Honoring the Ancient Traditions of Yoga
Paying respect to traditions gives us a sense of our roots, our heritage and a sense of being. We follow tradition because for centuries our ancestors have followed the ways that encapsulate the meaning of life and how to be free of suffering caused by uncertainty and trudging down dark paths. But tradition has many faces. It doesn’t always capture the best of us. There are those who cling to traditions and refuse change, while there are those who fear traditions that are unfamiliar from their own. With the world being increasingly cross-cultural, traditions of all sorts are being exposed to many reaches of the earth. In their travel they are becoming transformed. Through their transformation, we have to find a bridge that allows for us to protect the integrity of the tradition within the roots of their purpose.
Yoga is one of these traditions. It’s origins are rooted in the soils of the Indus Valley, beneath the Himalayan Mountains, what is Northern India and Pakistan today. It’s traditions so ancient, that it’s claimed to have been practiced since the beginning of civilization. Through internationalism, the seeds of yoga have scattered, blown in the wind and spread to those who seek light. Yoga now touches upon the lives of people all over the world.
Yet the traditions of yoga have altered significantly, in their travels from South Asia. In the West, people flock to 40.6 degree Celsius rooms, to sweat it out in a session of Bikram’s hot yoga, or work their core in power vinyasa yoga classes that focus on asanas, or physical postures of yoga combined with fitness. The roots of yoga, the mantras, the Om, breathing techniques, pranayama, and the intentions of finding inner peace, and stilling the mind to single-pointed concentration in meditation are foregone in the mist of vanity to achieve one’s ideal body type.
When the tradition has diverted so far from its roots, then what do you call its modern variation? Is it time for the traditions to shift with the modern currents?
If you travel to the Himalayan regions of India or Nepal and take a yoga class, you will experience how the traditions have modernized in its birthplace. Classes are conducted with an opening mantra, an Om, and an intention, then proceeded by a series of asanas, or poses, followed by a lengthy savasana. Sometimes the class begins or concludes with pranayama, breathing exercises, and then a final meditation to use the benefits of the physical practice in stilling the body to ease into the mental practice. The local yoga instructors have been practicing as a part of their culture, their heritage. They probably woke up at 3 or 4am to do their own practice before the sun rose, and established their own equilibrium before teaching the class that you participate in. Your class isn’t glistening with brand names, like Lululemon or prAna. It’s simple. You might even find yourself on a rooftop, with the monsoon pounding it’s way in through the makeshift roof made of tarpaulin, spraying you occasionally with rain as you press into adho mukha svanasana, or downward facing dog. But you feel the wind on your face, and outside is a sea of green fields.
In the West, the yogic experience differs depending on where you practice and who you practice with. Classes are more focused on the anatomy, which is safer than in India where you’ll be put into headstands and shoulder stands without caution. Sometimes there are real gems out there, where you get the mix of modern Western and classical Eastern traditions. The class will begin with a centering, focus on the breath, an Om you can join into, a sequence of poses that gets your heart pumping while simultaneously bringing you into yourself and connecting to the core of your being. Then a calming savasana, and a final centering that reflects on the intentions of the class. These classes exist. The music played during class may not be a traditional method, but traditions can change, as long as the intention remains.
The next time you step into a yoga class, be mindful. Leave your ego at the door, and explore yourself in the ancient tradition of connecting the body and mind. Be aware of the poses that open up that connection, and go inward. The hand foot bond to the mat should be all that matters, not the mirror in the room, or the person next to you. Let go and chant Om – there’s a reason it’s called the eternal sound. Lose yourself in the history of movement and discover how it makes you feel. You will never know until you try. Yoga is a tradition of self-discovery through seeking this connection.
Finding Tradition through Intention
The origins of yoga comes from Sanskrit, to yoke, or union. This is the intention of the practice. It can be done through chanting, breathing, meditating, or physical movement. Whatever form of yoga you practice, if your intention is to create a union of the body and mind with the true nature of yourself, then you are following the roots of the yoga tradition. It doesn’t matter if you use modern music to carry you through your practice, if you laugh, sweat and shake, call the poses by their Sanskrit, or locally invented name, if your intention is pure then you are amongst the traditions of yoga. Find your path and allow yoga to become your teacher as you explore its roots, and find a tradition that remains alive and intact in each of us.
“By Yoga, Yoga must be known; Through Yoga, Yoga advances; He who cares for Yoga, In Yoga rests forever.” (Unknown source)
Naljor: A Buddhist Approach to Yoga
The current popularity of yoga stands at all time high in the 5,000 years of its existence. Numerous celebrity endorsements, features in mainstream media, and the proliferation of online resources have introduced millions of people to the potential benefits of a regular practice. As a consequence, people around the world are picking up yoga mats and heading down to their local studios for weekly rounds of sun-salutations and warrior’s poses in the hopes of achieving stress relief, balance and improvements in overall health and well being.
Of course, anyone who spends time on the mat realizes that yoga is about much more than just the poses. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras define yoga as a “cessation of vacillation of thought”. Other translations include “yoking” or “union”. That which must be yoked or harnessed, according to the late yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein “is attention, which ordinarily flits from object to object”. The ability to concentrate attention is what allows the yogi to work directly with the mind and ultimately to unify the lower self with the higher self.
The Golden Statue Wrapped in Rags
Tibetan Buddhist practitioners define yoga slightly differently than their Hindu counterparts. The word yoga, according to the Tibetan Buddhist Master Namkhai Norbu is rendered “naljor” in Tibetan. According to Norbu, “nal literally means original or authentic and jor means to discover or possess this condition. Accordingly, the meaning of naljor is to discover our real condition.”
The story of the “Golden Statue Wrapped in Rags”, which can be found in Arya Maitreya’s “Uttara Tantra”, illustrates this process of inner discovery through metaphor:
A god, having discovered by the road a precious [statue] of a Tathagata [Buddha] all wrapped in smelly tattered rags, would tell someone the fact of it lying there at the roadside, so that it might be recovered. Similarly, when the Buddhas, of unhindered vision, see the very substance of the Tathagatas [Buddhas] even in animals present but wrapped within the envelope of defilement, they also show the means by which it may be set free.
Encountering The Buddha Within
In Buddhist practice, there are many Buddhas, some male and some female. However, these Buddhas are not representative of an external God or object of worship – rather, they serve as a symbolic representation of our own inner potentialities for limitless wisdom, love and compassion. Collectively these qualities are known as our Buddha nature.
Our Buddha nature is pure and beautiful – much like a golden statue. When our mind is untroubled, our body is relaxed, and our breath is calm and quiet, we can sometimes even catch a glimpse of the Buddha within. As we come to rest in the quiet of our inner space, we quite naturally and spontaneously find ourselves able to feel more open, loving and able to see things from a broader perspective.
Unfortunately, the converse is also true. When we’re stressed out or threatened in some way, or when we have a lot of mental chatter, we can also see that we have the potential for hatred, obsessiveness, ignorance and many other destructive emotions within us. In many ways, these destructive emotions are very similar to a set of “tattered rags” that obscure our inner potentialities.
If these destructive emotions become strong enough, they can make it difficult to make meaningful contact with our Buddha nature. In fact, if our minds are deeply obscured by destructive emotions, those emotions can even make us forget that we, or others, have a Buddha Nature at all.
The Buddha is Present in Every Living Being
According to the metaphor, a God, or a Buddha has the divine vision and wisdom necessary to see that the mind of every living life form is ultimately pure. Supported by this vision, the gods and the Buddhas are able to see beyond our obscurations in order to ascertain our true inner value.
According to Tibetan Buddhist teacher Thrangu Rinpoche, the Buddhas in particular remind us that we should “remove the tattered rags so the Buddha nature can manifest in its complete purity”.
How Do We Uncover the Golden Statue?
In order to “remove the tattered rags”, a yogi or yogini in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition practices naljor. In this context, naljor (or yoga) refers to the methods employed during the process of purification. In order to be considered authentic, these purification practices have to come from an enlightened source – namely a Buddha that originally achieved enlightenment through their practice.
Naljor: A Diverse Set of Practices
The yoga utilized in naljor practice can generally be categorized in three separate ways.
Practices for the Body
Many emotional obscurations can be linked to energetic blockages and damage to our energetic channels (nadis). When a yogi or yogini experiences ill health emotional disturbances, or difficulties in meditation, physical asanas can be used to move energy and repair damage to the energy system. In my tradition, these techniques are called “Mangalam Yantra Yoga”. Some schools also refer to these techniques as “Trul Khor” or the magical wheel.
Practices for Speech
Breath is life and the wind that gives voice to our speech. As such, purification of speech is heavily dependent on conscious breathing exercises (Vayu Yogas) and the repetition of mantra.
Practices for the Mind
In naljor practice, meditation serves as one of the primary yogas used to purify the mind. At the initial stages of practice, one uses concentration to create a calm abiding state of mind (shamatha) to develop deeper insights into the true nature of the self and external reality (vipassana). In addition, naljor practitioners also use meditation to cultivate the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings (Bodhichitta). Typically, this is done by meditating on loving kindness, compassion and giving and taking (tong len).
At the higher stages of practice, a yogi/ni learns how to meditate directly on the Buddha within by visualizing themselves as a Buddha. It is said that by practicing visualization in this way, the immense qualities of the Buddha can arise within a practitioner within one single lifetime.
Yoga All Day Every Day
Naljor practices are designed to be fully integrated into all aspects of daily life. Some are practiced during waking hours, and others, such as dream yoga are practiced during sleep. Ultimately, when these techniques are blended with daily living, naljor becomes a 24-hour per day practice that can be extended over a lifetime.
By practicing in this way, every moment becomes an opportunity for positive transformation and awakening.
Does Buddhism Belong in a Yoga Class?
These days, most people associate yoga techniques with “Hindu” yoga practices. This is partly due to the fact that many of the modern yoga teachers responsible for popularizing the practice were Hindu practitioners, such as Parahahansa Yogananda, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. As a consequence, many people have come to think of yoga as a distinctly Hindu discipline.
While it’s true that many yoga practices can be traced to Hindu origins, there are also yoga practices with Jain and Buddhist roots. According to the contemporary Buddhist Master H.H. the Sakya Trizin, yogic practices were used by practitioners from both Buddhist and Hindu religions in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and reached their peak in India in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Fortunately, early yogic practitioners from Hindu and Buddhist lineages were not hindered by differences in their respective traditions. In fact, H.H. the Sakya Trizin states that “they were not interested in labels, any more that a nuclear physicist cares about his nationality when he compares notes with a foreign colleague.”
Since these practitioners were primarily interested in meditative realization, they regularly interacted with one another and regularly debated on the effectiveness of their methods and techniques. In fact, one of the earliest recognized figures in Hatha Yoga, the MahaSiddha Gorakshanath, is known to have practiced both Hindu and Buddhist yogas.
Thus, the exchange of ideas between Buddhist and Hindu yoga practitioners is nothing new and has been an accepted practice for centuries. In fact, it is widely known that T. Krishnamacharya himself, the teacher of both Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, traveled to Tibet in order to study yoga directly with a Tibetan Guru for over seven years in the early part of the 20th century.
Empowerment and Introduction to the Buddha Nature
Traditional naljor practices are typically done as a daily practice (sadhana). A sadhana is an incredibly powerful tool, and one of the most sophisticated methods of physical and psychological transformation ever taught. When practiced daily in its unaltered form, the potential for transformation, insight and healing that it unleashes is unparalleled.
Most sadhana practices are secret practices that are transmitted directly from a Buddhist meditation master (Vajra master) to a student in the form of a ritualized ceremony called an empowerment (abhishekha). During the empowerment, the Vajra master symbolically introduces a student to his or her Buddha nature, confers a mantra, and extends permission to undertake yoga practices associated with a particular Buddha or Buddha family.
Naljor-Inspired Yoga Practice
Traditionally, undertaking the empowerment ritual requires a formalized commitment to Buddhist practice and study, the undertaking of vows, and a commitment to serve the lineage from which the practice derives. This is not always possible for a number of reasons.
If you wish to explore a naljor practice inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, explore David’s four-video practice (coming soon).
Each video in the series begins with a simple breathing exercise to purify your speech, continues on to a set of simple physical poses designed to release physical blockages from your body and ends with a traditional meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to purify the mind.
Accessible Practices for Everyone
While the breathing exercises and physical practices contained in these videos are drawn from common, every day yoga techniques that you may be familiar with, the meditations themselves are drawn directly from Buddhist contemplations which can be found in many traditional sadhanas. Practicing these meditations requires no formal commitment, and their focus on the cultivation of very human qualities such as love and compassion makes them applicable to practitioners from all faith and backgrounds.
These profound contemplations will guide you through the process of mental purification and will connect to yourself and others in a genuine and meaningful way. Over time, these powerful practices will help you make contact with the Buddha within and will help you begin the process of uncovering the limitless love, compassion and wisdom that exists within all living beings.
May your practice bring you peace.