Chapter 4 – Sponge Bob Yogis
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One of the things I have noticed about the present day yoga scene is that it has become very commercialised, when in fact, the true teachings of yoga cannot be sold or bought. This begs the question, how much real yoga is actually being transmitted in so many schools, ashramas and yogashalas that sell the techniques of yoga? Real yogic teachings are a transmission between guru and disciple – not between a ticket-seller and a ticket-buyer! However, it is natural in the yoga culture that there should be some form of remuneration from the student to the teacher. This system is known as dakshina. Dakshina is not a specified amount of money or goods, but rather a sincere offering (according to one’s means) from the student to the teacher in appreciation for having received the knowledge of yoga. Dakshina may be in the form of currency, a gift, or even an offering of something as simple as an apple or a flower.
The fact is that the most fundamental knowledge of yoga is oftentimes never transmitted to the student in the commercial schools of yoga, even after having paid an exorbitant price! There are two fundamental principles of yogic knowledge – firstly, as it is stated in the Vedanta-sutra, athato brahma-jijnasa – “Now in this human form of life, one should endeavor to understand the Absolute Truth.” The second fundamental point of yogic knowledge is aham brahmasmi – “I am a particle of Brahman, a particle of pure consciousness. I am not this material body!” Brahman emanates as the spiritual effulgence of Bhagavan Sri Krishna’s transcendental form:
ब्रह्मणो हि प्रतिष्ठाहममृतस्याव्ययस्य च ।
शाश्वतस्य च धर्मस्य सुखस्यैकान्तिकस्य च ॥
“I (Krishna) am the foundation of the immortal, imperishable Brahman, who is the basis of eternal dharma and supreme bliss.” (Bhagavad-gita 14.27)
We, as living beings, are eternal particles of that Brahman as stated in Bhagavad-gita:
ममैवांशो जीवलोके जीवभूतः सानातन: ।
मन:षष्ठानीन्द्रियाणि प्रकृतिस्थानि कर्षति ॥
“The living beings of this world are My eternal particles. These living beings struggle with the five senses and the mind, which is the sixth sense within.” (Bhagavad-gita 15.7)
These are the fundamental principles of yoga and self-realisation, yet these are completely excluded in almost all commercial schools of so-called yoga.
According to the Vedic wisdom, every individual living being is wandering in the universe through millions upon millions of lifetimes in search of inner fulfillment and the Absolute Truth. It is not until one meets a bona-fide guru that his/her search comes to an end.
ব্রহ্মাণ্ড ভ্রমিতে কোন ভাগ্যবান জীব
গুরু কৃষ্ণ প্রসাদে পায় ভক্তিলতা বীজ
“According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the universe. Some of them are being elevated to the upper planetary systems, and some are going down into the lower planetary systems. Out of many millions of wandering living entities, one who is very fortunate gets an opportunity by the grace of Krishna to associate with a genuine spiritual master. By the mercy of both Krishna and the spiritual master, such a person receives mantra-initiation (diksha) and instruction (shiksha) into bhakti-yoga, the topmost yoga system, thus enabling one to transcend the world of birth and death.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-lila 19.151)
The situation today is that there are some who have learned yoga from a master without paying, who then turn around and sell those techniques to many naive people from the west. This in itself is a critical violation of the ethos of yoga.
Mysore in South India has now become the yoga hub with the followers of B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. In my youth it was Hardiwar and Rishikesh – in particular, Swami Shivananda of Rishikesh who was a very renowned yogi at that time. The first lessons I ever took on yoga were from Shivananda’s disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda. The first practices we learned were passing a string through the nose and out of the mouth (sutra-neti). The next was swallowing about twenty feet of surgical gauze (dhauti) which is a cleaning exercise to help clear out the bile and waste in the stomach that transforms into toxins. Then there was colonics, followed by an exercise for clearing the nasal passage with water (jala-neti), which is important for practicing pranayama. All these exercises are known as kriyas. Only after doing all these kriyas and following a strict vegetarian diet, did we learn asanas and pranayama! This is the real yoga system. Now try to sell that as the introductory steps to yoga at a studio in New York or California!
Nowadays, people just learn to do some stretching which is more akin to aerobics than actual yoga and they do this on a spongey rubber mat which is itself toxic. In relation to this, a friend of mine has sarcastically coined the phrase ‘Sponge-bob yogis’. The ancient Sanskrit text known as the Yoga Yajnavalkya states that one should perform yoga on a kusha grass mat. Traditionally, yogis would perform asanas on mats made of grass fibre, wool, cotton or even silk, but never on mats made from plastic or foam rubber.
Yoga must be performed with a pure mind, body, diet and surroundings. That is the first step in yoga. There is an internal physical purification that one must go through because so many toxins are in the joints and muscles. There are so many unwanted thoughts in the mind, so there is a necessity for mental purification also – in other words, yoga without purification is not yoga at all.
Purification continues with pranayama. I recently learned that some of the special forces in the U.S. military such as the Navy SEALS practice pranayama. They do simple pranayama to calm their mind and nerves before being deployed on a mission. Pranayama is very, very powerful. Meditation only starts after pranayama. Many people attend a yoga class where the instructor says, “We are going to teach you some asanas and then we are going to teach you meditation!” They start meditating, but there is no pranayama in-between. You cannot meditate unless you can control your life-airs. When you practice pranayama the mind immediately becomes more peaceful. Unfortunately, pranayama, colonics and kriyas are not very exciting things to do, so they have not been marketed by the commercial yoga community. Some might say, “That’s okay! If people just get into it, they can ease into some of the more serious steps of yoga later and finally get it all right.” What really happens is that the vast majority of people never do that. They think that whatever they initially learned is all there is. Many are not taught that there are more serious stages to the process. Many are not even taught that yoga comes from India! Even if they do, it is very rare to find someone who knows what the highest goal of yoga is meant to be, and the highest stages of yoga can only be achieved through abhyasa (constant practice) – not simply by attending a weekly class or a one-month retreat.
I don’t subscribe to Yoga Journal, but whenever I’m in the United States, I take the opportunity to read some back issues. I can’t remember having ever seen an article on samadhi in Yoga Journal. Samadhi is the Sanskrit word for the ultimate state of pure consciousness, which is the main goal to be achieved through yoga. The asanas, which are the most popular, are for the most part the most insignificant division of yoga. Asanas are meant to prepare the body for meditation. What I have seen many times in Yoga Journal and similar yoga publications are articles focused on weight loss and slimming one’s figure, but nothing leading to self-realisation.
Occasionally, some people do inquire about the actual substance of yoga – where it came from, what it is meant to be and what the genuine yogic processes are. That is good, but there is also the commercial side of yoga. Despite the fact that it makes people feel better and healthier, it misses the fundamental purpose of yoga. Yoga means to unite with the Supreme Consciousness, but the so-called yoga of the commercial studios is completely focused on the side-effect of feeling healthy and strong. This isn’t yoga, but bhoga, which means to increase one’s sensual enjoyment.
Many teachers are more interested to sell yoga, rather than actually teach it. I won’t mention any names, but I know some teachers in India and some that used to be in India, who knew exactly what they were doing – they were simply selling a product. They were not teaching their students what yoga actually is.