Yoga is a transformational process. This simple fact is something that has become more and more evident to me during the twenty-plus years that I have been teaching yoga. While people practice yoga for many reasons, everyone comes to realize its benefits of self-improvement and healing. Over the years, I have seen people join yoga programs to lose weight, improve their study skills, reduce stress, heal injuries, strengthen their body and mind, find compassion, feel better...and the list goes on. We all face challenges in life and struggle to transcend them. Yoga is a great way of doing just that.
I find that most students come to yoga class assuming that they need to either have or learn how to maintain an extreme, gymnastic-like flexibility, only to discover that their mind was the bigger hurdle. It is at the mental level that feelings of worry, dread, fear, and agitation are generated, feelings that naturally prevent us from being calm, peaceful, and self-assured. Yoga goes straight to those feelings and helps alleviate them. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of yoga is that it puts the brain to rest.
In modern yoga, there seems to be an over-emphasis on external form. If you do this pose precisely, get into the position, and then breathe—then you're doing everything just fine. If you aren't flexible enough, then use some props and you can get it close to perfect. With minimal teaching on the psychological and spiritual aspects of yoga, students may struggle with the meaning of yoga, which develops and deepens if they are able to commit to it, and are left on their own to possibly discover higher states of consciousness along the way. This makes learning yoga more difficult, time consuming, and ultimately less effective.
Understanding this inherent flaw in the Western approach to yoga, as well as working with people of different ages and backgrounds, has been an interesting part of my journey. Everyone is unique in terms of what they specifically need to work on, yet at the same time, a variety of similar experiences and patterns based on the universal human experience continued to emerge. It was through observing these patterns in my students that I came to understand that a system needed to be formed. The system needed to be fluid and allow for individual differences, and at the same time offer a template that a broad amount of practitioners could work within. Through many years of thinking about my students and their processes, I outlined ten yogic principles/practices that can work as a foundation for beginners and also serve as an outline to keep advanced practitioners engaged in their practice over a lifetime—a guide for all those interested in transformation via a yoga pose practice.
The desire to stimulate advanced students came out of my own experiences of practice—at different times in my yoga teaching career, as well as in my own personal practice, I have felt bored. I love yoga, yet after a few years of intense teaching and practice, I started to daydream. Recently, this kind of boredom has been termed "yoga burnout." The ten steps outlined in this article offer many perspectives to keep yoga pose practices fresh and full of new personal discoveries. The steps can work together in a linear fashion, or they can be practiced and applied individually, with a more circular approach. All that a person needs to begin is an open mind and a desire to evolve on multiple levels. Regardless of age or level of yogic experience, they will offer something useful to transform your yoga practice. It also doesn't matter what style of yoga you are currently practicing, as these steps affirm all forms of yoga practice as positive.
One of the nice things about yoga is that it contains no religious dogma and allows for anyone who practices it to follow their individual spiritual beliefs. In this way, the religious person might understand his or her connection to the infinite as a process of becoming one with God, while an atheist might call it transcending the human ego. Yoga can be adapted to a variety of belief systems while remaining equally effective and transformative. One of the reasons for yoga's popularity is that it is extremely adaptable and can be practiced alongside other belief systems. In the end, yoga provides a path to quieting the mind so that we all can feel the innate stillness and joy of being alive. Swami Aranya, great yogic scholar, has said that the purpose of a yoga pose practice is "connecting to the infinite" (ananta-samapatti) and describes this feeling as "My body has become like void dissolving itself in infinite space and I am like the wide expanse of the sky."
One of the foundational texts on yoga is The Yoga Sutras, written around the second century BCE by the great Indian sage Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras provides a theoretical and philosophical basis for yoga as well as clarifies many important esoteric concepts. It is a highly influential book on yoga philosophy and practice, and as you feel inspired, I encourage you to read for yourself. Like Swami Aranya, The Yoga Sutras also describe the experience and purpose of yoga, especially the poses, in terms of the infinite: "By relaxation of effort and meditation on the infinite, postures (asanas) are perfected." Here we begin to understand that the goal of a yoga pose is no different from the goal of spiritual life: to put you in touch with the larger universe or reality.
You may have already had an experience of connecting to the infinite, as there are many paths to leading to it, most of which are spontaneous. It may have happened one day when you were walking in the woods, swimming in the ocean, or witnessing the growth of a child. It could have happened in a church, a cave, or at the top of a mountain. It could even have happened while you were sitting in your favorite chair next to a roaring fire. There is no predicting when or how grace falls upon us. It comes in a flash and then disappears again. The Pure Heart of Yoga offers you the tools to proactively work toward that place of connection, rather than waiting for it to spontaneously happen in your life.
Over time, I have arrived at somewhat of a middle path when it comes to teaching others the deeper meaning of yoga—this approach offers direction and guidance, but no definitive answers as to how anyone "should" go about finding emotional and spiritual freedom. I highlight yoga practices that can help people connect with universal consciousness, but their personal effort and exploration are fundamental to the process. Every student and practitioner is different, and timing varies as to how long it takes a beginner to become an intermediate and an intermediate to become advanced. Try not to get caught up with the labels, instead working to create a program that allows you to have a disciplined and consistent practice. Bring a beginner's mind to each yoga pose session and let the learning continue to unfold. Remember this article is just a brief overview, touching briefly on each step, and each step has the potential to be a long and reflective journey in and of it self.
Ten Steps to Transformation in a Yoga Pose Practice
Treat these steps as a gateway to experiencing the richness that yoga has to offer rather than as a strict, methodological program. It is a template that will grow with you over time as certain steps become more relevant at different times in your life than others. Be careful to not be in a rush to experience all the benefits that these ten steps have to offer. Enjoy the process and honor your patience, and in doing so, you will notice shifts in your practice in the months and years to come.