Of Sages and Rishis
If you regularly read our entries, you will probably have gathered by now that we aren't always so happy to see some of the ways in which Yoga is being taught and circulated in many western studios today.
Indeed, in some of our previous entries, we've mentioned that, with the consolidation of commercial Yoga in the west over the past few decades, there's been a great proliferation of styles, methods, and trainings; and that this explosion of diversity has come with certain pros and cons for Yoga as a philosophy of self-realization.
On the plus side of this interesting scale, we find the fact that almost everyone in the west today has access to some form of Yoga in their very own area of residence. No sooner you say the word Yoga and the person in front of you immediately conjures not just the image of a body moving here and there with a measure of poise and grace, but at least a handful of studios where one can go to get exactly that. This is great because it means that we can all potentially experience some of this tradition's main aspects in our own bodies and minds and, as a result, that we can all potentially benefit first-hand from Yoga's numerous positive side-effects.
On the minus side, however, it is also often the case that, due to having such a large variety of styles, 'teachers,' and systems, it is now also virtually impossible to tell what many of these methods actually have to offer in the form of 'yogic teachings' to their students. Indeed, what are these so-called 'yogic teachings' and where do they come from?
Enter the Rishis
You see, Rishikesh is not called like that for no good reason. Jokes aside, in a context where Yoga instructors today choose what they teach in a classroom by selecting the tunes they will play in the background first, it is really hard to make sense of any 'tradition' or any 'traditional yogic teachings' whatsoever. But there is such a thing as 'yogic teachings' and, contrary to what many out there may believe, these teachings do not come from the sudden whims of random individuals such as you or me kind of choosing a vibe for our class out of sheer fancy.
The teachings that have made it into some of Yoga's most revered manuals and that are still envisioned as the core of Yoga by many serious traditions around the globe have actually transpired as the result of states of deep concentration and absorption experienced by advanced meditators otherwise known as 'Seers' or Rishis. For that's what Rishis are: the Seers of the Vedas. Rishis are yogis that have mastered the art of Yoga or 'union with the divine.' That's what Yoga ultimately stands for and that's the main reason why any honest student should actually commit to her practice Yoga in the first place. As a result of their committed dedication (sometimes throughout several lives), Rishis attain the supernatural ability of communing (and communicating) with 'the divine,' and are thus able to experience the direct downpours of wisdom and intuition that have been translated into oral and written teachings since time immemorial. Their teachings are the very 'why' and 'how' of how the rest of us can also attain self-realization.
The four main Vedas have come into being by this very process, as was the case also of the Saundarya Lahari and multiple other scriptures and texts. You can think of mantras as a case in point. Any of the open mantras most traditions share with their students today or that are chanted at kirtans and bhayans everywhere around the world ––mantras like the Gayatri Mantra or the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra to drop just a couple of names–– were firstly 'received' by Rishis during meditation. They were heard in meditation. They were not composed like most songs are composed, note by note and word by word, but rather, they were intuitively communicated to the inner ear of these wise (wo)men in the form of healing sound and vibration. Those sounds and words, magical in their own way, were later transcribed and put into written form, making it all the way to us over the centuries to help us transform our-selves from the inside out.
That the nature of these teachings is spiritual more than cognitive does not just have to do with Yoga, for example. The same can be said of the beautiful allegory of Moses and the Ten Commandments from the Christian tradition. Though not a myth of the yogic system itself, in its own way, the story of how Moses goes to Mount Horeb and is then allegedly 'given' the Ten Commandments by Yahweh is another great metaphor for how a wise Sage essentially goes to a very remote place (think 'cave') and, in complete isolation, enters into a deep and profound state of meditation that allows him to 'hear' the word of God with its invaluable life-changing lesson.
Not 'Anything Goes'
The take home idea of this entry is to emphasize that teachings such as these ––as much as teachings like those included in the Yoga Sutra or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or the Upanishads–– have a reason to be there. There's a good reason why they ought to be considered part and parcel of the essence of Yoga from centuries ago as much as of today. Though we may freely contribute to translating and interpreting some of these teachings of old for a modern audience with its modern ways ––though it is absolutely reasonable to want to keep tradition alive and well–– there's a limit to how much we can change. There's a limit to what we can invent. For nothing about these 'yogic teachings' was really actually 'invented' in the modern sense. They were intuitively discovered, which is an entirely different thing.
The problem with many of today's so-called Yoga classes, then, is that a great deal of what's been taught and shared comes from the spur of the moment, the whim of the instructor, the mood they're in. And so, from asana to asana or breath to breath, there ain't much in the form of actual 'teaching' that's been transmitted other than a few now temporarily forbidden physical adjustments. If you don't believe us, try this: next time you're at your local studio, just ask yourself 'what's this class truly about that I'm going to join in today?' 'What's the lesson I'm here trying to experience and learn?' Surely, there must be something more than just moving our bodies in sync with the music. What's the main 'yogic teaching' that the next 60 to 90 minutes will unravel for me? What's the lesson or insight that's going to push me where I need it most? Can the person leading the session guide me to the answers of any of these questions?
If the answer to these questions is 'no,' then know for a fact that you are not really practicing Yoga whatever the name written on the schedule. Though the product you're consuming may still be sold to you by such a name, it will have very little to do with true Yoga proper. For true Yoga should make you explore more than physical surface; it should humble you in the face of so many unanswered questions and nurture the curiosity in you to want to get closer to the answers to those questions. If the answer is yes, however, congratulations! The path ahead of you will be full of meaningful insights and life-changing lessons, experiences that won't always feel pretty or comfortable, but that are very necessary in the arduous path to complete self-realization.