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A Kripalu Yoga definition of enlightenment: The last in a series of articles on yoga's transformative process

Winter 2005

by Shobhan Richard Faulds


With contemporary yoga so focused on the physical, and yoga postures woven into glitzy media images, it's easy to forget that traditional yoga was an esoteric tradition intended to catalyze a profound process of psychological growth and spiritual awakening. A depth practice of yoga opens the heart, clears and concentrates the mind, and helps us recognize the transpersonal dimension that exists within all of us.

With regular practice, sensations grow distinct and the inner world of emotion becomes vivid.Mental awareness is refined, helping you discriminate between surface thinking and deeper, creative streams of thought. An attitude of compassionate self-observation emerges that expands awareness and leads to periodic insights and occasional breakthroughs. In Kripalu Yoga, it is this steady deepening of presence, both on the yoga mat and in your life, that is the true measure of practice.

Deepening a Kripalu Yoga practice does not require you to perform ever-more difficult postures, although you may choose to do so. Practice deepens as you closely attune to the inner flow of energy and awareness. Guided from within, you move and stretch in ways that nurture the body, rebalance the emotions, and fine-tune the mind. On some days you may challenge yourself physically to work out the kinks. On others you may move gently to soothe body and mind. While the outer expression of a depth practice is likely to change from day to day, the inner practice of being present and focusing inward remains the same.

Along with physical techniques like holding the posture and micromovements, Kripalu Yoga includes two awareness-focusing methods that support this inner work. Both build upon the Practice of Being Present—breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow—and encourage unconscious material to surface in awareness, where it can be felt, seen, and let go.

Riding the Wave is Kripalu Yoga's approach to emotional release. As you hold the posture, focusing on areas of sensation that naturally draw your attention, energy builds in the body and the mind gradually shifts into a highly concentrated state. As deep-seated tensions surface, a powerful wave of sensation begins to arise. Staying present in your body and relaxing into the holding, you allow the wave to rise, crest, and dissipate. Riding the Wave is a highly effective way to regain your capacity to feel fully and, in so doing, free yourself of buried trauma, trapped emotion, and everyday emotional baggage.

Witness Consciousness helps you sustain meditative awareness despite the steady stream of thoughts parading through the mind. It builds upon the practice of watching—restraining the mind's tendency to grasp what is pleasant and push away what is painful—and produces a flowing state of choiceless awareness that enables you to remain intimate with what's going on inside you. Essential to our tradition are Swami Kripalu's teachings on "self-observation without judgment," which emphasize the role our "inner critic" plays in forcing material out of conscious awareness. As the light of Witness Consciousness dawns, the mind is gradually cleared of a complex tangle of egocentric thinking, emotional patterning, rigid compartmentalization, and other conditioning—sometimes called the "false self." As masks and personas drop away, authenticity comes naturally.

Depth practitioners are likely to encounter various "yoga experiences" that serve as potent catalysts for change. Whether they open you to the bliss of relaxation, the raw power of emotional release, the pain of confronting limitations, or the heightened awareness of meditative states, every yoga experience frees up the flow of life force that is the invisible engine of the transformative process. Non-dual experiences in which the rigid boundaries of the self dissolve are especially potent, often bringing latent capacities to life or ushering in periods of rapid growth.

As powerful and positive as yoga experiences are, the goal of Kripalu Yoga is more nuanced than a momentary enlightenment experience. Regular practice helps you develop a strong and healthy body, an open, caring heart, and a clear and creative mind. All along the way, Kripalu Yoga recognizes that you were born divine and connected to spirit. By bringing you back again and again to the experience of being mentally present and spiritually awake in a relaxed body, practice helps you weave spiritual awareness into the fabric of your everyday life and being.

This process of embodying spirit is reflected not only in what happens on the yoga mat or meditation cushion. In many ways, a better measure is the presence in your life of qualities like peace, joy, love, creativity, wisdom, humility, generosity, fearlessness, compassion, and courage. Spirit has a unique quality. It is transpersonal, absolutely the same in you and others, and entirely free of egocentric concerns. Cut off from a vital spiritual connection, we often feel separate, independent, and disconnected. Sages from all traditions teach that this sense of separateness lies at the root of human suffering. As you begin to recognize spirit in yourself, you increasingly see it shining in others and reflected in the world around you. As separation falls away, so does suffering.

If there's a Kripalu Yoga definition of enlightenment, it's the ability to live in deep connection with self, life, and others. This is not to downplay the existence of exalted states. It is to suggest that a mature spiritual awakening is not so much gaining a glimpse of heaven as it is bringing heaven to earth and ultimately leaving behind such distinctions altogether. Each moment arises afresh. Do we react with fear and defensiveness, or respond with openness, curiosity and gratitude? More than a search for the holy grail of enlightenment, Kripalu Yoga seeks to marry the absolute and the relative in a deeply integrated life.

Shobhan Richard Faulds, M.A., J.D., is a professional-level Kripalu yoga teacher who has spent the last five years working on Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat. A 400-page, comprehensive exposition of the Kripalu approach, the book is brought to life by 375 illustrations and by quotes and stories from nearly 100 KYTA members. When it's finally released by Bantam Books on December 27, expect to hear a huge sigh of relief emanating from Shobhan's home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. To have a copy automatically sent to you this month, at a 20% discount to KYTA members, click here. Buy five or more copies at a 30% discount. All proceeds benefit Kripalu.

Complete list of articles by this author:

Kripalu's Non-sectarian Approach to Yoga

The Path to Tantra: The first in a series of articles on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

The sadhana of Swami Kripalu: The second in a series of articles on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

Yogi Amrit Desai, originator of Kripalu Yoga: The third in a series of articles on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

Professionals with Heart and Soul: Teaching Yoga in the "Yoga Boom"

Eastern tradition meets Western disciples: Co-creation in Kripalu's resident community

The yoga of communication: Leading groups the Kripalu way

Kripalu Yoga: A path of transformation

What distinguishes Kripalu Yoga?

Facets of transformative teaching

Looking back to move forward: The guru-disciple relationship

Students, mentors, midwives: A model for transformative teaching

The journey from known to unknown: The first in a series of articles on yoga's transformative process

Purifying body and mind

A Kripalu Yoga definition of enlightenment: The last in a series of articles on yoga's transformative process

Mastery in teaching

Swami Kripalu’s Inspiration for Yoga Teachers

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