In 1975, Swami Venkatesananda, a disciple of Swami Sivanananda of Rishikesh, said, “I have been going around the world at least four times and I am getting more and more confused when I hear the words East and West. I think that even if they had meaning in Kipling’s time, they are meaningless now…I cannot distinguish what is called East and what is called West.”
As communication and travel allow yoga to be brought to all people, what is conveyed via traditional teachings and what is influenced by personal agendas?
There are people who remember their first class in that unusual set of movements and sustained postures called hatha yoga when it was spreading in the ‘West’. My practice began when I was in my 20’s in 1976, the American Bicentennial, with stretching and strengthening in a room lit with candles and a teacher who wore a white Punjabi suit and gave everyone a hug. Looking back, she was probably inspired by having visited India already. The class always felt loving, supportive, serene and positive. I likened it to stretching within the protection of the Divine.
JD grew up in rural Australia. She remembers that when she was ten years old in the 40’s, her father had talked about yoga but had not practiced. There was a magazine with photos of people in one asana per issue, and she tried the postures. It wasn’t until later that she noticed classes becoming more athletic and less spiritual. Now in her 80’s, she continues her yoga sadhana.
LB started in her 30’s in a rural Australian town along the Southern Ocean c. 1970. There was a class taught by a woman who must have benefited from asana, as she taught with commentary about physical benefits. The instructor encouraged people to practice within their current abilities and said no one should be stiff after a yoga class. LB attended various yoga classes over the years and felt the later ones were too athletic. She mentions that she was never an athletics fanatic, even when young, so the gentler yoga was best for her.
ES was a Christian nun in her early years and remembers someone being allowed to present Christian Yoga in the nunnery in New Zealand c. 1970. ES left the path of a renunciate and became a householder and, more recently, a yoga teacher in Australia.
Empire State Building through the Manhattan Bridge
In October, I attended yoga classes at two venues in New York City: www.laughinglotus.com and Krishna Consciousness’s www.bhakticenter.org, one in San Francisco: www.yogagardens.com, and www.earthtribeyoga.com fostering compassionate communities in Oakland, thirty minutes from Amma’s San Ramon Ashram. Coast-to-coast when in a seated twist, the hand behind the body supporting its uprightness is called a kickstand. This is a new metaphor and it’s interesting how it has already spread in the United States.
All yoga classes began with OM, most with prayers and setting a personal intention or group intention such as Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu.
Except for specific classes such as gentle, breath-led, restorative or hatha alignment, 60-75 minutes commenced with warm-up movements and subsequent vinyasas, moving dynamically and holding selected asanas for several breaths. The majority of postures were standing, and the pace produced inner and outer heat (profuse sweating is not good for everyone).
Instructors asked us to recall our intention and prayers intermittently, and instructions were mostly about the body, with additional metaphors aligning the mind to the Divine or nature or slokas from the Yoga Sutras and how to incorporate the mat experience into daily life.
Music ranged from spiritual background sound to booming volume with a driving beat. Although not my preference, the latter did contribute to an intense experience such that certain songs brought tears to my eyes. Bypass the mind, touch the heart. The sweetest sounds were in the bhakti center classes with the young teacher singing Krishna bhajans while we held asanas. Classes ended with inversions, 5 minutes of savasana and chanting om and namastes.
All teachers were caring and I thank them all sincerely. They provided options and had spiritual grounding; some were more oriented to physical prowess, and all classes kept me in the present. Earth Tribe classes are by donation, www.Bhakti.org meditation is free and some hatha classes are by donation, Laughing Lotus has a trainee teacher class by donation and Yoga Garden offers a free introduction to yoga.
San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge
If you have done the math, you know I am a senior practitioner. In some classes (all participants were under 30 years except me) we were encouraged to go further physically, to experience that at times it is only the mind holding us back. True, but as Sri Krishnamacharya taught, the focus on dynamic physical movement is for people under the age of ~20 years.
As we progress in yoga we also incorporate sustained sitting and lying therapeutic postures that rebalance the demands of being in the workforce, parenting, etc., and focus on developing the longer, more subtle variations of breath and, ultimately, as Amma encourages, strengthen the mind within itself. Classes that became physical beyond students’ abilities were louder with hard breathing and grunts. When students and schools view yoga as primarily a workout to accelerate the physical (with advantages in opening channels and eliminating toxins) then breath as the basis of life and heart as a link to the Divine receives less focus. It need not take decades to incorporate these aspects.
Amrita Yoga is a holistic experience with each component included and adjusted to each class, whether it be for kids, beginning or ongoing students, therapeutic, honouring Divine forms, or as a challenge to our egos. It is a process of directing ourselves in Amma’s overarching goal for us, opening our hearts, dwelling as one, realizing the Self. On the Amrita Yoga mat the unity of body-breath-mind-heart allows us the blissful experience of Her goal through our own being—a glimmer at first and then living more and more in light. We are blessed that Amma supports and guides us. She is helping us feel our infinite flow and the ways that we can serve all beings. Fortunately for Her devotees, we are practicing Amrita Yoga in whatever class we attend when we know we are in Her Arms, in Her Love, in Her Service.
Author: Meta B. Doherty, Australia