Connecting to the
Infinite: 10 Steps to Transformation in a Yoga Pose Practice
by Robert Butera, Ph.D.
Yoga is a transformational process. This
simple fact is something that has become more and more evident to me
during the twenty-plus years that I have been teaching yoga. While
people practice yoga for many reasons, everyone comes to realize its
benefits of self-improvement and healing. Over the years, I have seen
people join yoga programs to lose weight, improve their study skills,
reduce stress, heal injuries, strengthen their body and mind, find
compassion, feel better . . . and the list goes on. We all face
challenges in life and struggle to transcend them. Yoga is a great way
of doing just that.
I find that most students come to yoga
class assuming that they need to either have or learn how to maintain
an extreme, gymnastic-like flexibility, only to discover that their
mind was the bigger hurdle. It is at the mental level that feelings of
worry, dread, fear, and agitation are generated, feelings that
naturally prevent us from being calm, peaceful, and self-assured. Yoga
goes straight to those feelings and helps alleviate them. Perhaps one
of the greatest benefits of yoga is that it puts the brain to rest.
In modern yoga, there seems to be an
over-emphasis on external form. If you do this pose precisely, get into
the position, and then breathe—then you’re doing everything just fine.
If you aren’t flexible enough, then use some props and you can get it
close to perfect. With minimal teaching on the psychological and
spiritual aspects of yoga, students may struggle with the meaning of
yoga, which develops and deepens if they are able to commit to it, and
are left on their own to possibly discover higher states of
consciousness along the way. This makes learning yoga more difficult,
time consuming, and ultimately less effective.
Understanding this inherent flaw in the
Western approach to yoga, as well as working with people of different
ages and backgrounds, has been an interesting part of my journey.
Everyone is unique in terms of what they specifically need to work on,
yet at the same time, a variety of similar experiences and patterns
based on the universal human experience continued to emerge. It was
through observing these patterns in my students that I came to
understand that a system needed to be formed. The system needed to be
fluid and allow for individual differences, and at the same time offer
a template that a broad amount of practitioners could work within.
Through many years of thinking about my students and their processes, I
outlined 10 yogic principles/practices that can work as a foundation
beginners and also serve as an outline to keep advanced practitioners
engaged in their practice over a lifetime—a guide for all those
interested in transformation via a yoga pose practice.
The desire to stimulate advanced students
came out of my own experiences of practice—at different times in my
yoga teaching career, as well as in my own personal practice, I have
felt bored. I love yoga, yet after a few years of intense teaching and
practice, I started to daydream. Recently, this kind of boredom has
been termed “yoga burnout.” The 10 steps outlined in this article offer
many perspectives to keep yoga pose practices fresh and full of new
personal discoveries. The steps can work together in a linear fashion,
or they can be practiced and applied individually, with a more circular
approach. All that a person needs to begin is an open mind and a desire
to evolve on multiple levels. Regardless of age or level of yogic
experience, they will offer something useful to transform your yoga
practice. It also doesn’t matter what style of yoga you are currently
practicing, as these steps affirm all forms of yoga practice as
One of the nice things about yoga is that
it contains no religious dogma and allows for anyone who practices it
to follow their individual spiritual beliefs. In this way, the
religious person might understand his or her connection to the infinite
as a process of becoming one with God, while an atheist might call it
transcending the human ego. Yoga can be adapted to a variety of belief
systems while remaining equally effective and transformative. One of
the reasons for yoga’s popularity is that it is extremely adaptable and
can be practiced alongside other belief systems. In the end, yoga
provides a path to quieting the mind so that we all can feel the innate
stillness and joy of being alive. Swami Aranya, great yogic scholar,
has said that the purpose of a yoga pose practice is “connecting to the infinite”
(ananta-samapatti) and describes this feeling as “My body has become like void dissolving
itself in infinite space and I am like the wide expanse of the sky.”
One of the foundational texts on yoga is The
Yoga Sutras, written around the second century BCE by the great
Indian sage Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras provides a theoretical
and philosophical basis for yoga as well as clarifies many important
esoteric concepts. It is a highly influential book on yoga philosophy
and practice, and as you feel inspired, I encourage you to read for
yourself. Like Swami Aranya, The Yoga Sutras also describe
the experience and purpose of yoga, especially the poses, in terms of
the infinite: “By relaxation of effort and meditation on the
infinite, postures (asanas) are perfected.” Here
we begin to understand that the goal of a yoga pose is no different
from the goal of spiritual life: to put you in touch with the larger
universe or reality.
You may have already had an experience of connecting to the infinite,
as there are many paths to leading to it, most of which are
spontaneous. It may have happened one day when you were walking in the
woods, swimming in the ocean, or witnessing the growth of a child. It
could have happened in a church, a cave, or at the top of a mountain.
It could even have happened while you were sitting in your favorite
chair next to a roaring fire. There is no predicting when or how grace
falls upon us. It comes in a flash and then disappears again. The
Pure Heart of Yoga offers you the tools to proactively work
toward that place of connection, rather than waiting for it to
spontaneously happen in your life.
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Robert Butera, Ph.D., Author of The
Pure Heart of Yoga
Yoga has become increasingly popular in the past decade. Why do you
think that is?
think that there are a lot of contributing factors, but I’d have to say
that I really noticed things taking off in the mid 1990s. I can
remember having a conversation with some fellow yoga teachers around
that time, and we were all surprised to see our class attendance
growing at an unusual rate. The direct correlation was the Hollywood
factor—a lot of movie stars were professing that yoga was their secret
to a maintaining a lean body and youthful appearance. That got the
media talking, and all of sudden yoga wasn’t a strange esoteric thing
practiced by hippies and eccentric Gurus. Yoga was positioned to become
more accessible to the average individual.
We all know that a trend doesn’t have the
ability to sustain itself without some substance behind it, and I
believe that the continued popularity of yoga has more to do with the
practice itself. It is a process of slowing down that offers people the
opportunity to become more grounded and calm. In many ways, it is the
perfect antidote to modern life. As technology becomes more and more
ingrained into daily experience, we are forced to do more with less
time—it is very easy to feel like life is spinning out of control. The
stress of this new way of living creates the ongoing potential to lose
touch with ourselves, and doing yoga is a wonderful way of setting time
aside to reconnect with who we are at a deeper level.
How exactly would you define yoga?
is an interesting question, one that you could ask a hundred different
yoga teachers and get a different answer from each of them. Many people
use the Sanskrit root word “Yuj” to define Yoga, which means “to yoke”
and describes the yoking of the lower self to the higher self. While
this definition is true in the literal and metaphorical sense, it has
become something of a cliché in yoga circles. When any concept is
overused, it can lose its deeper meaning.
At first, many students only experience
practice of yoga poses. As they experience the first level of mind/body
changes brought about by practicing, students become curious as to why
and how yoga works. They start to study the theories behind the
practices and discover the pure definition of yoga—the cessation of
the thought waves of the mind.
The waves represent sources of stress, whether they are minor issues of
daily existence or profound life struggles. Yoga tells us that the
source of suffering is the resistance to the fact that everything in
the material world is in a state of change. We live in ignorance of
this simple truth and continue to resist change, creating a revolving
source of stress and unhappiness. To remedy these vicissitudes of life,
the process of yoga aims to help us calm or still the mind and find a
sense of harmony within.
Personally, I define yoga as a holistic
lifestyle—a peaceful way of
being in the world and connecting to something that is larger than the
individual ego. It is an all-encompassing process that allows us to be
more skillful in our actions, and create balance in our relationships,
health/food choices, at work, and in our spiritual lives. From this
perspective yoga is both infinite in scope and timeless in nature.
I’ve heard that yoga can be used as part of a holistic approach to
living; why is this?
I mentioned in the previous question, yoga in its true nature is a
holistic lifestyle. There are five main branches of yoga, and each
category represents a different facet of the human experience. In order
to bring about individual union with the larger reality, each one of
these categories will need to be addressed. We are all born with
different dispositions, so the emphasis of what are working on at any
given time can shift if necessary.
Tantric Yoga is often thought of as a sexual practice, but it actually
relates to the care of the body, including energy, health, and
nutrition. Yoga poses and pranayama (breathwork or mastery of the
energy body) fall under this category. Raja Yoga or meditative yoga
includes Yoga’s psychological principles. Karma Yoga concerns attitudes
towards work and outlines a method of transforming work into a
spiritual pursuit. Devotional or Bhakti Yoga offers insights into
relationships and love as well as spiritual practice. Jnana Yoga or the
Yoga of Knowledge consists of the study of self and of scriptures. Each
branch is sophisticated and detailed, and when practiced together, they
become an integrated and universally holistic path.
You’ve spent several years abroad; how has your past experience
overseas enriched your yoga?
My experience overseas essentially shaped
my life path. As a student
with the Friends World College in Japan (1985-88), I began to clearly
see the suffering of the world. It was during those years that my
desire to help people transcend their pain was solidified. Also in
Japan, I met my first teacher of meditation, and considered becoming a
monk. This teacher sensed that yoga was the correct approach for me and
sent me off to India, where I found a comprehensive spiritual path.
As a student living at The Yoga Institute
of Mumbai, India, I had the privilege of bearing witness to the effects
of prolonged spiritual practice on a community. Through interacting
with my teacher, I was able to apply the deeper philosophies to my own
suffering and understand the ego’s role. I also observed how a
spiritual teacher could live simply and still have a profound effect on
the direction of student’s lives. Ultimately, living in India offered
me the opportunity to experience the transformative power of a yoga
practice and see the same power at work in others. When I began
teaching yoga in 1990, the process continued in my own students. These
collective experiences gave me the conviction that yoga really works.
Living in Japan and India also imbued my
life with the essence of the Eastern approach. Through experience, I
learned that life there is more about inner-balance than material
success. As a young adult, these lessons were invaluable.
5. Your new book, The Pure
Heart of Yoga, provides 10 steps to enrich personal yoga
is the goal of these 10 steps?
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