How do we know if what we are learning is authentic Yoga?

It depends on our definition of ‘authentic’. After many years of continuous & consistent practice, for me, authentic Yoga involves all three components; asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), and meditation, based on a traditional approach. One aims to practice Yoga for the purpose of attaining the ‘state of Yoga’, which is not a physical, but a mental state. How do these three yogic components work, to make my Yoga ‘authentic’?

Asanas

My understanding of an ‘authentic’ asana practice is a practice tested by time. It is a traditional approach, whereby one moves the spine through all directions possible within one practice session. Without personally avoiding any particular type of postures, this practice session also includes some challenges, which will be different for every individual practitioner. Asanas serve as a means to keep our bodies healthy, strong, and flexible, creating an all-over wellness which in return enables us to sit still comfortably, and for a long period of time. This is so we are eventually able to practice pranayama and the higher limbs of Yoga: – sense-control, concentration, and meditation. Asanas are a joyful, enjoyable and exciting part of the practice, but are not to be mistaken for all Yoga stands for.

The purpose of asana practice

The purpose of following an asana regime is to prepare our body and to train our mind for pranayama and meditation. The latter require a high level of concentration and the ability to ‘direct the focus of the mind exclusively toward one object, and to sustain this direction without distraction’, as Patanjali states in his Yoga Sutra I.2. To attain this state we avoid distractions of any kind, and certainly the ‘entertainment’ of the mind.

There will be times when we feel challenged in our practice on any level, which can happen at different stages of the journey for everyone. It is not always comfortable, because these challenges can ‘push our buttons’ – they ask us to evolve. We are required to face some habitual patterns which are no longer serving us. Those we need to move through and onward from. We are also learning about ourselves; are we ‘reacting’ or ‘responding’ to these challenges, are we frustrated, anxious, angry, or despondent to the point of wanting to give up. Are we fearful, wanting to avoid the posture/s, which have triggered these responses, or the opposite, do we want to rush through them?

In wishing to achieve an ‘authentic’ Yoga practice, our purpose is to form a strong sense of self and character, reflected by a strong body. We develop flexibility not only physically, but also mentally. Most importantly, we gain control over our mind and its foibles, and at the same time we open the heart, developing compassion, and unconditional love.

Commiting to one system of practice

Practicing this way, one has to commit to one system of Yoga. It may help us when we are a novice to Yoga, to go from one form of practice to another in our search for personal suitability. But to enhance our overall development we hold to the one practice, especially when it becomes confronting. Meaning; this is when Yoga is actually beginning to work for you!

Music is beautiful to listen to, but I am not sure it helps us attain the single-pointed-focus to reach the higher states of Yoga. Or for that matter, sharing the space with goats (yes, there is such a thing as ‘goat yoga’. Cute, but Yoga?) etc. Also, what comes to mind are all the hybrids emerging as of late, of different disciplines which are named Yoga.

Hybrids

When Yoga started to become mainstream and the Yoga business exploded, many looked for an opportunity to make a living from it. Over the years, countless hybrids of different disciplines appeared on the timetable of many yoga schools. As exciting as these possibly are, I’d question wether the use of the word ‘Yoga’ has its place in their class description. This has resulted in many of us fearing that the teachings of Yoga are being diluted.

The purpose of Yoga

Yoga is not about entertaining the mind. Rather, we want to clear our head to come to a deeply concentrated still place, even to possibly reach ecstasy. To be able to attain such a state, we have to have moved through some character forming releases and changes, with the aim of evolving into a peaceful, intelligent, responsive (not reactive), loving and compassionate being. This is possible when following authentic teachings, which amongst other things, aren’t reduced to practicing postures only.

Pranayama

Once you have completed the beautiful practice of asanas, the body is more able to sit still comfortably for a longer period of time. Now we begin to pursue the practice of pranayama – breathing exercises. They appear mild in nature, but there are subtle and strong forces at work here. This limb of Yoga deserves a lot of respect. More patience is needed for this discipline, which is indicative of us moving towards the higher limbs of Yoga. We are slowly starting to turn our awareness inward. The wonderfully energizing and mind-focusing effects of pranayama are very powerful. Most of all, pranayama hones our inner strength and heightens mental awareness, which can be surprising considering the subtleness of this practice.

Meditation

Next we come to further enhancing the mind’s ability to focus, and finally move into the practice of concentration and meditation. We need to be able to sit still without being distracted by any physical discomfort, to be fully absorbed by the chosen ‘object’ of observation.

A practitioner who is fully immersed in the pursuit of all 8 limbs of Yoga – out of which I have not discussed the moral and ethical codes in this reflection – will have no need to demonstrate and make public that they are more advanced. You will notice a natural ‘glow’ about them, a deep-seated wisdom and beauty. They inspire through their actions rather than their spoken words – or excessive social media engagement ;) They will be kind, humble, trustworthy, generous, loving, skilled and strong on all levels.

If you’d like to create true, positive change within yourself and your life, practice authentic yoga. What you will receive in return for your consistent effort will exceed all of your expectations. You will be taken to a level of awareness and enjoyment of life you would never have imagined possible.

OM Shanti,
Angelika