It's amazing how far you can travel on a rectangular piece of rubber smaller than two metres by one metre. Yet the journey of yoga requires little more than your mat. Certainly, there are other external factors that can help you on your way, but basically your mat and your physical body are the tangible necessities.
With those simple tools intact you can be an adventurous traveller through the layers of your own being. And the body and the mat don't even need to be perfect. The mat can be any space big enough to lie down in with a flat and reasonably clean surface. The non-slip traction of a sticky yoga mat is a bonus. Your body may be any age, size, with or without symmetry, suppleness and strength.
Yoga is a learnable skill, a wide ranging set of techniques designed to help you navigate the outer journey of life with equanimity and to open up the possibilities of travel within your inner realms.
Some people question the need for a goal in yoga. It is certainly possible to practise with no goal in mind. But it is often a desire that urges one onward and provides enough reason to continue when practice feels difficult.
Without a goal in mind we can be more easily swayed by temporary feelings and distractions. A desire is not necessarily the same as a goal but the two are closely related. For example, a basic desire is for happiness. The goal then is to be in a state of permanent happiness. Even when the actual goal seems unrealistic, the desire to be happy will drive our many choices and subsequent actions.
What is the goal or destination for a yoga practitioner? According to the sage Patanjali the eighth limb of yoga, Samadhi, is the goal. Samadhi means merger, or absorption, the dissolving of the individual consciousness into the ocean of cosmic consciousness. The idea of cosmic consciousness has many names in the yoga texts, including Nirguna Brahma, Purusa or Parama Purusa. Nirguna Brahma indicates a unified being without qualities. Purusa is the starting point or one who is devoid of any action. So Parama Purusa is the divine one who does not move.
Just as a sunflower grows towards a stationary sun, the consciousness of a yogi moves towards Parama Purusa. Our journey is from that stillness that underlies all action, the original state of being, away from divinity to material existence and back home again. The practices of yoga, in all their varieties, are techniques to move towards that ideal state of peace.
The continuing journey home is termed in yoga dharma sadhana. Dharma is the flow towards that more subtle or spiritual evolution, while sadhana refers to spiritual practice. The implication here is that while there is a natural tendency to become more subtle, to learn and become wiser over time, there is also practice required.
A common analogy is that of a river, flowing inevitably towards the ocean. Yet there are places of dryness, obstacles along the way, detours along tributary streams that can slow the traveller's progress. In order to move steadily towards the goal, some effort, perhaps a boat and oars are helpful. Using the tools of yoga offers the traveller extra shelter, momentum, the ability to get out of trouble and a map. The map of yoga has been laid out by thousands of years of unbroken teaching. It is not static, anymore than the universe is static. Like everything else, the map or techniques of yoga, are in constant evolutionary flux, being reshaped and changed as each traveller uses it, becomes a teacher and passes it on.
It is the nature of the universe to move. In Sanskrit, the universe is called Jagat, meaning the entity whose nature is to move. If there is a starting point and a finishing destination, yoga would indicate they are the same point. Parama Purusa is both the source and the destination. This single point on the map of yoga philosophy is represented in numerous practices. Yoga uses the technique of drishti or focal point in asana and meditation practices. In asana (postures) there are prescribed directions for the eyes to gaze. It is also a method of controlling the sense of sight. As the eyes are inclined to be constantly moving, fixing the gaze is a step towards calming the many thoughts of the mind. Even in a flowing sequence of postures, the drishti points build concentration. Single pointed concentration is the sixth limb of yoga, called dharana. Dharana is a necessary skill for prolonged meditation.
While yoga accepts the natural tendency of mind and body to be always in motion, it offers techniques for gaining mastery over instinctual behaviours. This is the difference between humans and many animals. A wild creature follows its instincts without thought, but the more developed animals, including humans, can make intellectual choices based on goals and accrued wisdom.
Some yogis demonstrate their strength of will by taking mastery over many desires, including choosing celibacy, fasting or extreme disciplines of the body. However, the ability to access the peace that exists beyond the endless activity of space and time does not require any outward shows of discipline. It requires an internal journey from crudeness to subtlety. The journey is not necessarily linear, awakenings can come suddenly, realisations may be reached by anyone in any circumstance. Yet besides the grace of transcendental moments, most yoga practitioners find themselves moving gradually towards the goal.
The consistency of practice has the effect of burning away old habits and opens up a space for new realisations to be made. Using some intellectual insight to go beyond reactions and base instincts frees the yogi from much suffering.
In recognition of the moving nature of everything except Parama Parusa, the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita offer further advice. In this epic tale of war and wisdom, the sage Krishna counsels his beloved friend Arjuna to continue to take action. Being still is not an option for conflicted Arjuna who is contemplating going into battle. Krishna tells him to perform all actions in a spirit of sacrifice rather than in order to gain anything from the effort. It is this perspective which makes a regular yoga practice most sacred. If the actions taken, whether seated meditation with directed concentration of the mind, or physically moving in an asana practice or both, are offered to the universe in the spirit of service, then there is no attachment to the outcome.
So how can progress be measured? Is it in the achievement of a difficult pose? Is it in consistency of practice? Is it success in the material sphere? Or achieving more positive states of mind?
According to yoga, none of these things is really progress, they are merely distractions. There is no tangible measure of progress on the yogic journey. The only progress is in moving closer to Parama Purusa.
So yoga is defined as union with the divine. As human beings with powerful intellects, we can choose to be still, to stay in one place and avoid travel. Or we can choose to take up our dharmic journey and move according to the will of the universe, or cosmic consciousness.
Attracted to the divine force of Parama Purusa, we can move at our chosen pace, using the accelerating tools of yoga to rapidly move inwards. Working consistently without attachment to outcomes, we can keep a steady and moderate pace, consolidating as we go. For some yogis there will be periods of rest, akin to sitting on the riverbank observing the flowing waters, alternating with phases of much effort. Any version or combination of practices may be helpful - it is up to each traveller to find their own way. As delightful as it is to have companions along the way, it is ultimately a solo, though never lonely, trip.
Yoga teaches that the journey of the soul is the essential journey from the subtle origins to the physical forms of our world and back to the single point of origin again. Circular, cyclical and always moving, we are travellers in a vast universe. As we draw closer to the clarity of the cosmic entity, the stillness and permanence, which underlies all action and change becomes apparent. It is possible to transcend the boundaries of space, time and individual perception and merge with this limitless consciousness.
Knowing the goal of yoga is less important than doing the practice. The goal will reveal itself as we approach it, but can just as easily vanish from our perception if we are working with personal gain in mind. So it is recommended by many wise teachers to acknowledge the goal of Samadhi only in the sense that your practice is an offering to the universe. Then simply go about your actions, practise diligently, expect nothing and you will find the boundaries of mind and body expanding as the soul moves towards home.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath