You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state
— Sharon Gannon
If one were to take a poll today and ask ‘What is yoga?’ most answers would revolve around yoga being about the body. Some would say about the breath, or the prana, the life force. But if yoga were just about body and breath, then why would Ashtavakra, whose body was bent in eight places, be considered one of the greatest yogis? In all probability, he would not have been able to do any body postures or breathing techniques that are equated with yoga today. Then what is yoga, really?
Imagine this scene — a physically challenged 12-year-old boy, from a poor background, goes to the king’s palace, and asks for a conversation with foremost scholars of the time and an audience with the king. Everyone laughs at him, including the king. The boy retorts, “I thought I had come to a gathering of the wise but this seems to be a gathering of ….” The boy was none other than Sage Ashtavakra who goes on to enlighten King Janaka about the nature of one’s identity. This story can help us understand the meaning of yoga.
We Are Love
The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ means ‘to join, to connect,’ that is, to ‘meet’ the other. The king was initially unable to connect with the young boy. The reason is clear. He was judging him based on externals, his appearance, his age, his economic status, social position — all of which were in total contrast to his own, for he was perfectly abled, much older, wealthy, and very learned. To him, there seemed such a large gap between the two that he did not see how the two could meet, within and without.
On the other hand, Ashtavakra saw the others very differently. He knew that the king and his courtiers saw him as an alien, and hence were not able to relate to him. He also understood the reason for it. Ashtavakra could also have seen a gap between himself and the king. But he didn’t. He saw the king as essentially no different from himself, which brings us to the next question: how did he see himself?
Ashtavakra saw himself as different from the condition of his physical body, his status in the social stratification, and the information gathered by his mind. He realised that when he loved himself, he felt content; therefore, he realised that his true nature (and thus everyone’s true nature) is love.
The Root Of Conflict
The Bhakti Sutra defines love as ‘of the nature of immortality’, which means love is the antidote to fear. This simple understanding of life enabled Ashtavakra to relate to everyone around him, including those who mocked him. He understood that others mocking him had nothing to do with him and everything to do with them — they were simply trying to suppress their fear by belittling him. Simply put, they were taking the wrong medication (judgement) for the disease (fear).
This episode highlights that it is judgement of the other that creates a rift between two humans, two beings. To judge means to define the other based on appearance, personality, and status. This is the root of all conflict. This does not in any way imply that one becomes blind to these labels; in fact, it is essential to be aware of them for daily functioning.
Stretch The Heart
However, conflict arises when we define the other’s identity based on them, for the more different the other is seen to be, the more difficult it becomes to relate to him. Whereas to judge the other creates a wall between the two, to accept the other creates a bridge. It is easy to stretch the body on a Saturday morning yoga class, but not so easy to ‘stretch’ the heart in everyday life situations, especially when we are convinced that the other has wronged us.n
The author, a molecular biologist by education, is yoga philosophy instructor at Shanti Mandir, Upstate New York
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