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The Four Confusions About Yoga

It is said that today, out of three Americans two are practicing yoga. This is wonderful. But nevertheless, we find in the West – and sometimes even within India - FOUR main misconceptions about yoga.


First it's origin: yoga is a gift from India to the world. Let me rephrase that : yoga is a Hindu legacy to the entire humanity. A few years ago, the prestigious Time magazine did an entire issue on yoga. The word “India” was hardly mentioned at all; and the word ‘Hindu” NEVER appeared. It is also partially the fault of modern Hindu gurus, as to better partake of this ancient techniques to a Western Christian audience, and make it more acceptable, they often omitted to mention that it was  a Hindu inheritance. Notice that Swami Vivekananda, the First Pioneer to bringing yoga to the West, had no such qualms and he was not ashamed to tell the Americans that he was a Hindu and was greeting the World Parliament of Religions “in the name of his Hindu brothers and sisters”.


The second confusion is that Westerners believe that the only yoga that exists, is Hatha Yoga. Yet, there are so many different types of yogas : bhakti yoga, the path of devotion; karma Yoga, how to reach the Divine through work; Jana yoga though knowledge; kriya yoga, etc... “ All life is Yoga”, said the great Sage Sri Aurobindo, which means that whatever we perform and do on this earth, can be done in a spirit of inner concentration and awareness.


The Third confusion springs from the fact that hatha yoga has been made a hotchpotch khichuri in the West– all kinds of gymnastics, aerobics. yoga in heated rooms, yoga in water, etc. All these offshoots have forgotten that true yoga is the union of body, breath and mind. Even if you achieve this for a few seconds, you have reached your purpose and have entered yogic consciousness.


The fourth mistake, or confusion, is that Hatha Yoga is just a mechanical discipline, that you practice to get flexible and agile. It is a SACRED and ancient practice and it should be performed with a sense of Gratitudetowards all the ancient sages that devised the asanas, the contemporary masters who carried them forward and Mother India, who nurtured these wonderful techniques in Her Bosom. If it is practiced with that sense of devotion, it will lead to not only to flexibility, but a higher intuitive mind.


To my mind, there are two mainstream schools of yoga - the first one is Ashtanga yoga, which is the easiest and most accessible to ordinary folk; and the second one Iyengar Yoga, maybe the purest one, but more difficult to practice. I have had the privilege to interview twice B.K.S. Iyengar and I found him a remarkable man, capable at this then advanced age to do sirsasana for 20 minutes or more. Rightly so, both these schools consider that Surya Namaskar remains the Queen of all asanas: in 10 postures you concentrate all the needed stretching of the body and it can be practiced till an advances age.


We need the also here to talk about other forms of yoga, such as Pranayama. Pranayama is the ancient science of breathing, which was also discovered and developed by ancient rishis in India. They found that it was difficult to control the Mind by the Mind - but that each emotion induces a particular pattern of breathing; and in turn, specific manners and techniques of respiration can work on cycles of thinking and emotions. For instance, those who have a tendency to get angry, have fast patterns of breath, which in the long run can lead to heart problems. Through different exercises of pranayama, one can lower down the speed of the respiration and therefore work on one’s anger. Same thing is true of people who tend to get depressed - they hardly breathe at all and deprive their brain and body of oxygen. There again, ancient sages devised certain pranayamas that oxygen and revitalize the brain and the body, therefore working on the depression itself effortlessly. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has modernized and packaged these ancient techniques of pranayama, to make it easy to practice them daily at home. His Sudarshan kriya has remarkable properties of de-stressing both the mind ad the body and is a powerful tool.


Finally pranayama or practicing correctly hatha yoga, brings you in the present moment, which is what all yogas aspire to: be neither needlessly reviving the past, or projecting yourself in a future that does not exist yet. But though the union of breath mind and body, be as thoughtless and centered in your heart as possible and you will see that all anger, depression, anxieties disappear. Then, naturally and spontaneously this leads meditation- which she is another gift of India to the world, a gift whose origin has also been forgotten. Medical studies  have shown that meditation slows down the heart, spaces out the thoughts, regulates the blood flow and is generally the best way to de-stress in our more and more nerve-racking world.


The international yoga day of 21st June is Mr. Narendra Modi’s gift to the world. It is an invaluable gift, that needs to be cherished and cultivated. It would be good however that the Indian government clears the confusions in western minds about yoga. One should also promote Indian yogis and philosophers, such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, as official ambassadors of yoga in the West. The @BJP4India should endorse to he great Sri Aurobindo, who explained at length in books such as a The synthesis of Yoga or the Life Divine, the very nature of yoga and how to lead a yogic life in this mad Planet of ours.


François Gautier


The author, a Journalist (Le Figaro, Valeurs Actuelles), Writer (An Entirely New History of India – Garudabooks) is also, along with his wife Namrita, a pranayama teacher of the Art of Living techniques.

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