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Tapping into the True Essence of Yoga

Today it seems that yoga is booming all over the world. In many countries, one can find yoga studios, yoga classes, and yoga accessories being advertised and promoted. There are scores of yoga books, a vast array of yoga clothes and yoga bags, and even special yoga music. Fittingly there are also yoga styles to suit just about everyone. If you like a slow, gentle yoga experience, then choose a hatha flow class. If you want a more structured, rigorous training, then you might gravitate towards Ashtanga yoga. And if you want a precise approach that allows you to use props to further stretch your limbs, then you may enjoy Iyengar yoga. But if you wish to tap into yoga’s true essence, this may not be accomplished on the yoga mat at all, because yoga is actually much more than asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing). For yoga has a much deeper and vaster connotation than simply being a healthy workout for the physical body. Yoga is ultimately about connecting with the self and learning who we are, why we are here, and how we can fulfill our unique destinies.When I was growing up in India, I met many yogis young and old. Some of these yogis were mystical, advanced souls who had mastered physical and mental wellbeing and could touch upon the keys of existence. They seemed mysterious and powerful to me. Some of them had taken vows of silence, some were meditation masters, others were healers, and yet others were versed in spiritual teachings. All of them seemed to dip into my soul when they looked at me, and I felt they had a vast knowing of life’s secrets.

Other yogis I found in my family elders, such as my grandmother, who spoke to me in stories and taught me about life and myself in a special, profound way. She was a strong, intelligent woman and the head of our family. Even in her later days, when she looked small in stature, her body frame slight and delicate, she seemed immense to me, and we took special care to brew her coffee in just the right way or surely the cup would be sent back to the kitchen to be redone! Despite her toughness, my grandmother was also gentle and beautiful. She talked to me of traveling the world, of what I might experience, and what I must not forget. Even though she herself had never left our village, I listened to her, trusting and guarding what she told me–secrets that are whispered to me now in my dreams when she visits me from beyond.

In India, yoga–which means “union with the divine”–is a natural part of our upbringing. This does not necessarily mean that everyone around me was twisting into complex yoga poses, but rather that philosophy and introspection are inherent everywhere. The man who sold cashew nuts to our family would come by with his cart, ringing a small bell. While I bought the warm, fresh cashew nuts wrapped in paper cones, he would talk to me about life’s ups and downs. He fascinated me because of the simplicity of his work and his neverending serenity. Even in the hot sun, while the rest of us complained about the hear, he was cool and collected, pushing his cart down the street, and to this day, I have never met anyone else who was so calm and peaceful.

My grandfather, who was highly respected as a spiritual teacher and counselor reminded me that inner happiness would never be found in the world, so I should cultivate it within. That way, he said, no matter where I went on the planet, happiness would go with me, and I would never be at a loss for joy. He urged me to enjoy the physical universe but to not become a slave of it.

My house was filled with sounds of chanting in the early morning as my parents connected with sacred mantras that have the power to heal and transform. Even when I was little I felt there was something special in these sounds that floated upstairs to me as I was getting ready for school. My mother and father chanted together in a beautiful symphony, their devotion evident in the tones of their voices. Later my uncle initiated me into these ancient Sanskrit mantras, telling me that mantras are like a flashlight to guide me and illuminate my path in life. My uncle is one of the happiest people I have ever met. People love to be in his presence, to “sit and laugh at the whole world,” as he says. Even though he is revered as a spiritual master by many, he remains for me my beloved “chittappa,” my uncle, best friend and guide on my journey.

Yoga may be filled with props, paraphernalia, and complexity these days as people strive to know this ancient art from India. Certainly, while the asanas and physical aspects are important, they do not comprise yoga in its fullest sense.  For yoga is actually about finding our own inner truths. The physical lessons, stretching of the limbs, and breathing exercises serve as an initial step to facilitate the journey within. Yoga is all around us, in many beautiful ways. And as we embrace ourselves, question life, and find our centers, we access yoga.

Copyright © VVR Ganesh 2007

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