When you ask people why they started doing yoga, a few common responses emerge. Most often, students simply want to feel better. The body feels stiff or achy, weak or imbalanced. Some people have injuries or ailments and have heard that yoga can help. Many turn to yoga as a way to manage the strain and stress of life, and to learn how to relax, both physically and mentally. Yoga may help us to sleep better, improve our posture, up our tennis game or manage our moods. The list of ways that yoga helps is endless.
But how many of us took up the practice of yoga as a means of developing a more virtuous life?
This question occurred to me as I was reading an article by Prashant Iyengar. He states that in today’s general approach to yoga, there is hardly any emphasis on the “philosophy of the conduct of life.” In ancient times, Prashant asserts that the meaning of yoga was understood to be the study of how to live a meaningful and ethical life. It is the very essence of yoga to provide a philosophical foundation to guide our life choices and help us develop virtuous qualities within ourselves.
As Prashant has stated many times, “Asanas are not yoga. Asanas are for yoga.” They are method, not goal. But we so easily mistake the means for the end. Yamas, niyamas, aasana, pranayama and all the limbs of yoga are techniques to lead us to the essential truth of who we are, to help us become free of ignorance and to end our perpetual cycles of dissatisfaction and suffering. While these goals may seem far away, we can shift our orientation. We can proceed from an understanding that yoga is fundamentally concerned with providing a philosophy for how to conduct our lives, and for helping us develop our virtues so we can live up to our own ethical aspirations.
The practice of yoga both requires and develops virtue. By virtue, I mean those universal, abiding qualities that make life good – kindness, clarity, gratitude and serenity. When we progress with our yogic practices, we may find that some virtuous qualities are slowly developing. They may be tender shoots of patience, discipline and thoughtfulness, but the roots are firm. If we continue to water and care for these tender shoots, they may grow into hearty plants of generosity, compassion and truthfulness. Iyengar Yoga encourages us to practice with these qualities, so that developing consciousness becomes the primary goal.
In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “A virtuous asana is done from the heart and not the head.” He says that the “organ of virtue” or the conscience is situated in the heart. When we bring awareness to the heart region, the brain become calm and awareness and intelligence spread to our whole being. In this way, Mr. Iyengar explains that our practices must be done with the right intention, not for ego or to impress, but as a way to continue our journey inward to the core of our being.
If I keep in mind that my practices are to develop my inner qualities, it changes my orientation. I may work just as diligently to achieve a new pose, or to improve a well-known one, but knowing that the pose is the method and not the goal helps me remain detached from outcomes. This point of view frees me from concerns about my limits and difficulties, since the purpose of the practice is not perfect poses, but to live a virtuous life, and to develop qualities that transcend this life.
In the fourth chapter of his Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali says that when the path of yoga is complete, a stream of virtue descends upon us as if from a rain-cloud of virtue, pouring down like torrential rain. Until that day comes, we can consciously practice yoga as a way to live a more wholesome, compassionate and connected life, for the benefit of ourselves and all those around us.