Listen to a preview of The Lost Teachings of Yoga
Reading these words, I wish I could say they were my own. I truly believe Yoga IS the great adventure. Since 1997, Yoga has been the center of my professional and personal life. It is a wonderful adventure which has taken me to India as well as given me the joy of practice and a clear path to cultivate a spiritual life. These were, however, never my original aspirations; I wanted to be an actress not a yoga teacher.
In high school, I had the lead role in almost every school play. I was often working on a script or reading poetry. I remember a play in which we depicted the scenes from everyday life. I listed off the different areas as work/career, school, play and family. I recall asking my fellow classmates, "Is that it?" Something for me felt like it was missing. We all agreed we had covered the basics and there was nothing else. But the missing 'something' is today what I deem as the spiritual and what may people have come to articulate as the lack of an inner life (Dr. Jack Miller, OISE, University of Toronto). The West says gather material wealth and status while the East says develop your inner life. The East also takes it one step further in stating that the spiritual and material are not separate worlds (Yogananda Paramahansa).
The spiritual realm is where Yoga ultimately takes us. But in the West as Georg Feuerstein writes we are often involved with a type of Yoga that is far removed from these roots. It is rather ironic that over 30 million practise Yoga, but less than 10 per cent practice it for enlightened reasons. I first became acquainted with Georg Feuerstein's work while thumbing through books on Yoga philosophy and history during my early dabblings. I revisited his work while writing my Master's thesis. His work became the necessary back-up for my research on Yoga in school both in India and North America (2005/06).
Feuerstein points to the loss of ‘authentic’ Yoga and the dilemma in defining ‘traditional’ Yoga. What we call tradition is relative, because Yoga’s evolution is not as straight-forward as most people assume. In fact, many people equate Yoga to Hinduism but Yoga is also interwoven into the fabric of Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. In The Lost Teaching of Yoga, in which Feuerstein clarifies to mean that Yoga is not really lost but misplaced he states:
1. Contemporary Yoga is flat and it does not go to the core;
2. Traditional Yoga goes to the core and to the spirit;
3. Most people run away when they hear this!
First, I think we need to define what is contemporary and traditional. Contemporary Yoga and most of what is called Hatha-yoga and Ashtanga-yoga has generally been reduced to exercise. Even the fact that teachers claim Ashtanga-yoga is 'the authentic Yoga' is debatable. Krishnamacharya, the Guru of Gurus, who handed it down to others went on to develop another type of Yoga based on his evolution. Is this later Yoga any less authentic? As well, many practitioners say you will ‘eventually’ be led to deeper experiences by practice alone. I think it is fair to say one does not necessarily follow the other. In comparison, meditation teachers have said they sat on 'stuff’ for years, never really penetrating the hidden caverns of their mind. The deeper realm is the potential to wake up to our mental habits, tendencies, issues, et cetra. Practice without this understanding will not lead to higher consciousness unless we deliberately intend to do so.
Conversely, traditional Yoga takes you off the mat and into the world. What is meant by this is the understanding (not necessarily the experience) that Yoga is a spiritual practice first and foremost. Everything else including the postures, the vinyasas and the exercise is secondary. That is, the asanas which seemed to be the goal are the tool to gain mental stability, ease, peace and joy. Shri K. Pattabi Jois was known to say, "it is just bending". And my own teacher Yogacharya Venkatesha often said, "the postures are imaginings".
These utterings might create confusion in us. After all why invest time, money and energy to bend your body only to find out you missed the point! But truthfully this is not Yoga's fault. Dr. David Frawley (a teacher of the Vedic tradition) said:
"Yoga has been, if not misrepresented, at least only superficially presented in the West in which its deeper transformative principles and practices easily get lost in purely physical or personal concerns"
~(pg. xii, Yoga and the Sacred Fire).
In the end, we have ourselves to blame for our misconceptions and prejudices. Like many people I also began with no intention to learn the theory or history of Yoga. This was in part due to the representation of Yoga in the media and my own superficial quests. Living in the East and having a few good teachers has thankfully shaped my path. Each one of my primary teachers has been an Indian Master and there were very clear reasons for this. I had already understood a long time ago that in the West Yoga practices were "watered-down" (Georg Feuerstein). Agreeing with this I sought to study and learn directly from the source. But at one time while young and immature I hated listening to the Swamis at the ashram repeat the "Niyamas and Yamas” (the morals and ethicial practices of Yoga). My samskaras (Sanskrit word for impressions on the psyche) were entrenched in the physical. My teacher Yogacharya taught me to remember, "asana is not the goal."
Today, we really need to find the context to fit the "lost teachings of Yoga" into our world. Rather than looking for ways to make this ‘comfortable’ we need to understand the best lessons stem from being challenged. In other words, it is not only the good lessons that teach us well, but the difficulties.
This is not to imply Yoga should not be enjoyed. It is rather that we begin to see how health, fitness and well-being are knee-deep reactions; the stuff we are always concerned with. Isn't it time we strive for a bit more than the seemingly accessible? Yoga offers greater possibilities of freedom on all levels. If the practices of Hatha-yoga/Ashtanga-yoga are taken up we can strive to feel freer: it is possible, it is real, it is obtainable and it is available.
The Journey So Far
Life is an adventure and yoga is the greatest one of all. Here I share my love of Yoga, travel, practice and becoming a part-time cook. My life adventures have taken me from growing up in Toronto to living and working in South Korea to studying in India, marriage and finally closing my Yoga school of 15 years.
What I can say so far is that I truly believe that it is necessary in life to let go of one dream in order for another to be born. This might be painful to do so but it is the only way to move forward. We often believe that if our original plan does not succeed it is the recipe for failure. But what if it is the door to something new and great? The horizon is wide and life is not a straight line. This is the way I see it and my journey so far. Having also recently given birth to my first child and at 43, it is another new beginning.
- Heather Morton
- is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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