There is a tension in the yoga world that creates a great deal of confusion, which I have struggled with during my 30 years of practice. As I’ve moved through different yoga schools and negotiated the challenges of teaching in our modern environment, I have been perplexed trying to honor lineage and tradition while making the teaching applicable to the reality of the modern world.
My confusion reflects a basic dichotomy that runs through the history of yoga that can be encapsulated with the contrast of the renunciate and householder paths of yoga. Renunciates are those who renounce of withdraw from the world (with their practices, but also physically, e.g, into ashrams), claiming that the material world can only bring bondage and suffering. Householders, on the other hand, are those who live in the world with careers, family, and homes.
My own path of yoga has wound through both these paths, and I’ve landed squarely on the middle ground, causing me to face the paradox of yoga each and every day.
I began my practice in a very rigorous Hatha yoga school that emphasized breath, bandha, a steady gaze, and a prescribed sequence of postures. It required immense discipline, focus and dedication, practicing asana (yoga postures) at least 2 hours a day, 6 days a week. I threw myself into the practice for many years, travelling to India to study directly with its founder. I developed a strong body and a disciplined demeanor. I also suffered a variety of physical injuries as my teachers and I worked to contort my body into the prescribed postures. It felt harsh and controlling.
Meanwhile I began to have larger questions about the path and started investigating the philosophy underlying the practice. I studied the Yoga Sutras which seemed to be THE text of yoga, or at least the one with several available English translations. This text clearly delineates a renunciate path, turning awareness inward and away from the world. I began to see how such a philosophy can lead to a strict and controlling approach toward the body and mind, which was what I was experiencing in my asana practice.
I was perplexed and found myself asking again and again: if the goal of yoga is to subjugate the body and withdraw the mind from the world, then why are we born into these bodies in this world with such active minds? The philosophical answers never sat right with me. I was clearly not interested in being a renunciate, even while I had an intense desire for a greater spiritual awareness.
So when I encountered a Hatha yoga school that honored the body, mind, and all of manifestation as part of a Divine pulsation, it drew me in. It resonated with what I sensed intuitively. It was such a relief to hear that life is a gift to be enjoyed and savored. It felt right to begin practice with a softening and opening. Play, beauty and delight were emphasized. I learned the underlying philosophy was Tantric, which acknowledges the householder path.
Though it was music to my ears, resonating deeply with my heart, I often felt uncomfortable in that school with its emphasis on play and delight and dancing on the surface of life. It felt ungrounded and undisciplined.
The first school taught me to turn in and connect with a deeper part of myself. The second school taught me to honor and delight in the gift of my embodied life. I felt lucky to have experienced both of them and that each had a piece of the truth, and I struggled to reconcile them.
Finally I realized what was missing from both these Hatha yoga schools was the practice of meditation. In both, there was a sense that one should be meditating, but the method was not clear. So when I saw the opportunity to begin studying a Tantric based meditation method, I dove right in.
Along with the meditation practice, I learned a new theory of the practice for householders which allowed me to integrate my previous experiences. I came full circle back to the teachings of the Yoga Sutra with its emphasis on disciplined practice. Meditation draws our awareness away from the outer world to connect with something deeper inside, and it requires the discipline I learned in my early years to make my way to my cushion daily.
The subsequent philosophical developments of Tantra teach that there is more, as I’d always intuited. The meditative state is not the end, but just the beginning. Through meditation we connect to the ground of being, which supports us as we then move into our everyday activities. This is how I currently live the paradox of yoga.
The connection cultivated in meditation is like a current that runs from deep within and energizes my activities. This optimizes my life as a householder, in part because my actions reflect this connection, which makes them more skillful. Further, the deep introversive practice allows me to more clearly see and experience the beauty in the world from a place that is grounded in Source. In these and other ways, I’m finding the practice of Tantric meditation allows me to integrate practices that create grounding and clarity with living my life as a householder fully.