The Early Days
As our car pulled into the driveway, my dad checked the mailbox. “Did it come? Did it come?” I gasped excitedly. The year was 1986, and I had been waiting in breathless anticipation for the past two days. I knew that the results of my black belt test had been mailed and my heart plummeted into my stomach every time I thought about it. My dad handed me the thick envelope, filled with handwritten evaluations of the five senior black belts who had assessed my test. Each would have written “pass” or “fail” at the bottom of his detailed analysis of every mistake I’d made in my katas and sparring. At 15 years old, I was one of the youngest girls, and certainly of the non-Asian girls, to ever test for black belt in Los Angeles. As I forced myself to keep breathing, I gingerly opened the envelope and reviewed the results. One by one they said “pass.”
“Oh my God, I passed! Oh my God, I passed!” I shrieked, as only 15-year-old girls can.
We jumped in the car to go tell my mom who was in her evening yoga class. My mother was the first one I knew who ever did yoga. In fact, before she started taking classes, none of us had heard of yoga as something done by non-Indians. My mother’s, and therefore my, introduction to yoga came at the behest of a physical therapist to whom she had gone for treatment of a back injury incurred during a Jane Fonda aerobics class. As my teenaged self bounded up the steps to her yoga class, I could see, through the glass doors, about 20 woman spread throughout the room bending down over blankets, bolsters and blocks. The idea that my intrusion may have been inappropriate was inconceivable. Of course Mom needed to know I had passed, and of course a 30-second ecstatic intrusion couldn’t possibly be any big deal.
It was a big deal. The teacher lovingly, but sternly, explained to me, in the midst of my exuberant outburst of “I passed!” that yoga was not merely the physical exercises my mother and the other women were doing, it was also a state of mind, a state of the breath, a mindful awareness. Exercise might not be disturbed by a 30-second interruption of an ecstatic teenager, but yoga was.
The Global Spread of Yoga
Today, almost 30 years later, yoga has become globally ubiquitous. 15-year-olds not only understand the yoga that their parents do, but in many cases are also doing it. The practice of yoga has burgeoned and blossomed throughout the world, leaving almost no corner untouched. When we started organizing yoga classes and courses in English and then hosting the International Yoga Festival at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh in 1998, the foreigners came primarily from America, Canada, Europe and the United Kingdom. Today, there are participants from more than 100 countries around the world, including not only the “West” as we envision the Americas and the European Union, but also large groups from countries that didn’t even exist when I was learning geography, countries from the former Soviet Union, countries including Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Croatia, countries throughout Africa, and of course throughout Asia ranging from Mongolia to Taiwan.
Yoga has now joined rank with other crucial and inextricable aspects of society like toilets, hand-washing, forests, water, mothers and fathers — and has been allocated its own official day by the United Nations.
Yet when we think and speak of yoga today, what do we mean? Sadly, most of us still view yoga as the art of perfecting physical exercises — a more sophisticated and subtle form of the Jane Fonda aerobics class.
The Fullness of Yoga — True Divine Union
Yoga, the word itself, literally means “union.” It is not merely a union of our forehead to our knee or our fingers to our toes. It is a union of the self to the Divine, a union of the small self to the Universal Self, a merging of the drop back into the Ocean.
Patanjali spoke about eight limbs of yoga or ashtanga yoga, of which asana (the postures) is limb number 3 and Pranayama (breath exercises) is limb number 4. Limbs 1 and 2, the very foundation of yoga, are the yamas and niyamas, or the do’s and don’ts of a yogic life. In fact, the yamas and niyamas have nothing to do with what most of us consider a yoga practice. There is no bending or twisting or stretching. There is no contraction or elongation. There is simply non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, control of the senses, non-hoarding, purity, contentment, dedicated practice, self-study and surrender to the Divine. These, what we might call the 10 commandments of a dharmic or righteous life, are the foundation upon which Patanjali’s yogic philosophy is based.
When we realize that a righteous life, a life of honesty, integrity, non-violence and purity, is the foundation of a true yoga practice, the looseness or tightness of our hamstrings becomes only one of the many aspects of our life into which we shine the light of mindfulness and awareness. We can then embark on a practice of being present and mindful with all of our actions, not only those performed on the yoga mat.
Are we truly non-violent in word, thought and deed? Are our choices, including what we eat, what we wear and what we buy, choices for non-violence and purity? Are we truthful, not only in letter but in spirit, in all of our interactions?
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, President of the Divine Shakti Foundation, Secretary-General of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati lives at Parmarth Niketan Ashram, on the banks of the Ganges river, in the foothills of the Himalayas, in Rishikesh, India. She is President of the Divine Shakti Foundation, which is dedicated to bringing education and empowerment to women and children. She is also Secretary-General of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, an international interfaith organization dedicated to bringing clean water, sanitation and hygiene to the children of the world.
Sadhviji is a renowned speaker who addresses forums on a wide variety of topics ranging from conscious business to science and spirituality to sustainable development to the keys of happiness and peace in life. She has also been a featured speaker at the United Nations, Parliament of World Religions and other international conferences and summits. Her talks blend the knowledge and logic of the West with the insights, spirituality and wisdom of the East, and she is renowned as a spiritual bridge between the two cultures.
She is a graduate of Stanford University and has a PhD in psychology. For nearly 20 years, she has lived at Parmarth Niketan, where she teaches meditation, gives spiritual discourses, provides counseling, and oversees myriad charitable and humanitarian projects and activities, including directing the annual International Yoga Festival. She was officially ordained into the order of Sanyas (monastic vows) by her guru, His Holiness Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, in the year 2000.
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This article appears in:
2017 Catalyst, Issue 12: Yoga Day Summit