Yoga originated in India some five centuries BC. I do not profess to know enough, but understand that “Yog” means union and yoga seeks to help its practitioners align their breath (“shvas/prana” or life-energy) with the mind through body discipline. Yoga “asanas” (postures) and gentle limb movements help to stretch and align the entire body while focusing the mind on the breath to achieve harmony and spiritual enlightenment. This ancient, venerated practice is now increasingly being exploited for political ends, as a topic of cocktail-circuit conversations to demonstrate how “enlightened” one is and finally, as a purely commercial tool that gets people to pay for the right gear and “hot”, “goat” or “snake” yoga etc. To each her/his own, I say.
I only started learning yoga almost a year ago. My septuagenarian teacher told me that initially, we would focus only on a stretching and breathing routine for me and we continued to do just that for about six months. I do not view her as an “instructor,” because they merely instruct; she is a “teacher” or even a “master” – one who imparts knowledge and wisdom. Carefully observing my body movements as I stretch and try to hold a pose, she is particularly attentive to my flow of breath at all times. Frequently, I am told to stop and relax when she notices a set of my muscles tensing up or if the limbs start to shake. She then introduces another, gentler position or movement after providing its Sanskrit name and the underlying rationale of how it helps relax the body and in turn, the mind. Different from the “wholesale” version of yoga, don’t you think?
However, another teacher besides my learned yoga “master” has appeared in my life. My 4 ½ years old granddaughter J recently visited for a weekend “sleepover” and spotting a yoga mat in my room, excitedly asked “Nana, (maternal grandfather) can I teach you yoga?” I had no clue that kids at J’s Montessori in Toronto were learning yoga. Amused, I readily agreed to let her be my teacher. She rolled out the mat and sitting in a perfect lotus position at one end, shut her eyes and asked me to sit at the other end and copy her. She then proceeded to show me one position after another through effortless fluid movements. She did the “cobra” position and told me I was not doing it right because I was supposed to “hiss” through my teeth when breathing out and did not have my feet together when doing the “downward dog.” I was soon breathless, which was not just because of wonderment! I requested my wise little teacher to excuse here “Nana” as he had eaten a big lunch and his stomach was hurting. J told me to lie down flat on my back and go to sleep. It was a relief to do so and when I sat up after a few minutes, I brought together my palms and with eyes closed, chanted “Om”. J nudged me and pressing her hands together chastised me, “This is Namaste, silly nana.” This yoga lesson surpassed the collective weekly sessions with my yoga master over the past several months! Never have I felt such joy and relaxation, even as my little teacher forced my muscles to stretch beyond the limits they could endure.
An attempt at becoming a “yogi” to control our body and mind will remain incomplete if we practice yoga merely as a set of exercises, embellished by props. Each breath must be “observed” and accounted for. The mind has to be very deliberately and consciously brought around to focus on “being one” with the body. Do we end the process after the mat is rolled up, or the Lululemon gear shed off? Surely, when developed centuries ago, yoga was intended to become a way of living our life – mindful, thoughtful, in unison with everything and everyone around us.
I wonder, facetiously, if the rock band The Police were thinking along these lines when they sang “Every Breath You Take, I’ll Be Watching You”. Personally, I love this live version from 1988 of Bruce Springsteen and Sting performing together for Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Now” concert in Buenos Aires: