A great guru once apprenticed a young boy, a country boy whose family raised water buffalo, to learn to be a yogi. Uneducated, but with the gleam of focus and intent in his eye, the boy had been recognized by the swami as a potential student, a yogi-in-training. However, when the great teacher instructed the boy on how to meditate, the boy found himself unable to concentrate on the image of Viṣnu that the teacher had given him. He fidgeted and grew restless and his mind drifted. Frustrated, after countless days of trying to achieve one-pointed focus on Viṣnu, he gave up and decided to return home.
When the guru asked him why he could not focus on Viṣnu, he answered that every time he closed his eyes, all he could see were his beloved buffalo. So, the swami, in all his wisdom, told the boy to focus his meditations instead on his buffalo. The boy immediately found peace with this practice and reported back that he now understood that Viṣnu was everywhere, in everything, even in his buffalo.
This is also the story of the yoga we practice today. It bears very little resemblance to the early haṭha yoga practices described in such texts as the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, from the 12th century, which mentions two āsanas: padmāsana (lotus) and baddha padmāsana (bound lotus), but dealt mostly the movement of energy through the body via the use of prāṇāyāma (breath control), mudras (energetic seals) and bandhas (locks or seals), and ultimately culminated in rājayoga, or samādhi.
By around 1450 CE, Svātmārāma compiled a variety of practices into the Haṭha Pradīpīka, which mentioned fifteen āsanas, along with many of the therapeutic benefits of their practice. But Svātmārāma also mentions the ṣaṭkarmas (purifying techniques such as neti and trāṭaka (candle gazing)) and also more esoteric practices such as nāda yoga (listening to increasingly subtle, divine inner sounds). But, in the end, the aim again is samādhi, one description of which says, “Just as salt becomes the same water when it unites [with it], so the union of self and mind is called samādhi.”
This doesn’t sound much like what we see in most yoga classes taught today. In the west, perhaps we have transformed this ancient practice of yoga into our own form of “buffalo,” a form laden with physical movement and awareness of breath in order to be able to focus our minds. In many places where yoga is taught today, teachers are not even allowed to talk about the spiritual element of yoga. Talking about such things as manipulating energy through the kuṇḍalinī channel can raise some eyebrows in places like gyms and health clubs. And even in a yoga studio, there are always a few students who are highly uncomfortable with chanting or meditating, or who get up and leave during śavāsana.
But, I would contend that somehow, somewhere along the way, most of them do find a glimmer of something more. They develop that post-class “yoga glow” and begin to crave that sense of peacefulness they find after putting their bodies through the rigors of a physically-demanding practice. Perhaps this state-of-being needs to be the result of an organic, spontaneous process that should be allowed to flourish individually, rather than always following the course laid out by the ancient yogis.
A fellow teacher at the studio where I teach was one of the early yoga leaders in the U.S.. He very intentionally Americanized his classes. He uses no Sanskrit, has his students do a gazillion push-ups, and leaves them drenched in puddles of sweat. But by the time śavāsana rolls around, they are too exhausted to even question the deep state of bliss into which he leads them.
One of the beautiful insights from the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, was that, if diligent, anybody can practice yoga, “even the old, the diseased, gradually obtains success in yoga through practice.” Dattātreya tells us that success in the practice does not arise through “merely reading the scriptures” or “adorning oneself with lots of rosaries (mala beads),” but rather that it is the practice itself that is the cause of success.
Just as the country boy found his source of inspiration in his beloved buffalo, and it turned out to be one and the same as the source that the great gūrū had been trying to show him, it is possible to find a glimmer of something “bigger than āsana” in today’s yoga practices. The techniques may not look the same as the practices from a thousand years ago, but we all know the experience of “settling into” what has become a familiar place in our practices, a place of letting go, of surrendering to the serenity within. Although the path to that place has changed, the ultimate destination remains the same. Just as the water buffalo boy found his own form of divinity in his beloved animals, isn’t the point of this practice to deal with our own “internal buffalos” and to recognize that we can tap into that place where the salt and the water merge and become one, and where we are all a part of the vastness of this great ocean of consciousness?