Yoga came to the United States on the heels of two world wars and the threat of nuclear obliteration. It arrived via a few rogue yogis who believed the key to peace was to share yoga’s transformative power with everyone—not just men, and not just the elite, as was traditional. Sharing this knowledge with the public was so taboo in India that these teachers had to emigrate to the U.S. or be killed. After all, knowledge is power and in a caste system both are very dangerous things. My yoga teacher, Harbhajan Singh, known as Yogi Bhajan, was one of these men.
In the 1960s and 70s American yoga students learned the science of yoga from these exiled teachers through years of one-on-one interactions or through long, intensive retreats. In the 1980s, as our lives sped up, if yoga was to survive, it had to keep up with our calendars. Classes got shorter. Finally, we fed yoga into the millennial marketing machine and it came out with cute pants, Olympic aspirations, and a desire for levitation and killer selfies. Oh, and seven of its eight limbs had been amputated, but nobody seemed to notice. Actually, yoga teachers noticed, but there’s only so much they can teach in an hour, especially when that hour is actually 45 minutes, or 15 minutes in New York and L.A. But here’s what they wish they could tell you:
You don’t have to be able to stand on your head to reap the benefits of yoga. In fact, you don’t even have to be able to lift your head. There’s so much more to yoga than the physical part that anyone, absolutely anyone, can practice, anywhere at any time.
There are eight parts, or limbs, of yoga that make up a holistic guideline for a meaningful, fulfilling, and peaceful life. Practice these guidelines as best you can and you will be able to field any spikey, slime-covered curve ball that life throws at you. These guidelines were outlined in a 2000-year-old doorstop of a book called The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Originally in Sanskrit, the nuances have been interpreted in different ways over the years, but that’s okay because yoga trusts you to interpret things for yourself. Here they are:
- Don’t be cruel to any living thing. Don’t be violent in word or action. Then go beyond non-violence to being polite, considerate, and hospitable.
- Tell the truth, but if telling the truth would hurt someone, stay quiet.
- Don’t steal and don’t take anything not freely given. This includes money, things, time, and credit for success.
- Honor intimacy. Share yourself only with those who honor you. Don’t use people and don’t objectify them. This covers everything from porn to name-dropping.
- Take, use, and accumulate only what is necessary. Anything else implies a lack of faith in God and yourself to provide for the future.
- Keep the body and mind free of toxins.
- Be content with what you have.
- Keep your body fit without showing off.
- Pay attention to your true feelings and notice self-destructive tendencies.
- When you make plans, include the will of God.
- Move the body to calm the mind.
- Breathe consciously.
- Regularly withdraw from external distractions.
- Wholly focus on one thing or task at a time.
- Spend time alone with God.
- Strive to understand the concept that you, God, and everything are one.
The physical practice we call yoga is covered in #11, and any physical movement that feels good to you counts. If you do go to modern yoga classes, just know that there are only 60 physical poses, which are really just variations on 4 basic poses, so don’t feel intimidated or overwhelmed. Yoga is as simple as you need it to be. You don’t have to do any yoga pose that doesn’t feel good to you (that would be violating #1), and you don’t have to practice and master these guidelines all once (that would be violating #14). Focus on one that speaks to you, incorporate it in your life, and then come back for another.
That’s it. You’re a yogi. As the sage Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Practice and all is coming.”
Words by: Robin Howard
Photo by: Andrew Cebulka (originally found in the 2015 Unity Issue)