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What is Yoga?

and how does it relate to what kripalu offers?

Yoga is the keystone term of a profound worldview and grasping its meaning is essential to understanding Kripalu’s mission and activities as a cohesive whole. Because it is such an important term, yoga has several meanings, each of which adds a critical element to a comprehensive understanding.


Basic Definitions of Yoga

In a historical sense, yoga refers to the enormous body of spiritual teachings and techniques developed by the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent over the last five thousand years. While Westerners often assume that yoga is a homogeneous tradition, there are hundreds if not thousands of sects and schools of yoga, each with its distinctive doctrines and practices. This fact has led noted yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein to begin his classic work The Yoga Tradition with the words: “Yoga is a spectacularly multifaceted phenomenon and as such it is very difficult to define.”

From the perspective of a beginning practitioner, the term yoga describes the goal sought through practice, as well as the means to realize it. Yoga means union, a reference to the state of body–mind–spirit harmony sought through various disciplines, which are also called yoga. Under this definition, one practices postures and meditation—two common disciplines of yoga—to harmonize his or her body and mind and access a state of unity—the goal of yoga.

Seen in this light, yoga is described as a spiritual path, often broken down into the following eight stages as delineated by the sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra:

  1. Yama/Restraint: Actions best avoided
  2. Niyama/Observance: Positive actions to cultivate
  3. Asana/Posture: Releasing gross tensions from the body
  4. Pranayama/Breath Regulation: Harmonizing body, mind, and breath
  5. Pratyahara/Introversion: Withdrawing attention from external distractions
  6. Dharana/Concentration: Focusing the mind on a single point
  7. Dhyana/Meditation: Accessing a state of flow
  8. Samadhi/Oneness: Effortless, integrated being

Neither impractical nor otherworldly, the path of yoga results in a capacity for integrated functioning and powerful action that is evident in anyone whose thoughts, feelings, statements and actions line up. The inner coherence gained from practice inevitably shows up externally in enhanced creativity and peak performance.


Delving Deeper

From the perspective of an adept practitioner, viewing yoga as a spiritual path is less than accurate. The analogy of a path implies a means/end relationship that does not hold up under the strict scrutiny of practice. Instead of a linear path of becoming, yoga is better described as a way of being accessible in each and every moment. In this light, the disciplines of yoga are techniques that clear obstacles that prevent us from being who and what we naturally are. As the fruit is already present in the seed, yoga is not the result of any action to attain a goal. It is simply a return to our natural state.

Out of this understanding, Kripalu uses four definitions of yoga that describe the qualities of a person acting from a state of yoga. Each is drawn from an ancient and authoritative yoga text:

  1. Yoga is skillfulness in action, a reference to a yogi’s capacity to act dynamically in ways that reliably produce positive results across all dimensions of life. (Bhagavad Gita)
  2. Yoga is equanimity and equilibrium, a reference to a yogi’s capacity to sustain evenness of mind while confronting inner limitations and outer challenges, i.e., the capacity to tolerate the consequences of being one’s self. (Bhagavad Gita)
  3. Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind, a reference to a yogi’s capacity to see life and reality as it is without the filters of fears, fantasies, or other distortions. (Yoga Sutra)
  4. Yoga is freedom, a reference to the bliss of wellbeing experienced whenever one steps into one’s natural rhythm of being, one’s appropriate purpose in life, and one’s natural place in the universe. (Yoga Bhashya)

The Multidimensional Self of Yoga

At this point in your reading, the above definitions of yoga may seem abstract or esoteric. One way to understand their relevance is to look deeply at what it means to be human through the lens of what yoga calls the multidimensional self.

Yoga teaches that there are six layers to our being and that each giving rise to a specific sense of self and play an essential role in our lives. The first and most obvious is the physical body, beneath which lies the second and less apparent energetic circuitry of the nervous system. Together these constitute what is sometimes called the sensorimotor self. One layer deeper is the thinking mind and protective emotions, which comprise the egocentric self needed to function well in a competitive world. Beneath that is the intuitive mind and expressive emotions that make up the authentic, creative, and artistic self. Beyond even that is a layer of subtle energy called prana that flows unceasingly from the deepest layer, the pure spiritual presence that yoga calls the Self. (The less complete but more common phrase used to describe these levels of being is body, mind, emotions, and spirit.)

Yoga views health and wellness as the harmonious resonance of all six layers of the self. The yogic process of regaining and enhancing this whole person health is a profound journey in which each layer of self is accessed, revitalized, and reclaimed to full awareness. Often referred to as the transformative process in Kripalu Yoga terminology, it includes many aspects of what would be commonly considered healing and health enhancement, therapeutic and growth psychology, and spirituality.


So Much More Than Postures

Most people have a limited view of yoga, seeing it as synonymous with yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. While popular and powerful, these disciplines are only a few of the tools employed to heal, harmonize, and awaken the whole person. Outlining the major branches of yoga will give you a feel for the breadth and depth of the ancient tradition.

  • Karma Yoga: the yoga of dynamic action and service to humanity
  • Jnana Yoga: the yoga of discriminative wisdom
  • Bhakti Yoga: the yoga of devotion
  • Hatha Yoga: the yoga of postures and breathing exercises
  • Raja Yoga: the yoga of concentration and meditation
  • Tantra Yoga: the yoga of integrating the polarities

Kripalu Yoga, like many other contemporary schools, integrates tools and techniques from all of the above classical schools, promoting yoga as an integrated lifestyle versus any stand-alone practice.


All Kripalu’s Activities Reflect Some Facet of Yoga

Kripalu Center offers an immersion experience of a yoga lifestyle. What do early morning posture and meditation practice, wholesome eating, study and learning in the program room, volunteer service, and deep tissue massage have in common? In the context of the Kripalu lifestyle, each is a facet of “yoga.” Each is a means adopted to exert a salutary impact on one or more levels of the multidimensional self, returning us to the vibrancy that is our birthright. As a person becomes steeped in the practices and lifestyle, their innate skillfulness, equanimity, clarity, and joy naturally come forth. This should come as no surprise, as they are just exhibiting the qualities of a yogi.


Nondogmatic and Nondenominational

Swami Kripalu was a kundalini yoga master renowned in India for the intensity of his spiritual practice and the depth of his compassion. In 1977, he came to the United States and spent four years in residence at the original Kripalu Center prior to his death in 1981. Maintaining his schedule of ten hours of yoga and meditation per day, Swami Kripalu also taught a small number of close disciples and made weekly public appearances that catalyzed the growth of the Kripalu community. In these ways, Swami Kripalu played an essential role in the transmission of a spiritually potent yoga tradition to a large community of Western practitioners. His teachings on yoga practice and holistic lifestyle continue to inspire Kripalu Center’s work in the world.

The Kripalu tradition is founded on what Swami Kripalu called Sanatana Dharma and in the West is called the Perennial Wisdom. This is the recognition that yoga and all the world’s wisdom traditions stem from a single universal truth that human beings can experience directly through a variety of disciplines, techniques, and practices. The following quotes from Swami Kripalu will give you a feel for this:

The spiritual path that I teach is called Sanatana Dharma, which means the way of eternal truth. Sanatana Dharma is not a sectarian creed or point of view. It is the performance of skillful actions that lead one to the direct realization of truth. Truth cannot belong to any one race, sect or nation. It does not recognize such narrow distinctions and makes itself available to the whole world.
It is worth remembering there is only one yoga. True, aspirants are of different natures and resort to various doctrines and practices to progress along the path. But one who completes the process of yoga understands its different paths and sees that the systematic practice of various disciplines leads to the same place. In the end, all yogas lead to one great Yoga.

While based in yoga, the Kripalu tradition is decidedly not a fundamentalist mindset. It is a nondogmatic and nonsectarian approach to life that celebrates diversity and recognizes that all approaches are valuable and venerable, all practitioners worthy of respect, and that truth is freely available to members of every nationality, race, and religion.

As an institution, Kripalu is dedicated to an honest and unfettered inquiry into all practices, philosophies, techniques, and approaches that produce thriving in the individual, family, community, society, and the planet. In accordance with the Kripalu tradition, this non-denominational “yoga” includes the teachings of all the world’s religions and spiritual traditions, together with the amazing knowledge gained from science, psychology, and other endeavors.

That’s why the Kripalu catalog includes such a phenomenal breadth of programming. Any reputable and reliable technique of healing and growth, drawn from any of the world’s great religious or spiritual traditions, or any methods resulting from the work of contemporary researchers and students, are part and parcel of this nondenominational yoga to the extent that they produce positive results.