THE SIX THREADS – OUR UNDERSTANDING OF YOGA and YOGA TEACHER TRAINING
OVERVIEW OF YOGA AND ITS WESTERN INCEPTION
The genesis of yoga began over 5,000 years ago and in that time Yoga has tried to answer fundamental questions like: What’s my life’s path? What is the source of discontent? And, where do I find lasting peace? These timeless questions are unique to the human experience. Deep inside, people have a longing to know themselves more fully and to live harmoniously.
Yogis have explored these questions from many angles and their approach has been adapted through time. Fast Forward to our modern age and people continue to find refuge in the principles of yoga. They find shelter from stress and anxiety, bodily woes, and feeling adrift within their own lives. Yoga is as timeless as the perennial questions it seeks to answer.
Yoga stems from an ancient time, and from a culture situated halfway around the globe. It seems very unlikely that it became the global movement and industry that it is today.
Yoga stems from an ancient time, and from a culture situated halfway around the globe. It seems very unlikely that it became the global movement and industry that it is today. It is practiced in the American military, yoga mats sold at Target stores, and credit card statements depicting attractive women doing Warrior One poses in tropical Mexico.
For some it’s a workout, or a way to gain flexibility. For others, it’s about stress-relief. Others practice yoga for spiritual growth. In each of these perspectives it has validity.
Traditionally speaking, yoga has far more to do with the quality and content of our mind than our ability to remain steady in tree pose. The word yoga literally means to unite, which refers to the union of one’s individual Soul and the Supreme being. Yoga is both a final destination and the means by which we grow from our current finite awareness into a limitless consciousness.
This process is not a straight-forward trajectory into the light. Yoga is as much about understanding our shadows as it is about understanding our light. Shadows have a life of their own and they are a visceral part of the yoga journey. Yoga teaches how to move through shadows rather than repress or avoid them. The very circumstance of our lives, or our soul’s curriculum is the rough playing field of the yoga process.
All of our expectations, attachments, disappointments, successes and virtues are the vital nutrients for yoga. Yoga makes us resourced within the sometimes messy process of life that ultimately leads to unbridled freedom. Being open to learning from all life experiences that are both favorable and unfavorable is food for wisdom.
Just as a lotus rises from the muck beneath the water’s surface, so to our higher nature emerges from the vacillating content of our lives.
While asana can play an important part in the yoga process, a more comprehensive approach to yoga, with the promise it holds includes: philosophy, guidelines for personal conduct, pranayama, meditation and more. Practiced as the entire system, yoga touches every aspect of our lives; from our personal relationships, our diet, how we sleep at night, how we think and how we meditate.
In the words of a timeless Indian adage:
Yoga is to be known; yoga becomes manifest by yoga; one who sticks fast to yoga enjoys yoga for a long time.
Axis recognizes that instructing yoga primarily revolves around asana (the physical postures), which has been extraordinarily beneficial for so many millions of people. Our yoga teacher training guides people into deepening their work through multifaceted practices and also fully prepares students to be proficient at teaching asana, pranayama and meditation to future students.
THREAD #1: LINEAGE BASED YOGA TRAINING
Yoga has a rich and varied history and attempts to discover the great mysteries of life and our connection to the source of life itself. Unlike many of the world’s spiritual/religious systems yoga has no one particular founder such as Jesus, Buddha or Muhammad. Yoga arose out of the prophetic vision of the great rishis, or “seers”.
These visions were handed down from teacher to student over the course of a millennium, and still exists mostly in India to this day. Over the last century, and primarily since the 1960’s a few great masters have established themselves in this country. One such master was Baba Hari Dass (1923-2018) under whom our staff has studied for decades. Hari Dass’ teaching of ayurveda, Raja Yoga and Karma Yoga are the staple components of our yoga teacher training.
Another key influence on AYT’s program is the internationally recognized teacher Yogarupa Rod Stryker, with whom I have studied since 2011 and accumulated well over 300 hours of training during that time. In addition, I’ve assisted him at extended workshops. Rod’s teachings of Hatha Yoga and the metaphysical sciences of Tantra have molded much of the philosophy we teach and in all kinds of lineage based practices that we do.
THREAD #2: AYURVEDA
Ayurveda is the ancient medical healing system of India and has been taught in conjunction with yoga since the very beginning. According to Ayurveda, every person has a unique constitution, and therefore has the elements for optimal health such as diet, lifestyle, herbs and a unique yoga practice. Having a lifestyle and doing yoga practices that align with one’s constitution is the cornerstone of physical health, increased happiness and spiritual evolution.
Susan Burnhardt, former business litigation attorney gone Ayurvedic Practitioner, teaches this particular portion of our program. She presents foundational ayurvedic principles that students then integrate into the rest of their lives through experiential exercises.
Students receive personal and collective support for making real world changes that they may have been meaning to make for years. It’s always a very healing, empowering, and revelatory process and people experience profound shifts in their health and an overall sense of wellness.
Ayurveda is an integral part of our curriculum. It gives a framework in which to live a healthier lifestyle, it’s the perfect complement to yoga practice, and it’s an invaluable tool for assessing the needs of future students.
“Ayurveda is to free the mind from the body and
yoga is to free the Soul from the mind.”
– Baba Hari Dass
THREAD #3: RAJA YOGA
Written by the great sage Patanjali over 2,000 years ago, Raja Yoga literally means “The Royal Yoga.” It’s also refers to as Ashtanga yoga from which the famous “Eight Limbs of Yoga” are derived. In truth, the Eight Limbs are only a very small, but none-the-less a meaningful portion of the scripture.
The text is revered for its crystalline distillation of yoga as a meditative path. In a loose sense, Patanjali’s yoga is a detailed presentation of yoga psychology. It describes the components and nature of the mind; how to overcome the trance of our own conditioning; and how to reach a state of unbridled freedom call kaivalya.
“Yoga is the stilling of all thought.”
– Yoga Sutra 1.2
THREAD #4: KARMA YOGA – THE YOGA OF SERVICE
Karma Yoga literally means the yoga of action. The word karma is the same word that is commonly used in English, as in “good karma,” or “bad karma.” More literally it simply means any action, and the corresponding result of that action. In practicing karma yoga, one performs all actions without selfish motivation.
How many of our daily activities are geared around personal gain? What if everyone operated out of a mode of service to one another? How can I serve or help you? It would be a very different planet.
Great exemplars of karma yoga include Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Terresa and Thich Nat Han. All of them dedicated themselves to causes that were much greater than themselves and in the service to humanity.
Baba Hari Dass, the first of my two primary teachers was a master karma yogi. As a silent monk he led by example. He lifted rocks and pounded nails alongside his students to construct the Mount Madonna Center in California and the Saltspring Center in Canada. Both of these residential retreat facilities serve many thousands of people each year. All of the proceeds from his many writings go directly to supporting the Sri Rama Orphanage in India, which was also constructed with the aid of his own two hands.
Working alongside Baba Hari Dass felt like you were a part of a cause that was much greater than yourself. Everyone was united by a common spirit of selfless service. And in a larger sense, our efforts were in service to the creation herself.
You don’t have to be Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela to practice karma yoga. Karma yoga has less to do with the magnitude of the actions we perform, and more to do with the spirit in which we perform actions. Karma yoga asks us to act in service to the whole.
Operating in a mode of selfless service is a rare anomaly in American culture where the emphasis is on personal gain. At Axis we try to emulate Hari Dass’ example by helping out at the church where we rent space, forming an alliance with Yoga for the People, sponsoring events in support of causes we believe in, and finding places where people can teach to marginalized populations.
This emphasis on collective welfare is the signature component of Axis Yoga Trainings and in part it is what makes our programs such a richly satisfying experience for those who wish to grow beyond themselves.
“When dutiful action is performed solely because it should be done, forsaking attachment to it and its fruit, that renunciation is considered pure and wholesome.”
-Bhagavad Gita 18:9
THREAD #5: TANTRA YOGA
Evidence of Tantra dates back to the earliest yogic scriptures. Tantra holds that the world is a sacred emanation of the Divine and therefore life itself is sacred. There are dozens of tantric texts, of which many are not available in English. These texts describe metaphysical practices to merge with the Absolute. Meditation on the chakras is one example of these methodologies.
The early Tantrics saw the body as a consecrated shrine through which we can approach the Divine. They developed rituals and bodily methods, such as the asanas to prepare the physical and energetic bodies for deeper states of meditation. These meditations, in turn led to the Source of life itself.
“If you meet someone who is a truly devout tantric, you will discover a practitioner uniquely themselves, fully enmeshed in the world, fully focused with a dedication to just doing the practices as a method of tapping into the deep beauty and joy of liberation for themselves and for others. This form of awakening is the nectar, the juice, of real tantric practice.”
– Richard Freeman
THREAD #5: HATHA YOGA
The Tantric view of the body became the foundation for Hatha Yoga and the genesis for all the permutations of asana that we see today. Without Hatha Yoga there would be no restorative, yin, power, Forest, or Iyengar yoga classes. If you love your 5:30 pm Vinyasa Flow class, you can thank Hatha Yoga.
The asanas are the second of seven steps that comprise the Hatha Yoga system.
Placed within the greater scheme of this seven limb system, the purpose of asana is to purify the physical body and make it healthy. It also opens the channels of the subtle body to help prepare oneself to sit comfortably for meditation that’s free from physical discomfort. If done well, the postures also generate mental stability. These postures are a means to a much greater end, and not an end unto themselves.
In the end, yoga has less to do with what you can do with your body and more to do with the happiness that unfolds from realizing your full potential.
THREAD #6: ASANA
For many the postures are a gateway to yoga practice and begin to open a new world of physical ease and mental health, which is all beneficial. However, the words asana and yoga are not the same thing. People often equate flexibility with mastery of yoga, which is not the case. In many instances doing postures that promote physical and mental stability are more beneficial. Yoga has far more to do with our mind than our body.
Yoga is a much bigger idea than asana. You can do asana and not really cultivate yoga. If one’s ego hinges on doing a handstand, they’ve missed the yoga part.
Asana, as wonderful as it is will get you only so far on the path of yoga. Asana is limited in its ability to generate inner and outer transformation, as well as expand awareness and peace of mind. Traditionally speaking, it is a preparatory method and the first of many steps that gradually draw one toward the source of life. Pranayama, meditation and other methods are integral to maturing in yoga.
Our approach is holistic, we present yoga as a comprehensive system that includes the postures. We place the asana within the larger scope of yoga practice. We also recognize that asana is an integral part of how we practice yoga in the West, and that our participants are versed in how to teach them in addition to other practices such as pranayama.