten that true yoga is the union of body, breath and mind. Even if you achieve this for a few seconds, you have reached your purpose and have entered yogic consciousness.
The fourth mistake, or confusion, is that Hatha yoga is just a mechanical discipline you practice to get flexible and agile. It is a SACRED and ancient practice, and it should be performed with a sense of Gratitude towards all the ancient sages that devised the ‘asanas’, the contemporary masters who carried them forward and Mother India, who nurtured these excellent techniques in Her Bosom. If it is practised with that sense of devotion, it will lead to not only to flexibility but a higher intuitive mind.
To my mind, there are two mainstream schools of Yoga – the first one is Ashtanga yoga, which is the easiest and most accessible to ordinary folk; and the second one Iyengar yoga, maybe the purest one, but more difficult to practice. I have had the privilege to interview twice B.K.S. Iyengar and I found him a remarkable man, capable at this then advanced age to do sirsasana for 20 minutes or more. Rightly so, both these schools consider that Surya Namaskar remains the Queen of all asanas: in 10 postures you concentrate all the needed stretching of the body and it can be practiced till an advances age.
We need the also here to talk about other forms of yoga, such as Pranayama. Pranayama is the ancient science of breathing, which was also discovered and developed by ancient rishis in India. They found that it was difficult to control the mind by the mind – but that each emotion induces a particular pattern of breathing, and in turn, specific manners and techniques of respiration can work on cycles of thinking and emotions. For instance, those who have a tendency to get angry have fast patterns of breathing, which in the long run can lead to heart problems. Through different exercises of Pranayama, one can lower the speed of respiration and therefore work on one’s anger. The same thing is true of people who tend to get depressed – they hardly breathe at all and deprive their brain and body of oxygen. There again, ancient sages devised certain pranayamas that oxygen and revitalise the brain and the body, therefore working on the depression itself effortlessly. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has modernized and packaged these ancient techniques of Pranayama, to make it easy to practice them daily at home. His Sudarshankriya has remarkable properties of de-stressing both the mind ad the body and is a powerful tool.
Finally, Pranayama or practising hatha Yoga correctly brings you to the present moment, which is what all yogas aspire to: be neither needlessly reviving the past or projecting yourself into a future that does not exist yet. But through the union of breath, mind and body, be as thoughtless and centred in your heart as possible, and you will see that all anger, depression, and anxieties disappear. Then, naturally and spontaneously, this leads to meditation- which she is another gift of India to the world, a gift whose origin has also been forgotten. Medical studies have shown that meditation slows down the heart, spaces out thoughts, regulates the blood flow and is generally the best way to de-stress in our more and more nerve-racking world.
The international yoga day of 21st June is Narendra Modi’s gift to the world. It is an invaluable gift that needs to be cherished and cultivated. It would be good, however, that the Indian government clears the confusion in western minds about Yoga. One should also promote Indian yogis and philosophers, such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, as official ambassadors of Yoga in the west. The Bharatiya Janta Party should endorse the great Sri Aurobindo, who explained at length in books such as ‘The synthesis of Yoga’ or the Life Divine, the nature of Yoga and how to lead a yogic life in this mad Planet of ours.