Another way of waking up: Yoga as a spiritual practice
by Gussie Fauntleroy
My eyes are cast downward in a soft-focus gaze as my arms reach upward, elbows extended, my hands holding a smooth stick and pushing it as far overhead as possible. From the outside, the pose may not look like much. My true focus, however, is inside. Within an undistracted inner space I follow the continuous quiet flow of words from Hatha yoga teacher Joann Connington as she offers meticulous instructions: for subtle changes in the rotation of muscles and bones, for awareness of skeletal alignment, for attention to the currents of energy moving through ever-more-open channels within. She describes the smooth flow of breath, blood and life force, and how that flow nurtures and awakens multiple layers of my physical, mental/emotional and spiritual being. As she speaks, her words become my intention and I feel intention translate, in the moment, into subtle changes in my body and mind.
Yoga traces its roots back thousands of years in India. While the word itself translates as “union”—ultimately, union between the human and divine—ancient Sanskrit texts define yoga as “the cessation of fluctuations within the mind.” As Ashtanga yoga teacher Annie Pace puts it, “Yoga is not about the poses. It is about the mind. Basically, the practice is taming the human system, which effects the mind and its capacity for clarity.”
Introduced to North America in the mid-20th century, yoga rapidly gained popularity in the United States beginning in the 1960s. Today yoga students in metropolitan areas can choose from a smorgasbord of classes based on a variety of traditions and forms. Many of these focus almost exclusively on physical poses with the goal of sculpting bodies and developing outer flexibility and strength. Often little or no attention is given to the more subtle inner qualities that define true yoga practice in its ancient, traditional sense.
In Crestone, three venerable yoga traditions are represented by highly adept, longtime teachers. Joann Connington, with more than three decades of yoga experience, has developed a Hatha yoga style based primarily on the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar and one of his students, Ramanand Patel. Annie Pace, also with more than 30 years of practice and teaching, is known as a lineage holder in the Ashtanga yoga tradition as passed on by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, with whom she studied in India for many years. And Sue Beck Retuta is a teacher and certified professional teacher trainer of Kundalini yoga in the lineage of Yogi Bhajan. She studied with, among others, the late Dyal Singh Khalsa of Crestone. Each of these Crestone-based instructors was trained at a time when yoga study included an intensive focus on its underlying philosophy and spiritual elements, along with the precision of poses and their correct use in sequences and combinations.
In these three traditions and others, breath is key to ceasing fluctuations of the mind. “The prerequisites for practice are that you can inhale and you can exhale,” Annie asserts. “Breath is the vehicle for prana, the source energy, which supports us and is not affected by time or space.” Becoming aware of each in-breath and out-breath during yoga practice—or taking “conscious breaths” as Joann puts it—is a way of intentionally connecting with the calm, attentive inner focus that allows one to find a balance between relaxation and effort in each pose. Conversely, Joann notes that creating this centered, balanced feeling facilitates one’s ability to “find that breath which is calm, confident and without anxiety.”
In Kundalini yoga, various breathing methods—alternately through each nostril, for example—are combined in specific sequences with sound currents (mantras that are chanted, silently repeated or sung), hand positions, postures, movement and meditation. Each “completed action” or kryia, as the sequences are called, works to awaken and stimulate organs, glands and energy flow in a particular way to balance the system, Sue explains. Described as a “science and technology,” this form of yoga can effect changes and help facilitate healing through regular but relatively short periods of practice, making it practical for those with busy lives. Yet as in all yogic traditions, Sue adds that these changes take place not only physically but on all levels simultaneously, leading to a greater “awakening to your potential.”
Balance, an essential element in all types of yoga, also works concurrently on all levels, from the muscular to the cellular and “even beyond,” Annie observes. In yoga practice, dualistic properties such as right and left, inner and outer, dark and light, are “yoked” together in a fine point of balance. While the ultimate “macro-union” is between form and the formless divine, the practice continuously aims for ever-more-refined levels of balance through the “micro-union” of polarities. In everyday life as well, muscular effort and ease, mental alertness and calm, and energetic sinking and rising, for example, all support and reinforce each other. Together they facilitate the deepening of a practitioner’s personal spiritual path in whatever form it may take. “The longer you practice, the more it is integrated and flows into all aspects of your life,” Annie says.
In the challenges of daily life, this translates into less reactivity and a greater capacity to make correct decisions based on what is appropriate in the moment, Annie suggests. For Sue, who has seen people pulled out of severe depression through Kundalini yoga, the practice is a vital pressure valve in a world filled with stress. Beyond that, through years of practice she has witnessed a flowering of loving kindness toward others and herself. “It has given me a life of serving others,” she reflects.
The “eight limbs” of Ashtanga yoga, mentioned in ancient Vedic texts, include such clearly spiritual/nonphysical components as one’s ethical practice in the world, the intentions behind our actions and experience of the divine. For committed students, these elements are reflected in and supported by the postures and breath, whether in the case of a 20-year-old hard-body or someone experiencing the challenges of illness or age.
While no one would deny yoga’s outward, sometimes strenuous physical aspects involving muscles, alignment, balance and strength, these teachers note that the ability to do a headstand is not the point. “You’re using the body to create a pose that is stable yet free and fluid, and to do this means awareness has to be heightened and present,” Joann relates. She adds that in a spiritual sense, “Yoga is one of the ways to wake up.” In many contemporary yoga class settings the most subtle and powerful qualities of yoga may be unarticulated and unseen. But in Crestone, the purity of at least three ancient lineages has been retained. “Here,” Annie points out, “we are so blessed to have some true practices going on.”
(Editor’s note: Joann Connington no longer has her yoga school in Crestone.)