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Yoga for the West: Why we need yoga more than ever

by Swami Durgananda, PhD

London 16 January 2010 – This article is an excerpt from a talk given by Swami Durgananda, Yoga Acharya, Director of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers in Europe.

Here in the West, newcomers to yoga and students who begin to deepen their practice often find themselves asking, "Is yoga really suited to Westerners?" I can answer this question with an emphatic "yes!" Yoga touches on aspects common to all people. When our teacher Swami Vishnudevananda* first came to the West from India, he had the full spectrum of yoga practices at his disposal. Yet in the beginning he taught his students only the asanas and pranayama, the yoga poses and the breathing exercises. Why? Because these techniques help us connect with ourselves, thus they give us a certain degree of peace. All we need to do is focus on the exercise and the breathing and let go of our thoughts.

To do the asanas and pranayama well and get the full benefit of the practice, however, you need lots of guidance. Because when you practice alone, you're confronted with your own thought resistance, which is difficult to overcome. Thinking is a habit, and we run through countless repetitive thought patterns without even being conscious of it.

It takes seven to eight years of yoga practice to clear away this thick crust of thought patterns. That may seem like a long time, but it isn't really. If other methods promise faster results, don't believe them. We all have a similar accumulation of thoughts and there is only one proven method of tackling them: we need to relax, concentrate and cultivate new thought patterns. We've had these habits of thought not just in this life, but also in previous lives. But they manifest quite strongly in this lifetime because our experience of time is very intense. More so than earlier generations, we are so pressed by time that our thoughts go round and round, faster and faster. This will ultimately make us ill if we do not learn how to face time with courage and humility.

Computers, faxes, telephones and airplanes have collapsed time considerably. In earlier days, it used to take a week to send a letter from America to Europe, and another week to get the reply. Today we have e-mails and faxes, and the reply is expected immediately. We are all subservient to this Moloch called time, and that's why yoga is more important than ever for people in the West. It gives us a moment when we can disconnect – to enter a room without faxes, telephones, TVs and e-mails, to simply lie on the floor and reconnect with ourselves. Yoga retreat houses offer the best opportunities for this, but you should still try to create these conditions in your own space.

Start by practicing with lots of patience. Don't allow yourself to think: "I'm not at all flexible. I've had so many operations. My doctor says I shouldn't do any exercise or at most physical therapy." Or: "I already do lots of ballet, jogging and aerobics. Yoga exercises are boring – they're not dynamic enough." I've heard that all before. Practice yoga: It's the only system that combines physical exercise with mental exercise. There is no system as easy as the yoga asanas. All you need is a mat and a timeless space unencumbered by the devices I mentioned earlier.

You begin practicing with complete calmness, humility and repose – without having a particular goal in mind. But that's what is so difficult for us. We want to see results immediately. We want to achieve something in the yoga pose. Forget all that. Just think about doing the exercise, even if coming into the pose is harder for you than for others who have been practicing for a year. Where we are in a particular asana is where we are supposed to be. It's perfect for us.

The pressure exerted in the exercise stimulates acupuncture points and energy channels (meridians). This happens in everyone, no matter how flexible or stiff they may be. Flexibility comes with practice. It doesn't make a difference whether you are young or old. Most people start yoga at 30 or 35. But you can begin with 50, 60 or even 70.

I once knew a 75-year-old man who could hardly walk when he started yoga. At first he would arrive at the yoga center in a taxi and used a cane to steady his gait. After six months he was taking public transportation. Several months into the yoga practice he learned how to do the headstand – that was his favorite pose. He was overjoyed with his progress and the quality of life he regained. When you're young and active, you don't like to hear the well-meaning words of others. But at his age he had attained a certain degree of peace and he would listen to the teacher’s advice. 

So don’t wait. Begin practicing asanas and pranayama and remain relaxed amid the hustle and bustle of life.

* Swami Vishnudevananda is the founder of the international Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers and author of the bestseller The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga.

About the author

Swami Durgananda is Yoga Acharya and Director of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers in Europe. She teaches yoga and philosophy at the Sivananda yoga teachers’ training courses around the world. Her practical and intuitive style of teaching is inspired by her own intensive practice and over 30 years' teaching experience.