September 4, 2012

The Ancient Roots of Modern Yoga. ~ Tony Criscuolo

(From  Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers)

After thirty years of teaching yoga all over the U.S., I have come across pretty much every imaginable way of approaching this deceptively simple discipline, as well a wide variety of competency in teachers.

Sad to say, many do not have the proper foundation in wisdom and experience.

Aside from knowledge in teaching the postures and breathing methods, I believe it is crucial to have an understanding of the historical and philosophical roots for what we do on the mat.

The ancient texts, principally found in the Vedic wisdom of India, but including the later Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are very clear on the direction of yoga practice as leading to a conscious connection with the divine energy, whether in a personal or impersonal form.

This is not to say that every practitioner will have this as a goal; certainly there is nothing wrong in pursuing the more mundane benefits of yoga that include improved health and vitality, a flexible, strong and balanced body and expanding the focus and abilities of the mind.

But in our Western zeal to package and popularize yoga (especially in America), rarely is there sufficient attention given to the ancients and their awareness of the transcendental possibilities inherent in a dedicated approach to yoga, i.e., a freedom from the bondage of the material world and the joys of a conscious connection with the divine.

There are two foundational texts: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad-gita. The Yoga Sutras describe the way the mind is constructed to process information and the application of this knowledge in our quest for spiritual freedom; The Bhagavad Gita lays out the organization of the world, our place in it and describes how to be in harmony with the divine.

Let’s take a look at what these ancient texts have to say about yoga, beginning with the Yoga Sutras.

Even a casual reading of this text, particularly the section which describes the ashtanga (ashta=eight, anga=limb) yoga system, makes it clear that whatever yoga is, it has little to do with the physical body, beyond maintaining a healthy, strong vehicle for the journey of the spirit. Within the eight limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas present us with a guide to leading an ethical and moral life, with rules of conduct meant to help us avoid the pitfalls of material existence and improve our relations with all beings.

Asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathwork and maintaining life force) assure the health of the physical body and allow a stilling of the mind that can, at least momentarily, free us from the pull of material desires. It then becomes possible to turn the senses inward (pratyahara) and really begin the investigation of consciousness, which makes up the final three limbs (dharana, dhyana and samadhi) of the ashtanga yoga system.

This is the methodology for freeing the restless mind from thought based on a temporary view of life and describes how to create will, the essential ingredient for any development, by disciplining the body, mind and emotions. As a personalist, I would say that the ultimate goal as outlined in the Yoga Sutras is the linking of our little will with the will of God. An impersonalist might say something like uniting with the creative energy of the universe or cosmic consciousness.

By the way, none of this has anything to do with what we customarily think of as religion; this methodology applies inside or outside of any cultural or religious context.

We could call the yoga process the science of the soul. And the freedom referred to is based on the experience of a disciplined practice of yoga, not mere intellectual knowledge, which can impede the actual practice of yoga if not fully understood.

So the Yoga Sutras are mainly concerned with the psychological aspects of yoga. It is an instruction manual that describes the inner workings of the mind and how to apply our inner awareness while practicing yoga, no matter what the form.

What is real and what is illusion? How should our individual consciousness relate to this reality in a way that leads to pleasure and happiness? After all, we are all seeking joy in life. And what about the divine and our relationship to it?

For these answers let’s turn to the primary text on yoga in the ancient Vedic tradition of India, the Bhagavad Gita.

The larger context of the Bhagavad Gita is worth mentioning. As an episode in the great historical work, The Mahabharata, it is nothing more (or less) than a conversation between the Supreme Lord, Krishna, and His devoted disciple, Arjuna.

Arjuna is about to face an epic war between his family, the Pandavas, and their relatives in the Kuru dynasty. Realizing that he is about to kill some of his dearest relatives, Arjuna, the greatest of the warriors, loses his taste for the battle; he lays down his bow and turns to Lord Krishna for advice. The ensuing conversation is the Vedic answer to “What is Yoga?”

The essential aspects of yoga start with understanding that our situation in the material world is temporary, and that within the body an eternal soul is entangled. Krishna tells Arjuna that he need not be concerned about killing his kinsmen:

Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. (BG 2.12)1

And soon after, Krishna makes a key statement that gives a signpost to us as to the path of a yogi:

Oh best among men (Arjuna), the person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certain eligible for liberation. (BG 2.16)

Equanimity gives us the composure to see things clearly and not be tossed around by emotional states. Later in the second chapter (BG 2.31), Krishna mentions that there is no better engagement in life than to serve dharma. This is a complex concept that is the primary stepping stone toward spiritual understanding and a key to the ethical teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.

Dharma encompasses universal harmony, being in tune with the reality of creation, as well as a description of our connection to our essential being. It is through the service of dharma that we fulfill our highest potential, transcendental consciousness.

This sounds pretty esoteric, but it simply means that by service to the Lord and His creation we discover our essential being, which has been covered over by our interactions and attachments (karma) to the material world. Through the recognition of the sacred quality of all life, we move toward spiritual understanding by accomplishing our work in the world and accepting our responsibilities as a sacred task.

It makes no difference what our position is, but the attitude with which we do our work and how we do it makes all the difference.

Another way of looking at this is to not serve the lower self, feeding the senses and accumulating more and more karmic reactions, but to turn our attention inward and discover our essential nature, i.e., the higher self. This realization helps us to direct our energies out into the world and perform our duties in family life or whatever they are with an eye toward helping others to follow their dharma.

Finally, it is essential to act without attachment to the result, as to do this simply creates more karmic reactions. Perhaps this is what Lao Tsu meant when he said that the Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.

Following the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, there is a complete description of the forms of yoga, the nature of reality and a beautiful portrait of the absolute and our relationship to all of this. The last verse of chapter six sums up Lord Krishna’s message for yogis:

And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me—he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion. (BG 6.47)

Despite the ancient historical and cultural context of this wonderful book, which makes its study difficult for us in the so called modern world, the struggle to understand its message is one of the greatest paths to transcendental consciousness available, even today.

On a more personal note, as we all know, it is not easy to live without attachment to material desires. It can be quite discouraging to even make the attempt. Further, it has been my experience that most people who show up in my yoga classes are not so philosophically inclined to study these sacred texts. They just want to feel better.

So, in my yoga classes I teach the foundation of postures and breath awareness and just mention in passing these higher “spiritual” goals. Experience has taught me that the entry point in yoga is to work on creating a healthy body, maintain the energy required for full participation in life and improve the ability to perceive clearly.

As to the role of “meditation,” simply stopping activity and sitting in silence is a wonderful way for allowing the mind to perceive things as they are. I don’t make a big deal out of meditative techniques, although I find the yogic systems of working with the breath very useful.

I tell students that a higher purpose of yoga exercise is to create a mental state which is clear, alert and able to focus for extended periods of time. And then, I ask them to pay close attention to their inner states and to life itself whenever possible and be completely honest with themselves.

I have full confidence that if we do this life will be the greatest teaching and the lessons learned will lead us to an awareness of our inherent spiritual nature in a way that best fits our particular life circumstances.

I love to discuss and share the philosophical and psychological principles behind my teaching, but rarely do so in classes, simply dropping hints and suggestions on how to follow up if a student is so inclined. In a sense I offer my services as a spiritual guide and leave the individual free to follow up or not.

After so many years of teaching I realize that most people are up to their necks in material entanglements and it is counterproductive to wave any ultimate goals of life in front of them. I love teaching and connecting with students in whatever way is possible, and believe that one of my tasks as a teacher is to be sensitive to the needs of each student and available to elevate the conversation whenever appropriate.

But, I do not see it as my place to define the purpose of life for anyone. I have complete trust in the process of paying close attention to life and practicing the physical aspects of yoga.

My final comment here concerns my interactions with other teachers and those who follow one or another form of spiritual life.

I am very careful about the people I let close to me and share my internal world. In the past I have been a part of several spiritual groups and have learned that many so called “practitioners” join a group and then fall prey to a dynamic which goes something like this: “I will pretend that you are leading a spiritual life if you will pretend that I am leading a spiritual life.”

This makes for pleasant feelings, but is unfortunately based on pretense. I place great value on the few friends who are willing to call me on my personal deceptions and allow me to reciprocate. I don’t mean that we are constantly looking to find fault with each other, but that we sincerely intend to maintain a relationship based in truth and mutual respect.


Tony Criscuolo took up yoga as a graduate student in a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology 40 years ago. Within five years he left his college teaching position to follow the path of a yogi. In 35 years of teaching he has led programs all over the country, worked with collegiate and professional athletes, business people, children and families, as well as students in traditional Western yoga settings.

Tony’s educational experiences include 12 years of intensive studies with a Sufi Master, a lengthy trip to India with a Jain monk, intensive studies with Iyengar, Kundalini and Ashtanga yoga teachers and directing a yoga center for five years.

Tony’s calling is as a teacher, starting with basketball camps as a collegiate athlete, then as a flight instructor in the air force, college psychology teaching and finally as a yoga teacher. He took up yoga because of his disappointment that the field of Western psychology offered nothing for the body. As an athlete he knew that exercise affected the mind and emotions as well as the body; so when he came upon yoga it was a perfect fit that went all the way back to his childhood as an altar boy.

Tony lives and teaches in San Luis Obispo, California. His personal practice involves daily teaching and practice of yoga postures and following the whole of the traditional Ashtanga Yoga System as best he can. Tony can be reached [email protected].


See all articles from
Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers

Editor: Thaddeus Haas

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