What Is Classical Yoga?
Traditionally, Yoga is a life work. It brings us to an experience of reality which is not obstructed by the limitations of ideas and opinions. The mind gives us only a model of reality. Freeing ourselves from the illusion that the model is the reality, is the purpose of Yoga.
If you looked up a reference book, you would find that the period in yoga known as the classical era was associated with the time and work of Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras. His dates are put rather broadly, circa 200 BC according to BKS Iyengar in his Light on Yoga, and as late as 500 AD by some others. At any rate, Patanjali has a profound place in the development of Yoga, "the first great exponent" of yoga, according to Iyengar. The Sutras, which draw on teachings much older, explore what it is to have a mind, what it is to have existence, and what is possible beyond the bounds of perception and mental reactions to perception. The ultimate possibility is the sublime union of consciousness with Reality - that is, Self-realisation.
You might think Yoga is for enlightenment. But what is enlightenment? In Classical Yoga, we investigate our experience of life. You might find that all your thoughts are polarised between two relative extremes - good/bad, pleasant/unpleasant, worthwhile /worthless, etc. You will also find, if you look, that there is a filter applied to all of our perceptions of the world: our egocentrism. This is not necessarily 'egotistic' - only we see the world through our own filter of preference and avoidance. In fact, we don't see the world as it is, we only see it through the distortion of our conceptualisations. And it doesn't take much enquiry to recognise that you can't squash reality into a concept. We assume we can, though - we imagine we can grasp reality through thinking. That's what has been called 'the veil of illusion' for these many centuries. So we experience only an idea of ourselves, never noticing the reality beyond the idea.
What Do Classical Yogis Do?
As practitioners of Classical Yoga, we practise truthfulness and non-exploitativeness (Yama). Truthfulness means being totally okay with reality even when it is uncomfortable. The discipline of that is quite interesting in a modern world. The ordinary way is to cherish fantasies and to try to bend reality around your preferences. We practice contentment and a clear state of mind (Niyama). Being happy without any particular reason is a bit unusual in our world, too. The ordinary way is to imagine that we will be happy sometime in the future when we get what we want.
We keep the body fit and flexible (Asana). But our approach is one of steadiness and ease, for comfort and well-being of the body, not for fashion or because of any fitness compulsion. And we don't for a moment imagine that bodily flexibility is what yoga is about.
We practice mindful breathing (Pranayama) and notice the subtle effects of breathing on consciousness and energy. Breathing is so familiar that the ordinary way is not to notice it at all, unless we have respiratory problems.
We practice mindful sensory experience (Pratyahara). Ordinarily the mind is charging about all over the place, and the body just gets dragged along. A Classical Yogi experiences the reality of muscles moving and a bottom on a seat. We find out something extraordinary: that my experience is no different from yours, and yours and mine is no different from the experience of any celebrity. We find that the moment now is extraordinarily full and rich, even if we are peeling potatoes. The ordinary way is to imagine that one's life is marked by inadequacy, incompleteness and the absurd notion that other people must have a much different sort of experience.
We contemplate (Dharana), in order to nudge the narrow cage of our mental constructs into something a bit broader, and to see where our mind gives us a false sense of reality. The ordinary way is to imagine that your ideas and attitudes and assumptions and perceptions are realistic and correct. Big mistake!
For regular periods, we sit in still-minded quietness (Dhyana), to give ourselves a break from the pull of mental habits. In stillness we see the mind, and it dawns on us that if we see the mind, the mind with all its thinking is not the seer. So we have to ask ourselves, Who is the Seer? And if my mind with all its thinking is not the one who sees, then who am I?
Steady practice in these habits may bring about a much bigger sort of awareness than we had had before (Samadhi). This can't be taught, it comes from experience, In the process of getting there, we also become kinder, more realistic, less stress-prone, more constructive, less neurotic and more individual than we were before we started, because we will have unloaded the vested interests of the mind and ego. The ordinary way is, unfortunately, to seek to load on more and more and more things for the mind. The way of Classical Yoga is for the mind to be slim and sleek and flexible.
The Yoga Sutras offers a working possibility, using an eight-part framework, the Eight Limbs of Yoga. But there is a big difference between practising Classical Yoga and merely knowing what the Eight Limbs are. Classical Yoga takes meditation very seriously, and stillness meditation would be an integral part of the person's practice. Classical Yoga also understands that Patanjali meant what he said, and we do not put words into his mouth. So when he says that the Eight Limbs are the Sadhana of Yoga, we know that he is saying that the Eight Limbs are the means for acquiring a state of Union. And we also know that, for Patanjali, Samadhi is not the final state, but only one of the eight means for acquiring that unity between self and reality. The Yoga Sutras say that the final state, one for which stopping the thought activity of the mind is the essential prerequisite, is a state of Absolute Freedom.
Classical Yoga is your life's journey towards completion. It is a discipline of mind and body, to keep them fit for the purpose. Yogasana - otherwise known as Hatha Yoga - is the way to keep our bodies well-functioning for the journey, but the journey itself is towards something much bigger than physical fitness.