"You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state." Sharon Gannon
"Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one's being, from bodily health to self-realization. Yoga means union - the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul." B.K.S. Iyengar
In all of the excitement about integral practice (not just the one in a kit, but the whole kit and caboodle), it seems to me that yoga—fully practiced beyond the reductionist emphasis on Hatha-yogic postures—serves this rather well. As a yoga practitioner for the last twenty years, I have found that yoga fulfills what most people seem to be seeking in this quest for integral practice—a comprehensive method for engaging Spirit in our lives.
Maybe I’m an integral Luddite [grin], but I love being part of such a rich, global tradition exemplifying five thousand years or so of practice, especially one that requires so little—a willing body, heart, and mind. No bells (dumb or otherwise, but if you're into gear, there's no shortage of mats and straps and props for you), no whistles (although with practice you’re likely to hear the sounds of the universe, the music of the spheres). Wireless and portable. Pure simplicity with enough complexity to continue to evolve through centuries of practice.
I’ve taken it with me around the world and it’s never failed me. That said, I appreciate any offering that inspires people to embrace Spirit in the world—and I have even been known to lift a weight or two with some regularity. So without dismissing the value of ITP, ILP and other more recent self-transformative endeavors, I simply invite you to consider the relevance of what came before by offering this relatively brief and decidedly un-academic introduction to what may be the most useful and original integral practice that I know: yoga.
Major Yoga Paths
Given the myriad yogic paths available, it is sometimes challenging to choose and contextualize a yoga practice within this multi-faceted tradition, so let's begin with a rough map of the territory, recognizing that all yoga embarks us on a path of Self-realization where the Self that is realized is simply Spirit in human form, the Self in each of us that recognizes ourselves and each other as sacred--the Self that knows no other. Most yoga scholar/practitioners agree that all of the various forms fall into four major yogic paths, although the four tend to vary depending on the source. Since I have found some combination of the following included in the major four on various lists: Karma, Bhakti, Jnana, Raja, Hatha, Mantra, and Yantra, here's my brief overview of seven paths to consider.
Hatha-Yoga—the yoga of force—is the type of yoga most commonly practiced here in the States, often without emphasis on the deeper intentions associated with this more robust practice—Self-realization through the disciplined cultivation of the physical and energetic (pranic) bodies. Hatha Yoga is actually designed to prepare the body for experiencing and embodying the Spirit. Through physical postures (asanas), breathwork (pranayama), and bodily purification techniques (kriyas) intended to cleanse the subtle channels (nadis) and circulate vital life energy (prana), the practice of Hatha Yoga awakens psycho-spiritual energy, inducing higher states of awareness and self-integration. As people who have awakened Kundalini can attest, various states experienced along the spiritual path can wreak havoc with the biophysical systems of those inadequately prepared.
Despite the tendency of many Westerners to focus on the plentiful physical health benefits, the benefits of Hatha Yoga reach far beyond the physical to positively impact the health of one's entire being. The basic idea is that as one develops control of one’s body and breath, one inevitably develops mindfulness because the body and mind are intertwined, thus preparing the self for deeper realizations and experiences. For those of you with an aversion to the notion of control, think of this as an intentional and skillful attunement with the natural flow of body, breath, and mind beneath the surface of habitual physical and psychological inertia, agitation, and indifference. Hatha Yoga prepares our finite forms for the experience of the Infinite.
Exemplar: B.K.S. Iyengar
"Bright but hidden, the Self dwells in the heart. Everything that moves, breathes, opens, and closes lives in the Self--the source of love. Realize the Self hidden in the heart and cut asunder the knot of ignorance here and now."
The Upanishads as translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, 1987
Bhakti-Yoga—the yoga of devotion—is rooted in bhaj, meaning “to participate." Bhakti Yoga is to participate—to take part in and partake of love. To participate in love—to be love and loving in our work, in our play, in our relationships as an offering to the Divine is a devotional practice that helps us embrace the Divine in all. Traditionally practiced through sacred observances, such as chanting (japa and kirtan), ritual action, self-offering, and meditation, the Bhakti-Yoga devotee surrenders self to the Divine through the transformative power of unconditional love.
Bhakti Yoga is a way of falling in love with what is. It is the yogic path of the heart—a conscious, open-hearted, fierce devotion to and communion with the Beloved, the sacred in one and all. Like the lover embraces the beloved just as he or she is, so the Bhakti embraces life just as it is, becoming One-hearted. On a day-to-day basis, it is embodying namasté—the Divine within me recognizing the Divine within you as reflections of the Divine in which we all participate.
Japa Yoga--the yoga of sacred sound—is the rhythmic recitation or chanting of mantras—sacred syllables, words or verses, vibrations and sounds (e.g. aum/om, which sounds like "home") representing various states of consciousness and underlying realities. Each mantra is a vibrational conduit, a way of naming and bringing into being the form of reality it represents. Reciting a mantra, both aloud and/or silently, is a form of yogic meditation designed to attune body and mind to one's highest self, awakening prana, energizing the chakras, concentrating and harmonizing oneself with the Real. Kirtan is a call-and-response form of this practice, often accompanied by musical instruments, in which we are called to respond to the heart of being.
Exemplar: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Karma Yoga—the yoga of selfless action—is rooted in service beyond self or self-transcending action. It gets to the root of why and how we do what we do. Every thought, every decision, every personal deed is an opportunity to become conscious of and consciously Spirit in action. Karma Yoga reminds us that the only action worth doing is grounded in an intention to serve something greater than ourselves, and demands that we get over ourselves and get busy doing Divine work in the world unattached to ego-driven outcomes.
Beyond just sitting attentively on a cushion for twenty minutes a day, Divine work is any action aligned with our spiritual selves—not the spiritual selves who we think we should be, but the spiritual selves we truly are. When we are aligned in this way, we step into the flow of Spirit beyond egoic attachments to outcomes. We simply enact our part in Spirit’s unfolding because it is the only thing to do…the only way to be. We enact Spirit every moment of every day, often despite ourselves.
Exemplar: Mahatma Gandhi
Jnana Yoga—the yoga of wisdom—is the practice of discerning inquiry and study as a means of self-realization. It is the philosophical path, the path of insight that uses the discriminating faculty of our higher mind to pierce the veil of dualism. It is the practice of steadfastly discerning the Real—infinite Bliss—from the unreal—impermanent, finite world. Through intentionally and attentively living the question of who we are (the Real) and attending less and less to who we are not (the unreal), we shed layers of self until self dissolves and we recall our ever-present origin, to borrow Jean Gebser's marvelous phrase.
Yantra Yoga--yoga of sight*—is the creation and/or use of visual, symbolic representations of the Divine, typically black and white, geometric, universal patterns, as focal points in yogic meditation. These serve as gateways to non-dual planes of existence--subject/object integration. Every form has its own energy signature which can be accessed through meditation on the form. As one concentrates on the image with single-pointed attention, one empties oneself into the image, eventually dissolving non-dual being, uniting with the Divine.
*I use this term here in its more general form, although there is a specific form of yoga originating in Tibet that also uses this name.
Raja Yoga--Classical or Royal Yoga—is the psycho-spiritual complement to Hatha Yoga, Raja (also called Ashtanga, meaning eight-limbed) Yoga is the path of meditation designed to realize the undistorted, transcendental Self or pure witness. Traditionally, it includes eight progressive limbs of practice--moral restraints and observances(yamas and niyamas), postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), sensory inhibition (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and blissful awareness or ecstasy (samadhi).
Exemplar: Swami Gitananda
Aside from the great wisdom of a tradition that offers a spiritual path for everyone, yoga is a tradition that recognizes that all these paths end in Spirit, Divine, Beloved, God [insert your favorite name here]. Practice One or practice many…practice by yourself or practice in community. Engage Spirit through the body or Spirit through the heart or Spirit through the mind. Or engage Spirit through work, sound, sight, or sitting. Or engage Spirit through each of these amazing aspects of what it is to be human being in the world, but engage Spirit because the essence of all yogic practice no matter what form is about self-transcendence—reuniting with that which is beyond our small, partial, fragmented identities.
1) Yoga meets us where we are, offering a multitude of paths for each of us to integrate body, heart, mind and Spirit. No matter what our personal gifts, capacities, and predispositions, the yogic tradition honors the diversity of human experience, using our natural tendencies to light the spiritual path—Hatha for those of us more somatically-disposed, Bhakti for those more emotionally-gifted, Karma for those more action-oriented, Jnana for those more philosophically-inclined, Yantra for those adept at visualization, Mantra for those attuned to sound, Raja for those meditatively-minded, etc.
2) Yoga offers a powerful integral path for those who choose to cultivate multiple intelligences and developmental lines through the simultaneous practice of Hatha, Bhakti, Karma, Jnana, Yantra, Mantra, Raja, etc. as intra-, inter- and transpersonal beings in the world. This is the path of Integral Yoga, originated by Sri Aurobindo and more recently articulated in the work of Sri Swami Satchidananda.
To quote my favorite teacher, Sri Aurobindo, “All life is a secret yoga, an obscure growth of Nature towards the discovery and fulfillment of the divine principle hidden in her which becomes progressively less obscure, more self-conscient and luminous, more self-possessed in the human being by the opening of all his [or her] instruments of knowledge, will, action, life to the Spirit within him [or her] and in the world...” Through yoga, we break through habits of identity to simply rest in integrity.
Some Favorite Yoga Resources:
- Anything by Sri Aurobindo, but to list a few: The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, A Practical Guide to Integral Yoga
- Anything by Georg Feuerstein, but to list a few: Yoga: The Technology of Ecstasy, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga Theory and Practice, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature Philosophy and Practice
- Light on Yoga: The Bible of Modern Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar and Yehudi Menuhin
- Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing, B.K.S. Iyengar
- Talks with Ramana Maharshi, Robert Powell
- The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama, Richard Rosen
- Yoga Mind & Body, Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center
- Yogaville (Integral Yoga of Sri Swami Satchidananda)