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Well, as a matter of fact, there is a similar situation of wasted potential and underuse affecting Yoga in the western world!
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Indeed, only a minority of practitioners know and properly appreciate this fantastic spiritual discipline from India, while most only use it to “get in shape”, which is roughly a tenth of all the blessings Yoga normally has to offer.
Connecting things together
More than just a practice for well-being, health, and relaxation – which should not be neglected, obviously – if we want to understand what Yoga really is, we need to look at the etymology. Yoga is Sanskrit for “Union”.
Union is the action to join two elements that are bound to work together, to be better than the sum of both parts. Yoga is striving for some union, trying to connect things together. But to connect what?
What is currently apart and should be connected?
You – or more accurately your awareness – stand cognitively apart from the rest of the universe, apart from other beings and even from a part of yourself you call your “subconscious mind”.
Why is it so?
Because the willpower of humanity as it stands is currently too weak and too immature to spontaneously set its mind free from the fascination it feels towards its own thoughts, a quite recent phenomenon in human evolution!
As such, hypnotized by its own thoughts, this willpower dreams its own life – a life that is nothing but a reflection, an echo of reality – instead of letting you live it directly in the present. But most of all, it dreams about a story where the self stands supreme as a separate being.
When awareness lies dormant within a dysfunctional mind, it is the main culprit behind a cognitive process separating the subject (you) from the object (anything you consider apart from you).
Have you ever wondered why there was never any cognition or any kind of “you” in deep sleep? Well, that’s because deprived of anything to know, the subject cannot hold itself together. It disappears.
In other words, yourself only exists when a “hypnotic” cognitive process disturbs the awakened state of your consciousness, separating the subject from the object through fantasy.
Yoga was created in order to shake you awake from that state of hypnosis, to bind the subject and the object separated by that cognition, and to cleanse your consciousness from your ego, to join you with the universe, with the Whole.
By the way, the Latin word for “to bind” is the root of the word “religion”. Religion and Yoga are thus legacies that wise ancestors shared with humanity throughout history in order to help each and every one of us to restore the natural bond between our individual consciousness and the consciousness of the Whole.
From there, we are all free to spoil these legacies of wisdom by considering that religion is the opium of the masses or that Yoga is just a weird kind of gym; nevertheless, the essence of those spiritual paths – among so many others, granted – still holds the power to help to release you from the illusion of being a separate being, a self also riddled with fear, pride, greed, hatred, anger, jealousy, lies, and all the troubles of the mind that religions have called “sins” that the ego will never be cured from, since they are consubstantial to it.
Consequently, and without any kind of naïve morality, Yoga is trying to let you see how essential it is to put an end to the dysfunctional egocentrism of your mind, and as such to offer you the opportunity to connect your individual consciousness to the Awareness of the Whole.
To be the wave and the ocean!
For your initiation into the world of Yoga, a discipline that is complex and exotic, why don’t you try really simple methods designed by westerners for westerners?
Yoga without poses
Philippe de Méric, a Yoga pioneer in France, designed the first of these methods, “Yoga without poses”.
This extremely easy form of Yoga is meant to relieve your stress using simple exercises involving contraction and relaxation, and steady, controlled breathing.
This is an extremely interesting approach indeed from a western Yoga master, who strived to expurgate all the specifically Indian parts of Indian Hatha Yoga… leaving the essence that meets the universal need of inner acquisition, enlightenment, and transformation of the self.
According to him, Indian Hatha Yoga was designed for people who are very different from modern westerners, they have different metaphysical concerns, a different mindset, and even a different attitude toward their body.
Adapting to that form of Yoga is still possible, obviously, but he designed his Yoga without poses method precisely to free us from pointless efforts to adapt.
The word “asana” means “easy, comfortable, stable, pleasant”. The Yoga Sutra can confirm this striking etymology by teaching us that “the pose becomes perfect whenever any effort to adopt it disappears”.
This is why Westerners should not perform what could be seen as feats of acrobatics but choose the poses of their Yoga among natural and usual ways to stand.
The greatest teachings of the Yoga without poses explain how to stand up, to control our tension, to breathe, and enhance your awareness.
Instead of doing an hour or half-hour of Yoga and then get back to our body’s bad habits, it might be better to focus on a kind of Yoga that fits in every aspect of our daily life by changing these bad habits, precisely.
Case in point, one of our most common attitudes is to stand up… and no one ever taught us how to do it properly.
How should you stand up? Well, just by superimposing legs, torso, neck, and head within a balanced, almost vertical plane. The goal is to allocate any effort from the muscles and tendons contributing to maintaining your balance as harmoniously as possible and reduce their effort to a minimum.
When you think about it, this is the point of Hatha Yoga: to avoid any contraction in a pose and strive to be as natural as can be.
And of course, here we are not focusing on any pose where you are sitting on the ground as so many eastern people do, but on something even more universal: standing up.
Your legs must stay straight, with your pelvis naturally tilted without any contraction or slackening of the backside and abdominal muscles, your spine as straight as possible, relaxing the muscles in your rib cage, arms and shoulders loose, with your head in a natural position.
This might seem simple and obvious, and yet several bad habits and misconceptions have disturbed this ideal position throughout the centuries.
Many people, for instance, believe that to stick out your chest is healthy when the opposite is true.
You should not extend your chin either, but keep it close to your throat in order to reduce the curve of your neck collar; do not keep your shoulders up, do not hollow your chest, and stay sitting on your own hips, in a way.
To achieve the desired ease in this pose, it is essential to find your balance using your center of gravity that can be found a couple of inches below your navel or to be more specific between the fifth lumbar vertebra and the sacrum.
Now you just need to get used to standing in that position as often as possible, until it becomes natural and permanent.
Eastern people have been sitting on the ground daily since the dawn of time, so they do not find it especially hard to cross their legs to perform a perfect Padma asana or any other classic pose.
Conversely, western people need to work on their joints for a long, hard while to reach the same results, if that.
And yet these classic asanas absolutely aren’t mandatory, since several masters – even Indian ones – never practiced them.
It is better to learn how to sit down properly, in your own way. First, you should try to see the awful habits most of us have learned, to sit down in a bad, bad way, sagging down, arching your back, and lumped over the back of your chair or slouched on your elbows.
The sitting position of the Yoga without poses consists in sitting on the edge of a chair, legs crossed, feet touching the ground on their external side, knees apart in a position clearly below the hips in order to control your center of gravity.
The hands are simply at rest on the thighs, the head is looking straight ahead, and the stomach stays in a natural position.
In this position, you simply need to extend your spine, from your hips to your neck, as if you wanted to be taller, but never stretching your shoulders back or puffing out your chest.
Once again, this attitude of your body must progressively become second nature, even if you need to practice for a long while before you succeed.
No surprise there: if you want to relax, classic Yoga and relaxology agree that the best position is to lie on your back.
You need a solid surface, like a carpet for instance, in a rather quiet and well ventilated.
Once you are free from any clothing constraint, you can relax with your heels apart – or even with your legs slightly apart – with the top of your feet pointing out, arms straight along your chest, palms up, fingers slightly curved, head in the same axis as the rest of your body, which must obviously be straight but not stiff. You can put a little cushion under your waist, neck, or knees if you need it.
Any relaxation session must be performed perfectly still. You cannot change position halfway in, or scratch, or blow your nose… Just relax! The basic protocol consists of focusing on various part of your body in succession and striving to relax them. Some are more important than others like the neck, face, or tongue, and you should spend more time on them to relax.
You should also breathe through your nose, also relaxed, with special care when you breathe out because this is where all the tension will be released.
A session should last a minimum of ten minutes, but of course, it can last up to twenty, thirty, or even sixty minutes.
According to the same principle, you should not be satisfied with a single relaxation session from time to time, but to drive your tension away throughout the day, specifically on focusing on the day-to-day attitudes of your body.
Right now, for example, if you are in a sitting position, in what position is your back? Are your shoulders pushing forward or backward? Are your legs crossed? Is your face relaxed? Etc.
For each of these questions, you need to try and see whether or not you find some useless tension.
Likewise, when you’re walking down the street, try to be aware of the way your arms fall, if they are flexible or tense if your head naturally stands straight…
In a car, it’s even easier to adopt some bad habits. Your head, mostly, is very often tilted forward, as if you wanted to see further ahead, triggering some painful tension in your neck. Just get your chin slightly closer to your neck, and let it extend more naturally.
Some might find this kind of control to be dull: but it means they kind of missed the point of Yoga. In India, Yogi practice their asanas almost constantly.
In the western world, where no one can settle for good on the pavement to perform these exercises, a different kind of Yoga better suited to our way of life has been designed. The point is to make it possible for us to practice it more steadily and regularly.
Of course, you can just as well practice this western Yoga for just thirty minutes every day, but it has not been designed for that.
Now that you know what to look for, it will be easier to try and breather naturally while being aware of this usually unconscious act: breathing.
You should start by observing the way you breathe when you are at rest, when you speak, when you make a physical effort… Take note of the ways your breathing pattern changes, any jolt, irregularity, or specific location…
Of course, do not try to change your breathing yet. Now the point is to learn to know yourself through the way you breathe. Is your breathing steady or unsteady? Deep or superficial? Is it located in the upper or mid-section of your thorax?
Once it is over, just lie down in the relaxation position described before, and slowly and deeply breathe out through the nose, then wait until you start breathing in naturally, without effort.
As you keep going with this exercise, little by little, start to fix your breathing by using your stomach.
Usually, breathing in is not a problem. First, because it starts automatically and because it is usually enough.
However, breathing out usually requires some learning practice.
A rather easy breathing exercise consists in breathing out all the air you can while sitting down, then to pinch your nose and try to breathe in two or three times while extending your ribs.
Then release your nostrils and breathe out a little bit more… and start the false inhalations again while holding your nose. Finally, breathe out one last time and let the air enter your lungs normally.
This exercise should obviously be performed several times in a row. It can decongest and detoxify, and most of all it lets you re-educate your diaphragmatic function.
Enhancing your awareness
Everybody knows the story of the disciple asking his master how he can reach Enlightenment and receiving the following reply, “When hungry, eat, when tired, sleep”.
The poor disciple was dumbstruck:
“But everybody does that!” The master replies, “No. When people eat, they think about other things and let themselves be distracted from what they are doing. When they sleep, they do not sleep, they dream about a thousand useless things”.
Another good exercise would be to take a watch in your hand and look at the secondhand tick. Try to be aware, second after second, of standing here and now.
How long will it be before your mind starts wandering, away from the here and now?
Just like Indian Yoga, the goal is first and foremost to be aware of your own presence, as often as possible. To never leave yourself. Or try to, at the very least.
Devised by Gerda Alexander in 1957, Eutony is not called “Yoga” but many still consider it as another branch of Yoga firmly rooted in western culture.
The word comes from the Greek and means “harmonious tension”. In other words, Eutony is supposed to be the state in which you can achieve optimum psychophysical balance. But for Gerda Alexander, who had a lot of disabled students, Eutony was first and foremost a method of self-discovery through the body.
It was first inspired by the principles of eurhythmics designed by Jacques- Dalcroze, which little by little convinced Alexander how important it was to listen to your own rhythm to perform true and organic movements.
To that end, she quickly understood how essential it was to relieve excessive tension and dissolve any block.
Eutony was born.
According to Gerda Alexander, a movement can be either eutonic (which means regenerative) or dystonic (which means degenerative).
In concrete terms, the main difference showcased by Eutony lies between mechanical or repetitive movements, like typing text on a computer, and careful movements. The first ones always end up generating contractions and blocks: the second ones never do.
With that in mind, the quality of your movements is the main factor behind your tonus – which impacts your organism every step of the way.
On the other hand, various kinds of reactions to stress can also trigger blocks and malfunctions. Each of us reacts in our own way: some clench their teeth, others draw their shoulders in, and others flex their muscles…
Most of them, anyway, block themselves while trying to protect themselves, which makes them unable to deal with the problem head-on.
What’s worse is that these inappropriate reactions slow down regular brain irrigation and prevent proper thinking. In other words, a handful of bad habits are responsible for your being unable to overcome any stressful situation.
Conversely, when you try to single out these detrimental habits of your body and then dismantle them whenever they happen until you can quite simply prevent them from being triggered in the first place, it becomes possible and even relatively easy to face any tough situation in existence with a steady and open mind.
This is the main goal of Eutony.
Dismantling bad habits
The advantages of Eutony practice thus seem obvious. When you learn how to stop being on edge and how to get rid of degenerative movements, a practitioner will progressively start a process of self-improvement that will broaden their perceptions and enhance their relationship with themselves and with other people.
Granted, this will not happen overnight! Bad habits, especially those that began in your childhood, can be hard to overcome.
When a fifty-year-old person has been crunching their own frame with every disappointment since they were five, it is obvious that they won’t learn how to reflexively stand straight up in a single one-hour session.
Case in point, Eutony should not be limited to its exercises with regenerative movements. It also teaches you how to be aware of the causes behind degenerative movements, in other words working to enhance your awareness of your own thoughts and feelings, and most of all of the way you use your body.
As a matter of fact, from its very nature, this enhanced awareness could on its own automatically trigger the decrease or even disappearance of any mechanical movement.
Being there for yourself
Once more, like every branch of Yoga, the main focus is to be self-aware, to be there for yourself.
In the teachings of Eutony, being self-aware implies both clear and unbiased awareness of the outside world and noticing the living aspect of physiological processes like tonus, blood flow or breathing. And of course, it requires some perspective about yourself, a kind of benevolent neutrality, which is the only way you can observe your reactions to anything that happens without judgment but with discernment.
In a nutshell, the main goal of Eutony is not to perform successful movements but to be there for yourself when you perform these movements. This presence is as essential as it is rare.
One of the most common exercises for beginners simply consists in drawing your own body in order to express your current awareness of your own body, and it shows how different our self-image can be from the truth.
You will need to work on that self-image in every step of your Eutony training.
Eutony mainly focuses on the necessity to develop a certain spirit of independence, both when working in a group and during the exercises, you will do at home.
Case in point, classes only teach the essential basics, and teachers keep their interventions to a minimum to correct wrong movements.
To sum up, all the students must understand on their own, and be aware of the effect of their own movements. Eutony is not looking for docility, but for direct experimentation of the harmony found in every movement, in a constant struggle to check what you have learned about your own body.
That being said, the most important part is to include the movements you have learned during your sessions in your daily life. In order to do so, you absolutely need to avoid any mechanical practice.
A few very brief movements performed slowly and with a lot of focus are better than a large number of exercises performed carelessly in a routine.
Only by developing a disposition toward awareness during the sessions will the student naturally become aware of their own body, even in the essence of their daily life, and thus reduce the amount of tension they will create for themselves and manage to correct their wrong movements on their own.
Actions will become more meaningful and yield a wealth of new experiences, day after day.
Did ancient Egyptians practice Yoga? Well, not Yoga, obviously, since this is a Sanskrit word used to describe an Indian discipline, but they still had something very close, and even its name was formed from the same root: “Smai Tawi”, which means “Union of the Two Lands”, in other words, the “union of the higher and lower nature of Man”.
Today, Smai Tawi is called Kemetic Yoga, or simply Egyptian Yoga. On a spiritual level, it is based on the Neteru, the ontological functions of deep awareness – in other words: cosmic principles – to lead the Yogi or “Nebedjer” on an uphill path through increasingly subtle states of consciousness.
On a psycho-mental level, Kemetic Yoga offered new adepts a system of integration for their personality, usually considered to be fragmented between willpower, emotions, intellect, and actions.
Egyptian Yoga thus developed methods strangely similar to those found in Indian Yoga in order to harmonize and unite all these sub-personalities: meditation (Raja) for willpower, devotion (Bhakti) for emotions, wisdom (Jnana) for the intellect, and justice (Karma) for actions.
You might be wondering what this has to do with people from the western world?
Well, it happens that the poses of this Yoga, like in Philippe de Méric’s “Yoga without poses”, are much closer to the usual physical habits of people from the western world than those found in Indian Yoga.
A kind of Yoga to discover Yoga
With the exception of the famous “Seated Scribe”, anyone can see that most bas-relief, engravings, and statues from the time of the Pharaoh in Egypt depict characters in a standing position or sitting on a throne.
There are indeed some poses that are perfectly identical in both Traditions. Most notably, characters depicted in a lotus position, or in the pose of the royal cobra, bridge, or plow, have been found in several temples or mastaba. These are all typical asanas in Hatha Yoga. But most of the Egyptian poses are not that hard for someone living in the western world, who is not used to sitting on the ground.
This branch of Yoga was presented some time ago by Doctor A. de Sambucy under the name “Iranian-Egyptian Yoga”, then developed by Doctor Hanish, who added several poses drawn from the traditional corpus of ancient Iranian and Egyptian civilizations.
This Yoga is performed through a harmonious combination of movement, breathing, and sound. The poses are done standing up or on your knees while singing the vowels on a scale.
Finger exercises are particularly important, with each finger associated with a specific bodily function.
But just like true Yoga, of course, the union of breathing and working on specific poses is considered to offer education, enlightenment, and evolution to human beings.
Finally, these days Kemetic Yoga has come back under the spotlight thanks to Babacar Khane, founder of the first International Yoga Institute, who used it for a brand new method combining Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga, Chi Kong and Kung Fu, with the main goal to let beginners practice Yoga gently and improve without pain or risk.