European Union of yoga in Zinal
The 44th Congress of the European Union of Yoga took place in Zinal in August, attended by over 400 people and with T.K. Sribhashyam, Anuradha Choudry, Vinaya Banavathy and François Lorin as Guests of Honour. The theme this year was ‘Yoga Now’, which gave rise to a range of interpretations: what is Yoga in the twenty-first century? How do we bring ourselves into the now? What might prevent us from being in Yoga now?
Once again, the Congress was an inspiring week of extremely high-quality teaching. Seven hours of Yoga were on offer each day (in six different languages and a range of venues, including outdoors), as well as meditative walks and (for those who still had the energy) evening events such as concerts, chanting, a Meet and Greet evening…
The Alpine village of Zinal, situated at 1600m and surrounded by peaks, provides the perfect setting for a week of Yoga, and there are many other alternative activities on offer too: walking (ranging from easy to strenuous), swimming (river or swimming pool…), enjoying the views from the cable car, visiting the glaciers, trying out local delicacies as well as the many vegetarian dishes specially put on menus by hoteliers during the week. The atmosphere in the village is really rather special, as Yogis move between venues, and connections are made or renewed.
Given the amount and variety of teaching during the week, it would be impossible to give a full account of it all, but here is just a little flavour of some of the sessions I attended.
Dan Sion, working with his colleague Radu, took the theme of ‘Rectitude’ for their five early-morning sessions, working on a sequence developed by their teacher in Romania, entitled Purna Reka Namaskar (Total Rectitude Salutation). The emphasis was on lengthening the spine in standing, supine and seated positions, maintaining verticality without introducing stiffness and losing flexibility. Neat links were also made to rectitude in life, and the tricky transitions we encounter not just in a Yoga sequence, but also in life, for as Dan pointed out, ‘Yoga is the laboratory of life, we bring to Yoga the attitudes we have in life.’ So what attitudes do we bring to our practice? How might a small change in attitude affect our experience? How do we negotiate difficult transitions and find modifications if need be? This sequence, that was new for everyone in the class, gave a real opportunity to practise differently and interrogate our own approach to newness, asking ourselves if we were dropping back into comfortable, familiar patterns or genuinely embracing the challenge of doing something new.
In one of his sessions, T.K. Sribhashyam also mentioned ‘coming afresh’ to practice each time, taking as his theme dhyana. He pointed out that although the word is generally translated as ‘meditation’, in Indian culture the practice necessarily involves a connection to a god, the image of the god remaining in the mind during dhyana. He emphasised that one of the key aspects of dhyana is disconnecting from emotions, with no sense of judgement, liking or disliking, and in so doing we can attenuate the klesa by avoiding feeding emotions. Time spent in dhyana, he pointed out, is time not spent reacting to emotions and maybe hurting others, so if we gradually increase the time spent in dhyana, we can find more and more ways of existing other than through our emotions. Thus dhyana can move us gradually towards samadhi and a pure mind.
Like many others teaching in Zinal, François Lorin returned to the Sanskrit to help elucidate the meaning of the word brahmacarya, often translated as ‘chastity’ or ‘sexual abstinence’, but which he prefers to render as ‘balance in life.’ He explained this by pointing out that the root ‘brh’ means ‘to be in continuous extension’ (so ‘brahman’ is ‘that which is in constant extension’), whilst the root ‘car’ means ‘to move.’ Hence the original meaning, ‘that which moves towards what is in continual expansion’. The second half of brahmacarya (‘acarya’) thus means someone who is still moving, still learning, someone who does not have complete knowledge, but knows enough to teach, whereas a guru is ‘heavy’ and ‘rooted’ and cannot be ‘moved’. The brahmacarin denoted a young boy who was still studying, not yet established in life, and hence refraining from sexual activity, and over time that meaning (abstinence) came to also be applied to the word brahmacarya.
François Lorin developed his interpretation of the word as ‘balance’ by talking about (and teaching) a balanced practice, and asking what that might mean for each individual. For him asana help us to achieve balance in life, and represent a form of training, enabling us to remain on the ‘tightrope of life.’ He encouraged everyone to think about the tasks on which energy is expended, questioning whether or not we are happy with the balance achieved, or whether we are in fact overly directed by a sense of duty. Are we attracted to extremes that lead us to ignore certain aspects of ourselves? Are we going too far in one direction? The session ended with a fascinating experience of the ‘whirling dervishes’, where participants were invited to turn (clockwise or anticlockwise) for several minutes, to a musical accompaniment, as slowly or as quickly as they wished, exploring their own physical and emotional reactions: speed up? slow down? feeling dizzy? about to fall over? needing to lie down?
Anuradha Choudry and Vinaya Banavathy worked together in both English and French, taking as the guiding thread of their sessions the difficulties encountered by beginners coming to Yoga (difficulties that even seasoned practitioners often still experience of course…). One session focused specifically on the nine obstacles defined by Patanjali, with examples of modern-day situations and dilemmas being given to illustrate them, and the point being made that these obstacles manifest themselves differently in each individual. As part of this exploration, and in order to encourage awareness of the emotions that inhabit us and impact on our bodies, participants were invited to ‘mime’ certain emotions (fear, shyness, disgust, happiness and so on). We were also reminded that just as we can be influenced by our own emotions, we can be ‘coloured’ by the emotions/vibrations of others, and this is reflected in the word raga (attachment), which links etymologically to the word ‘to colour'.
Other precious nuggets shared by Anuradha and Vinaya included:
‘The choice is not whether or not to do Yoga, but whether to do it consciously.’
‘Those who are content in and by themselves are in Yoga.’
‘No compromise, no complacency, no competition.’
‘There is no need to fear for the future of Yoga; whatever is essential will remain and Yoga will continue to do its work.’
‘Something is Yoga when it corresponds to the greater good. It is not about being comfortable or uncomfortable.’
Key themes that recurred across these and other sessions included the emotions and how we become aware of and deal with them; the attitudes we bring to Yoga and how we might change them; seeking the balance (in Yoga, in life) that is right for each of us, so that every aspect of ourselves can be expressed and flourish; the strongly-held belief that the essence of Yoga cannot be lost, and will win out over inauthentic approaches.
These brief notes can only give the haziest of sketches of the week in Zinal, which really needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. In 2018 the theme will be ‘Unity in Diversity’ and should you be tempted (I cannot recommend the week highly enough), details will be on the European Union of Yoga website in early 2018.