If you’ re new to yoga, you’ d be forgiven for thinking its philosophy is grounded in fancy poses on Instagram. Or maybe you’ ve considered giving it a try, but worry you’ re not flexible enough to be ‘ good’ . But what if you could be a 21st-century yogi without ever stepping foot on a mat? And how’ s that? Believe it or not, the “practice” of yoga began with the mind. The physical element wasn’ t actually introduced until much later.
Yoga’ s philosophy is made up of eight limbs; the poses (or asana) are just one of them. The other seven limbs are yama, niyama, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These limbs are guidelines and moral codes that have helped yogis live meaningful, spiritual and purposeful lives, since people were living in caves and Australia wasn’ t colonised for another two millennia.
Obviously, life has changed a lot since then. In this age of social media, 24/7 connection, fast-paced living, stress, corporate careers and financial pressures, can we even be yogic? We sure can. But first, here’ s your Yoga 101 – its eight limbs in a nutshell, broken down into a tweetable, easily digestible, 2016 sound bite: Be present in every moment, have compassion for yourself and others, live with an open heart, develop self-awareness and kick your ego to the curb.
We’ve spoken to three modern-day yogis who’ ve shaped their lives around yoga’ s philosophy, while running successful businesses, raising families and dealing with the stressors we all face today. Duncan Peak is the founder of Power Living Australia Yoga, which has studios around Australia and New Zealand. He also wrote a book called Modern Yoga. Claire Norgate is a scientist, who has been practising, teaching and training yoga teachers for almost 30 years.
Kate Kendall is a popular yoga and social media personality, and co-owner of Flow Athletic in Sydney. All three have taken different routes in their yoga journeys, but they agree that however you approach it, yoga still begins and ends with the mind. “The most important thing is taking responsibility for your inner-state of being at all times, as opposed to thinking people have made you feel a certain way,” says Peak, who was in the defence force before founding Power Living. “Once you’ ve done that, you look deep into your character, noticing the habitual patterns you have, trying to understand where they come from, why you do them, and the impact they’ re having on your life.”This, he says, sharpens our ability to see all the mess and noise that goes on upstairs and recognise it as exactly that: largely unhelpful mess and noise.
Tap into the mind
The truth is, we all live a large chunk of life inside our head. We develop stories that form our belief systems, which is how we label experiences as ‘ good’ or ‘ bad’ . We stop being our ‘ true’ selves and become characters designed by the ego. Gradually,this shapes how we see the world. “But there’ s so much more to us than the content of our minds,” explains Peak. Once you realise that, “you’ ll stop identifying with those thoughts and emotions . . . because you’ ll know they’ re not really you.”The revelation that you are not your thoughts, Peak says, is the true power of yoga –awareness. For him, arriving at this place of awareness came through meditation and he recommends sitting quietly for 10-20 minutes a day. “Become conscious of your thinking patterns and feelings, but don’ t react to them or start thinking about them,” he suggests. “Focus on your breath. Try to observe its flow, its movement in and out of you, without allowing any interruption to come between you and that awareness.”In theory, meditation is simple. In reality it can be difficult and sometimes frustrating, because it requires you to be fully present and focused. That would have been easier back in cave life, where they didn’t have Facebook, FOMO, to-do lists or family dramas as constant distractions. “The modern-day yogi needs to accept that learning the ability to be still is the most important part of our practice,” explains Peak.
Strengthening your stillness muscle is what teaches you to be present in the moment, rather than being jerked away by every thought that crops up. Being present changes our modus operandi. It makes us less stressed, more chilled and we appreciate right now, rather than constantly living in the future. We develop the compassion to recognise that everyone’ s doing the best they can while dealing with their own mess and noise. Eventually, we stop snapping at friends, colleagues or the kids, because we’ve developed the self-awareness to recognise when it’ s just our ego at play.
Finding stillness in movement
While Peak used meditation to access his mind, asana helped Norgate tap into hers. If you suffer from a case of monkey mind, constantly swinging from one thought to the next, a physically challenging yoga class might be your pathway to stillness, because it distracts you from that mindless chatter, explains Norgate. “Trying to focus a busy mind can be tricky because sitting still with our thoughts brings up a lot of emotion,” she explains. “By consciously connecting movement with your breath, eventually the physical practice becomes your meditation.”Let’ s get this out of the way: there’ s no such thing as being “good” at yoga. If the person next to you is standing on their head and you can’ t touch your toes, it doesn’t make them any better than you. Sanskrit for ‘ comfortable seat’ , asana will look different for everyone, explains Norgate. “Ask yourself: can I learn to be comfortable in a pose that feels uncomfortable? “To do that I have to back out of it a little, remember to breathe, shake my competitiveness and not worry about what anyone thinks about me.”How you behave on your mat, Norgate says, is how you behave in life. For example, if you get frustrated and compare yourself to everyone else in class, chances are that’ s your default setting out in the world. That’ s the cool thing about asana–it’ s another way of observing and becoming self-aware. All this might seem like a lot to take in, especially if your weekly practise is catching a lunchtime class in-between meetings. So accept that yoga’ s a lifelong journey, which constantly chops and changes. “What you learn about yourself in class you eventually take outside – even if you don’ t realise. These new skills become ingrained,” says Norgate.
The yogi without a mat
What if the idea of meditation appeals to you, but between the kids and work, finding time for regular yoga classes is impossible? Or maybe sitting still with your eyes closed just isn’ t all that appealing. If that’ s the case, Kendall recommends using an activity you already enjoy doing as a moving meditation. It’ s less overwhelming than going straight into literal stillness and you don’ t have to do asana. Whatever fully engrosses you, makes you completely present and gets you observing your mind is a great place to start. “For some people that’ s mindful walking through the bush, cooking a nice meal or surfing alone and connecting with nature,” she explains. Whatever form it takes, Kendall believes everyone should makes a conscious effort to stop, drop and be still every day. “Stillness is the most under-utilised tool we have for productivity, for happiness, for success,” she says. “A yogi to me doesn’t have to have ever practiced asana. To me, a yogi is someone who understands the concept of presence. “When you’ re speaking to them you’ re connecting. They’ re not looking over your shoulder; they’ re fully there and are listening to you.”Peak agrees that any practise where you focus on your breath and observe your mind is beneficial. “No effort like that is ever wasted, even if it’ s not asana– just as long as it has a mindfulness to it,” he says.
Philosophy in the digital age
So how do the hallmarks of modern-day living, such as social media, having a career and making money fit into yoga’ s philosophy? After all, those Instagram photos of people clad in expensive yoga outfits doing fancy poses seems to smack of ego. Peak and Kendall are avid users of social media, which they say has helped build their businesses. Regardless of whether you’ re sharing photos of yoga poses or the kids, your intention is key, says Kendall, who has almost 30,000 followers on Instagram. “Ask yourself if it aligns with your personal brand and values,” she says.
“People follow you because they’ re attracted to your values. If you’ re selling out, it doesn’ t work energetically and people see straight through it.”For Peak, who has almost 40,000 followers on facebook, your intentions come down to your character. “If you’ re sitting there at night hoping everyone likes your photos, or you’ re competing, then it’ s your character,” he explains. “But if you have non-attachment to them, while also giving them the integrity they deserve, it can be more of a peaceful internal process.”If you’ re wondering whether having a successful career and earning money align with yoga’ s philosophy, Peak has this to say: “When you’ ve got enough, don’ t build a bigger fence – build a bigger table,” he says. “I’ d encourage people who do have success to do good with that money. That’ s what yoga tradition would encourage: share and be generous.”While yoga is a lifelong journey, the stillness and awareness you build in yourself eventually filters out into everything you do. Right now, getting started might seem overwhelming. But the truth is, it’ s already in you. “It’ s taking the essence of who you are and what you stand for, and living it wholeheartedly,” says Kendall. “That’ s a yogi.”