Yoga is one of the oldest philosophies of health and living in the world, dating back to the dawn of Indian culture 5000 years ago. Its strong public association with exercise and meditation does not do it justice: it only starts from there. The very strong growth of yoga teaching and practice in Europe and America in the past twenty years indicates how well it meets strong needs that many of us feel on many levels.
Late in the nineteenth century spiritual leaders from the Indian subcontinent began to make missionary journeys to Europe. Cynics in the sixties portrayed them as having an eye for the main chance, especially when the Beatles took a serious interest in the Maharishi’s teachings. It is nearer the truth to credit gurus like him with genuine concern about the Western view of life at that time, and a desire to give westerners access to a system of mental and spiritual health once more.
That phase seems now to be over, with most of the yogis and spiritual gurus now re-settled in the East. Many devout followers remain here however; some conspicuous, others unobtrusive. Far the greatest legacy of their two decades of active teaching in Europe is the wide spread among westerners of interest in and openness towards the Eastern philosophy of living.
Most people turn to yoga in the first place for its physical discipline, which promotes suppleness and restores function to stiffened limbs. This is one aspect of hatha yoga, a comprehensive teaching designed to restore the balanceof the natural forces operating on all living people. It seems on the face of it to be a rather graceful pastime somewhere between gymnastics and dance, but it includes attention to diet, quiet surroundings and an ethical and moral outlook on life. Many students originally attracted by postural exercises and movement go on to discover peace of mind and a sense of well-being through careful attention to what they are doing. This introduces them to elements of the yogic science of breathing (pranayama yoga) and perhaps yoga meditation, gradually learning more about the underlying philosophy as they go.
An experienced English yoga teacher has put it like this. ‘If I stretch one arm as high as I can towards the sky, thinking how nice the sky looks or wondering whether the person next to me has stretched higher or not so high, o rthinking that I must pay the telephone bill when I get home, then I’m not doing yoga — merely physical exercises. But if I slowly extend my arm upwards to its limit, synchronizing the movement with my breathing and holding the position long enough to experience properly the movement of muscles and joints, noting how so simple a movement brings about a reaction in every other muscle inmy body — then I’m doing yoga.’
Yoga is not a religion but a science of self-knowledge, which means that it takes full account of the quality dimension of life (see complementary medicine). Its philosophy provides a map of spiritual life, and its various practices provide several alternative means of travelling. There is no claim that any one route or discipline is superior to any other: instead the student is free to explore and experience life for himself, starting with his own present needs. He may have begun with a desire to overcome stress, cancer, asthma or other major diseases, but as he does so he realises that above all he needs to know himself (see yourself). Self-knowledge is very close to the ultimate object of yoga.
There are many different schools of yoga, all sharing the same objective butwith different methods and approaches — exactly like yogic philosophy itself. The British Wheel of Yoga is in this country probably the largest teaching and disciplinary body, though there are several other country-wide associations. The British Wheel of Yoga organises and trains teachers, as well as maintaining standards of tuition and practice. There are many hundreds of yoga teachers qualified in this way, working in adult education in every part of the country. There cannot be many Adult Education Institutes left which do not offer yoga classes, and they are seldom under-subscribed.
You require very little equipment for yoga apart from easy, non-constricting clothing and a mat, length of carpet or car-rug to lie on. Nor do you need a problem to solve. All you need is willingness to try it, without obligation or prejudice. If it has anything for you, you will find out soon enough.
What to do
1. Apply to your local Adult Education Institute, or direct to The British Wheel of Yoga for details of yoga activities in your area.
2. If you join a yoga class and have any special problems or weaknesses it is best to tell your teacher before you start. You will however be continually reminded not to compete or force yourself beyond your capabilities. Nevertheless you must make an effort to explore and experience what you are able to do — that is the point of being there.
3. Membership of the British Wheel of Yoga (see contacts below) is open to anyone by annual subscription. This secures four copies of their quarterly journal Spectrum plus a local newsletter covering your area, and entitles you to attend their seminars and congresses.
4. You may prefer instead to subscribe to Yoga and Health, a monthly magazine available from your newsagent or by postal subscription.
5. A good way to explore the fundamentals of yoga is to read the book Infinite Peace, distributed by Acorn Publishing. This is a translation of the writings of Patanjali, an exceptional exponent of the science of yoga who lived around 500 years BC.