All of us who are connected in some way to the modern postural Yoga network – which is expanding at about the rate at which the universe expands: fast and furiously – have probably wondered along the way what exactly is the root of this practice?
Where did it all begin, and how is the practice we do today, often in crowded, sweaty rooms, on plastic mats and to 'Yoga-DJ' beats, related to that original source?
To answer that question in full would likely take some deep scholarship and a precise tracing of the many branches and tributaries of wisdom, tradition and practice that have trickled down to us, to this point, over the millennia.
Still, for the lay-Yogi, who is not drawn to embark on this scholarly path of Jnana Yoga in this lifetime, it's an interesting thought-ramble to follow:
Which elements in a typical Studio-vinyasa class, for example, still connect to some aspect of roots, of source, of tradition? We've compiled a few of the more recognizable ones here with some brief illumination on the historic and traditional significance of each element or symbol.
Hardly a Yoga class goes by without the obligatory chanting of this unifying tone. For first-time Yogis, perhaps a bit strange when the room breaks into chant and often the meaning of the syllable is not explained. Simply, OM (or A-U-M) is thought of as the original vibration, the tone which created the universe or was present at its creation. It is the vibrating embodiment of the non-deistic universal soul – Brahman – and is the holiest of sounds/ Mantras in the Hindu religion. It is not connected to any single deity but rather serves to unite, to encompass, to unify.
Why chant in class? For just this reason: the collective raising of voices in a joint frequency creates a sympathetic vibration among those entering a practice together. Perhaps a bit like a collective group hug.
This beautiful greeting is heard daily on the streets in India – and what better way to acknowledge each other than to get right to the essence of things with 'the divine in me bows to the divine in you?' In Yoga classes, Namaste is often placed at the conclusion of a practice, the teacher bowing to her students and acknowledging their divinity – and her own as well. Traditionally, 'Namaste' is combined with the gesture of uniting the palms in front of the heart-center and bowing the forehead – humbling the brain towards the heart.
A string of mala beads has become a ubiquitous fashion accessory in the trendy western Yoga world - but what was the original intent behind wearing 108-plus-one-guru-bead(s)? Traditionally, the mala is used much like a rosary in the catholic church. Instead of praying the rosary, the mala is used to recite a mantra - 108 times, starting on either side of the larger guru bead and working one's way all the way around and back again. In the Hindu tradition, each of the 108 beads represents a different deity, while for the Buddhists, the 108 beads represent the 108 volumes of the collected teachings of the Buddha.
The Yogic tradition is full of ripe symbolism and gorgeous imagery. One commonly recurring element is the lotus blossom, which is often shown in combination with a deity or sometimes as a symbol on its own. It is also celebrated in mantras like Om Mani Padme Hum (the jewel in the Lotus) - an essential Buddhist mantra that is said to contain within is all of the teachings of the Buddha, and which is repeated over and over again to invoke the loving and unconditional qualities of compassion. This reminds us that just as the lotus flower grows from the darkness into the light, so can our consciousness grow and transcend the limitations (darkness) of ignorance.
These are just a few of the tangible and recurring symbols and elements that connect the Yoga we practice today to its root, or essence – and a reminder for all of us who practice regularly that we are participating in an ancient tradition with each time we choose to step on our mat or take a breath to chant OMMM.
Remembering that we are participating in a tradition that transcends this moment, this decade, our lifetime can help us also to understand the true essence of Yoga: the interconnectedness of all beings, across time and space.
Photos: Sanjin Kastelan