Yoga is Life
“Yoga is life” Sri Aurobindo once famously penned. If you tell this to most westerners, though, you’d see a pair of glazed eyes staring back at you. We tend to think of yoga as something physical, a set of asanas — or postures — that might leave us feeling nice and relaxed or give us a good ‘work-out’. This view, however, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what yoga was intended to mean and what it potentially can be for each of us.
Yoga — stemming from the Sanskrit ‘yuj’ meaning to unify — is an art, science, and philosophy, a time-tested system developed over the course of thousands of years to cultivate and catalyze one’s personal evolution.
A little background. According to ancient yogic traditions, each being is born into two distinct natures: the ‘apara’ and the ‘para’.
The lower part, referred to as the ‘apara’ nature, can be thought of as our conception of self, that ego we feel that’s pulling the strings behind the ‘me-show’. It compartmentalizes the reality in which we perceive, seeing ourselves as one thing out of an expansive ocean of many other things. It sees man and woman, tall and short, and discerns between sweet and salty and the sensations of pleasant and unpleasant. It is our temporal self, and upon our birth, is given a time-stamp, a visa if you will, which expires at our death.
The apara self tends to identify itself with the various masks/roles it wears and beliefs it carries along the way. This identification typically gives way to attachment, fueling the disappointment, anxiety, and fear that inevitably arise when seeking to grasp onto a rushing stream. The need for affirmation, for control, the thirst for power and status, the need to perpetually do do do…all this dis-ease we may feel, so prevalent in our culture, it’s all rooted in the identification with our apara self.
Our ‘para’ nature, by contrast, is the higher Self which sees no distinctions. It is that part of each one of us that is eternal and infinite, that in us which lives beyond temporal existence. You could say It’s the initial explosion of the Big Bang still gyrating through us. It is the first law of thermodynamics playing hide and seek with Itself. It is that elegant dance between each breath, between life and death, between creation and destruction, in which every moment is the unfolding experience of Now…those rare moments where time ceases and we become what we are on the most fundamental level, we become what’s behind all the masks, beyond all conceptions and categorizations, that experience of all of existence perceiving itself.
One can liken the para nature with the sun and the apara nature with the clouds: The sun is always there, but often we can’t see it because of all the interference patterns in the sky. The clouds are the small ego grasping, all this conditioning which we have acquired over years and possibly lifetimes, leading us to accept — on a conscious and/or subconscious level — the false conclusion that we are separate from the rest of all That proceeding around us.
The ancient yogic teachings maintain that beyond our physical bodies, we also have three other bodies: mental, emotional (often referred to as pranic), and psychic (heart-centered). [These bodies, or koshas as they’re called, also correspond with our chakra system (energy centers): physical ~> earth, mental ~> fire, emotional ~> water, and psychic ~> air]. Each one of these bodies has both an untransformed (apara) and a transformed (para) nature.
The primary goal of yoga, it can be said then, lies in the transformation of these four apara bodies into their para state. For instance, through the practice of yoga asana, we clean our physical body, removing toxins in the form of tension and stuck energy pockets that we hold onto for whatever various reasons. Meditation — the practice of non-judging observation, which can be done still or dynamically — works to purify the mind. Karmic yoga (the practice of selflessly giving of oneself) purifies the psychic body, as does Bakti yoga (full devotion/surrender to a cause/power higher then oneself), as does living with a felt sense and presence of gratitude. Pranayama (expansion of the prana through control of the breath) transforms our emotional body, and mantras (the repetition of particular sound vibrations) can often directly affect the mental, psychic, and emotional bodies. And since all the bodies are inter-connected, working on one of the bodies will often have positive spill-over effects on the others as well.
For many, this process of purification might sound unrealistic and too daunting. We live in a culture, after all, obsessed with the quick fix and immediate gratification. And the path of yoga is one in which progress can be measured not only in days and months and years, but in lifetimes. Attaining some state of perfection isn’t the point though. It’s not about getting it completely right in some future life. It’s about getting it more right right now. It’s about living with less anxiety, less fear, less suffering, and with more love, more right guidance, and more joy, right now.
And the thing is, we don’t have to go far to find this ‘better’ version of our self. You see, the seeker of truth is like the sculptor chiseling away at a large monolithic block to uncover what was there all along. The burning truth is already inside each one of us, we just have to provide sufficient space to allow Its rays to shine through.
So in the strict sense, yoga is a complete system designed to chisel away all these obstructions we carry. In a more general sense of the word, though, it’s also that in which we aim to bring about: it’s both the journey (the process/method) and the destination (Union).
I believe this is what Sri Aurobindo meant when he said “All life is yoga”. When properly understood, we take the practice of yoga with us wherever we go and in whatever we do. Maybe we can practice yoga when we play with our children or when we caress our lover, but what about when we are doing the dishes, when we are stuck in the office, when we are engaging in a difficult conversation? For this is when the real practice comes into play, when the play becomes in fact the practice…