Article – Yoga: one practice or several? – April 2013

by Valerie Faneco – For Namaskar magazine (Hong Kong) – 

When I tell people in casual conversation that I am a yoga teacher, the first question is invariably: “What style of yoga do you teach?” There are so many styles of yoga today that as a beginner it can be very difficult to make an educated choice about what kind of practice you are about to embark on.

By comparison, in ancient times (and even less than a hundred years ago) yoga was taught in a very different manner. It evolved into “currents” rather than styles, based on various interpretations of the Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali. Teachers and scholars believed that the teachings of yoga were too precious to be given without careful consideration of whether the students were fit to receive them. There were no group classes for adults, as there are today. Yoga was taught to adults on a one-to-one basis, whereas the children were taught in groups.

The ambition of ancient teachers was not to have many students; rather, they wished to find ONE student to whom they could transmit all their knowledge. Some teachers waited many years before coming across such a student. Others would never meet one, so as a result some precious teachings were lost, as they were never transmitted. This is one of the reasons that explains the decline of yoga during centuries past, before its renewal in the second half of the 20th century.

The “whys” and the “hows”

The yoga system came along and developed in a time when people were looking for solutions to suffering. Yogin-s*, scholars and thinkers sat in meditation and came to the conclusion that although pain is felt on many levels (including the body), it is ultimately experienced on the mental level. It became necessary to understand how the mind functions. Hence what became known as the “classical” yoga of Patañjali evolved as an art and science to understand the functioning of the mind.

Patañjali did not “invent” yoga. He compiled the teachings that were in circulation at that time (around 200 BCE) and relayed the experiences of ancient sages from the practice of yoga. Patañjali’s teachings are collected into a piece of work called the Yoga-Sutra, now a concise treatise made of four chapters, each one with a specific outlook and focus. We can say that the Yoga-Sutra is the foundation treatise of yoga, because yoga was not a structured system prior to it.

In the first chapter Patañjali begins by giving us some important information about what yoga is and what it is not. Further along he suggests a number of different approaches for the sincere seeker who wants to move ahead on the yoga path, to reach complete freedom from suffering.

On the subject: “One practice, or several?” I propose to reflect on two aphorisms from the Yoga-Sutra:

Chapter I, sutra 32:

Tat pratisedhartham eka-tattva-abhyasah

“To counteract these, [we must] choose one path and sustain it” **

Chapter III, sutra 6:

Tasya bhumisu viniyogah

“Application of this respects the level [each person is at].” **

Let us begin with chapter I. In sutra 32, the words eka-tattva mean “one principle”, the word abhyasa means practice. The meaning of this sutra is: “The practice of committing to a single principle counteracts these obstacles and their manifestations”.

But before we go any further, sutra 32 must be understood in relation with the ones that came just before (I.30 and I.31).

A number of obstacles (antaraya-s) on the path of yoga have been defined, there are nine of them (I.30): illness, mental laziness, doubt, haste, fatigue, extravagance, a misguided point of view, stagnation, and regression (or fall).

Patañjali then says that the symptoms of agitation manifest on four levels (I.31): emotional suffering (duhkha), a “spoilt” or bad mental state (daurmanasya), physical imbalance (angamejayatva), and instability of the life force, or in other words shortness of breath (svasa-prasvasa).

Having thus warned us that there can be a number of obstacles on the path of yoga, along with some signs of their presence, Patañjali immediately gives several methods to prevent these symptoms from creating problems.

It is interesting to note that Patañjali gives two kinds of solutions: some of the ones suggested later can be chosen as alternative means of action, so in those sutra-s he uses the word “va”, which means “or”, implying that they can be chosen as options at different times and under various circumstances.

But the most important solutions are given first. They are the ones we cannot do without. The aphorisms describing these solutions do not include the word “va”, so the absence of this very small word indicates that the advice given here is not to be neglected.

To protect ourselves from mental turmoil there is what we need to do, and there is also what we may choose to do (“va”).

“Choose one path and stick to it”.

The peremptory tone of this advice could make us regard it as very straightforward. We can understand it intellectually and have the best intentions to stick to the same teacher and the same path, but many of us find it hard to be strong when there are conflicts with others or with our self. The notion of faith springs to mind! In Patañjali’s yoga, faith is called sraddha, a quality of personal strength. This faith, which you may prefer to call confidence or trust, “can help us to lift mountains”, to quote TKV Desikachar, son of the legendary Yogacarya T Krishnamacharya.

Coming back to sutra I.32, the word “tat” refers to the symptoms previously described. “Pratisedhartham” is formed with the word “prati” which means to prevent or counteract. The message is clear: to block the symptoms of the obstacles, we must maintain our course, stick to the path we have chosen.

This clearly means that when one is in a difficult situation, staying focused on our practice is essential. “You don’t switch to another car in the middle of the race”. The right practice should support us and help to resolve the issue. Yes it does not mean that the actual practice we do on the yoga mat is never to change. We will discuss this topic later.

We must remember that the advice given here is for the benefit of the yogin who seeks to move ahead on the path of yoga, with the goal of reaching citta vrtti nirodha (I.2), a calm mind which leads to self-revelation, being one with the Self.

So I would also dare to say: to reach one-ness, choose one path. Eka-tattva is to “choose to make one choice”: a unique principle.

All of us know that it takes patience and a good deal of strength to be committed to a single method. We live in a time where choice reigns supreme. From Starbucks to the yoga studio, we are bombarded with choices. In marketing language the words “sampling” and “exploring” are flippantly given the same meaning, whereas in fact they mean opposite things. Sampling is tasting or scratching the surface. It can be useful up to a certain point if it enables us to come across the path that we end up staying with. But it becomes a burden when it is a repetitive pattern or habit, turning into instability. “Exploring” means that we examine all the aspects of an object, look at it from different angles, understand how it works, its positive and negative aspects, etc. Exploring takes time!

“Same-same but different”

As I briefly mentioned earlier, we must be careful not to confuse “one path” with “one practice”.

Patañjali does not say “eka-abhyasa”, which would mean “one practice”. This would be strict and rigid, and would mean that we should always do the same practice regardless of our age, occupation, health, or the place where we live. So many factors can bring changes in our life! Patañjali’s yoga recognizes this and it is expressed in chapter III with a beautiful concept called viniyoga, which has often been misunderstood.

Tasya bhumisu viniyoga (chapter III sutra 6)

Viniyoga means “a special adjustment of [the tools of] yoga to suit individual needs”, the opposite of “one size fits all”. This principle is highlighted as a foundation of yoga practice. Patañjali brings it up after presenting the eight limbs of yoga, which will make one progress on the path when they are practiced together concurrently, rather than in isolation (yama-social restraints, niyama-personal observances, asana-physical discipline, pranayama-control of the life force through the breath, pratyahara-withdrawal of the senses, dharana-concentration, dhyana-meditation, and samadhi-complete absorption).

This sutra comes as a warning: to keep moving in the right direction the tools of ashtanga-yoga must be applied correctly. We must use the right tools at the right time, for anything can cause pain if it is misused.

Since Patañjali’s teaching is based on the experiences of previous teachers rather than intellectual knowledge, it is likely that these early teachers learnt by trial and error: they would have realized that not every yoga posture was fit to be taught to some individuals, that the applications of certain pranayama techniques could cause harm or even disease if used inappropriately, or that some object of meditation could have a negative impact on a person who was not equipped to handle it.

On this subject, a competent teacher who knows the student can help to choose and adjust what is appropriate and give him the correct practice based on where he is at that particular time. Just as if he was pulling items from a storage cupboard, he takes what he needs when it is needed, and uses just the right amount of it. In order for this process to work it is crucial for us to accept ourselves as we are, and an open exchange with our teacher is essential.

Patanjali’s yoga is very fluid. We can never go wrong if we engage in personal enquiry (svadhyaya II.2) and discover “the teacher within us”, yet the guidance of a competent teacher and from substantial teachings is important.

This brings me at last to what I choose to extract from these two aphorisms: a strong commitment to the teachings I have received, and a sense of gratitude for my teacher. He has always taught me by example. His behavior and actions in life have been my most precious learning opportunities. As for my daily practice, it has changed much over the years and it is still changing. Some things have been added and others have been removed, as my life has changed. But the actual principles behind my practice have remained the same. And what has continued to grow is my personal faith, trust, sraddha.

Valerie Faneco – www.beinginyoga.com

Valerie (Being in Yoga, Singapore) is a senior yoga teacher and teacher trainer certified in the tradition of Yogacarya T Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar. She has been studying and teaching the Yoga-Sutra and principles of yoga philosophy for many years; in 2012 she translated a commentary of the Yoga-Sutra into English, published in India. Her mentor is Frans Moors.

* I choose to use the word “yogin” in this article because it is more neutral than “yogi”.

** Translation of the Yoga-Sutra by Frans Moors (Sanskrit to French) and by Valerie Faneco (French to English) in “Liberating Isolation: The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali” authored by Frans Moors, March 2012.