STEPS TOWARDS YOGA
(continued from Early Beginnings)
At 16 years of age, I took my first yoga class when I was enrolled as a student at McGill University. It was taught, little did I know at the time, by a Sivananda-trained yoga teacher. (I would love to thank him today for helping to spark my path). I adored the class. It felt both physically charged and spiritually inspired. I distinctly remember how the world seemed richer, fully and brighter after the class. I attended it religiously. Each week, the class felt like a homecoming. I would experience a feeling inside of me awaken, something I felt I had always known and also knew I was missing. Without understanding the fullness of what was happening, I sensed something deep within me growing through this weekly practice.
Yoga became a love affair. My practice has continued from the day of my first class on. However, I only stayed at McGill for a year. I did not feel personally fulfilled in the Arts and Art History program I was studying, so I chose to switch to Architecture at Waterloo University. At Waterloo, I continued my yoga classes with an Iyengar teacher, and went deeper into understanding postural alignment.
Yoga and meditation kept me sane in architecture school. The architecture program was very demanding. It exacerbated my type A personality I have learned to soften and release through my yoga practices. Classmates noticed I was doing something to manage my stress, so I started to guide a few peers through yoga postures and breathing to help us cope with our demanding schedule and tight deadlines. I guess you could say that was my first experience teaching, though I resisted any such title.
After university, I worked at a reputed Montreal architecture firm. I was paid well, had a budding young career and was respected, but I felt an inner restlessness. A voice within would not quell. Externally, it seemed that the “right” thing to do was to do my masters in architecture. But that did not feel right at a gut level. I could not put it into words. All I knew was that the light I was cultivating doing yoga seemed to grow dimmer when I thought about a masters degree.
What did feel right, was that I was supposed to do something other than work as an architect. The problem was, I did not know what. Music continued through my life as a passionate, creative connection. I had rebelled against the choice I was asked to make between piano and voice when I first applied to musical performance at university, so it continued as a unresolved hobby.
I was unhappy. I needed change. Instinctively, I knew that I needed to make room in life so that the “something else” could emerge. So I decided to courageously give my boss my two-week notice and see what would happen. During the process of that two weeks, colleagues repeatedly asked me where I was going. I would continue to say, I don’t know. Until one day, my boss asked me that very same question, to which the answer automatically spilled from my lips: “I am going to India.” The words rolled off my tongue before I knew what I had said. As the words hung in the air in the pregnant pause that followed, I fully absorbed them. I knew it was right. I was going to India to pursue my love of the spiritual path.
When I had first arrived back in Montreal after university to work in the architecture firm, I had sought out a yoga school. At the Sivananda Yoga Center on St-Laurent, I became heavily involved with my yoga practice. Swami Sivananda was one of the greatest Yoga masters of the 20th century. He is the inspiration behind the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres worldwide. I learned that his teachings are summarized in these six words: Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize. At the Sivananda Center, I took mantra and meditation classes, advanced asana practices and went deeper into my own personal study. When I heard there was a teacher training program offered in India in a few months, I knew I was meant to be there.
Going to India was a true calling. I went with the deep desire to find my guru. I knew there was someone “out there” to guide my practice, a realized being who knew the pitfalls along the spiritual path. I saw the light in the photos of Swami Sivananda’s eyes and knew I wanted that same light in a living teacher to look straight into my soul. I did not know what that relationship would look like, but I knew how it would feel.
I flew into Madras and had my 23rd birthday in Tamil Nadu, South India. A couple days later, I continued South to attended my first teacher training program at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala. There I was introduced to a classical approach to Yoga. I adored the whole program and the experience of daily immersion in the practice and study of Yoga. The teacher training program lasted a month, but my time in India lasted a year.
The Sivananda Centers teach a traditional, easy to learn method that aims to naturally achieve the goal of yoga by creating a healthy body/mind that supports spiritual evolution. The goal of yoga is understood as the union of the mind, body and spirit with the Divine.
The teachings of Swami Sivananda and his primary disciple Swami Vishnudevananda summarize the vast field of yogic philosophy into five main points:
1. Proper exercise (asana): through the correct practice of yoga poses, one develops a strong, healthy body.
2. Proper breathing (pranayama): the cultivation of deep, conscious breathing aids in stress reduction and wards off diseases.
3. Proper relaxation: by learning to let go, we help keep ourselves in balance, avoiding going into overload, worry and exhaustion.
4. Proper diet: simple, vegetarian foods that are easy to digest aid the body/mind to maintain healthy balance. Healthy eating also helps the environment and all beings.
5. Positive thinking (meditation and Vedanta): the true key to achieving piece of mind come through a devoted meditation practice and clear understanding of the processes of the mind and ego.
The Sivananda Centers also offer a beautiful, clear and accessible overview of the various yogic paths. The four paths of Yoga all lead to the same place, union with the Divine. They simply speak more to the varying human temperaments and approaches to life.
1. Karma Yoga, the Yoga of Action, teaches us to act without attachment to the fruits of our actions. We learn to let go of expectations, which are driven by our ego, and serve what is.
2. Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of Devotion, inspires people through prayer, worship and chanting to see God unconditionally in all beings.
3. Raja Yoga, the Royal Path or the Science of the Mind, is for those who enjoy study, understanding and thinking. By cultivating mental strength, we learn to master the life force energy known as Prana. This path is fuelled by a strong meditation practice.
4. Jnana Yoga, the Yoga Of Knowledge, is considered the path for those with strong intellectual tendencies and insight. Using Vedanta, non-duality, as a vehicle, one inquires into the nature of the Self to realize the oneness with all that is.
SIVANANDA AND YEM
I am forever grateful for the experiences I have had through the Sivananda Centers. I was taught though my studies there about the bigness of Yoga, the breadth of its history and the practical implications it has as a real-life, day-to-day practice, even in today’s busy world. Yoga is immense and also so simple. It comes alive when we practice, when we go within and face ourselves, when we get on the mat and do our exercises and when we bring that expanded spaciousness out into the world and chose to live awakened lives.
One of my favourite sayings by Swami Sivananda is “An ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory”. The saying helps us remember that enlightened action, living awake in the world is where our true practice exists. We can stay “knowledgeable” in our heads, but if it does not translate into loving and serving more fully, then it really does not mean much at all as a yogi. Yoga in this way is a practical life science. It helps us live all aspects of life more fully. Yoga is the art of living.
Because of the broad foundation I received from my Sivananda practice, study and training, I have been able to open to a big vision of Yoga and its many layers and meanings. I brought these riches into the practice of YEM and into my current show and musical compositions.
(Continued tomorrow with India: Meeting My Guru (The Door Blows Open))