Conversations At The Sanctuary: Bringing The Bliss Of Oneness To Your Mat With Universal Yoga
Weaving modern western science and ancient eastern wisdom, Universal Yoga emphasises and incorporates all eight limbs of yoga. Universal Yoga teacher, Alyssa Lee, shares how this holistic practice can powerfully transform your life on – and off the mat
What is yoga to you?
Some of us think of yoga as a form of physical exercise (an asana practice), some think that it’s about stretching and becoming more flexible, and yet others may regard it as a complementary exercise to a fitness regime. And while these are all really great benefits for our physical body, yoga goes beyond just asanas.
The practice of yoga is both an art and a science that’s dedicated to unifying body and mind. Using the body and breath as mediums, we learn to foster greater awareness as individuals who are connected to a bigger whole.
A fit body and a strong physical practice is great, but these don’t have to be mutually exclusive with qualities such as kindness and compassion. If your desire for personal growth encompasses getting fit while developing your mental and spiritual capacities for greater wisdom, kindness, and compassion, then Universal Yoga is one of the best ways to learn.
Yoga, without mindfulness, is only exercise.
Alyssa Lee, who teaches Universal Yoga at The Yoga School, shares, “To me, for yoga to be happening, there must be mindfulness and awareness. Dedicated sadhana, inquiry, and practice, enable access into the deeper layers of the Self (or “oneness”), if only to allow us to be more empowered and grounded. I believe that growth and development is essential – having a desire for growth is as important as the body’s ability to breathe.”
In 2014, Alyssa trained with Andrey Lappa (the founder of Universal Yoga). She cites him as a guru whose devotion and dedication to the authenticity in a system, continues to remain a source of inspiration for her, so much so that she found the courage to uproot herself and move to India for a few years to be wholly immersed in authentic, traditional Indian yoga.
QN: What’s Universal Yoga, and what are its key benefits?
ALYSSA: Universal Yoga, or, Universal (school of) Yoga, is a holistic system of practice founded by Andrey Lappa, who spent years extensively studying the most raw, authentic version of yoga. Extremely dedicated, he spent most of his life in India, Nepal, China and Tibet, taking up residence in those countries to study with masters, while he translated yogic texts into Russian. His devotion to the authentic, traditional way of Indian yoga is evident in his classes and teachings.
Universal Yoga, as Andrey insists, is nothing new compared to traditional, authentic yoga, and it places emphasis on the consciousness of the practitioner with the ultimate goal of reaching oneness, just as it’s written in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, “yogas-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhah, tada drastuh svarupe-‘vasthanam”, which means “When you are in a state of yoga, all misconceptions (vrittis) that can exist in the mutable aspect of human beings (chitta) disappear, for finding our own true self (drashtu) entails insight into our own nature. In other words, yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind.
QN: Universal Yoga aims to integrate the five koshas, to create the feeling of unification. How is this approach applied?
ALYSSA: In Universal Yoga, one begins practice via physical postures (asanas), but is not obsessed with the physical form of yoga as some modern manifestations of yoga in the West have become.
According to Vedic knowledge, the human being consists of five sheaths, or shells (koshas). One can imagine them as layers or shells that move from the periphery of the physical body towards the core of the self: what we refer to as the embodied soul.
The five koshas are: annamaya kosha (physical); pranamaya kosha (energetic); manomaya kosha (psychic); vijnanamaya kosha (mental); and anandamaya kosha (spiritual).
While Hinduism believes in five sheaths, you may find that Tibetan Buddhism believes in seven sheaths, the additional two sheaths being the chitta-mayakosha (consciousness), and the atma-maya kosha (Atman).
Universal Yoga focuses on the goal of integration of all the sheaths into one by means of achieving harmony and balance within each shell, between the shells, between the human being and the outer world.
The practice of yoga must lead to the state of oneness, or something is wrong.
– Andrey Lappa
QN: In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is defined as having eight components, which he refers to as the “eight limbs”. These eight limbs act as guidelines for living a purposeful and meaningful life. Why is there so much emphasis on all eight limbs in the practice of Universal Yoga?
ALYSSA: The limbs of the eight-fold path are as follows: respect for others (yama) and yourself (niyama); harmony with your body (asana), your energy (pranayama), your thoughts (dharana), and your emotions (pratyahara); contemplation (dhyana); and ecstasy (samadhi).
Physical postures (asana) is but one of the eight limbs to the way of the practice. When one focuses only on asanas, or the physical body, it can lead to ignorance. One needs to go beyond the annamaya kosha by feeling into the body and sensing the body from within, before being able to tap into the awareness of the deeper layers of the sheaths.
Staying true to the goal of unification, balance, and control of the shells (within, between, and beyond), the structure of the training sequences in Universal school of Yoga is not limited to the anatomy of the physical body, or its dimensional positions.
Some of the sequences are used to produce an influence on certain zones of chakras or elements, according to the needs of the development of the practitioner.
In the Universal Yoga series, one can expect asanas, vinyasas, pranayamas, mudras and bandhas that will activate the chakras or elements of earth, water, fire, or ether.
In Universal Yoga practice, each asana is thought out in relation to the zones of mobility, and the directions which each joint and spine can move in relation to space.
QN: What kinds of yoga poses can I expect to practice in a Universal yoga class? Will I be doing sequences or inversions?
ALYSSA: Universal Yoga focuses heavily on the spiritually and mentally transformative aspects of yoga, yet the poses, or asanas, can be challenging. That being said, simplifications and modifications are offered to suit students of all levels of experience, as long as the student is willing to commit to transform the entire being and experience oneness.
In Universal Yoga, one must note that special attention is paid to the scheme and structures of the training sequences of asanas and vinyasas.
A training scheme and structure for strengthening, would work differently from a Sama Vritti scheme of practice.
The structure of the sequences facilitate balancing and special consciousness modification. One can expect a consciously thought out scheme and training structure in a good practice, leading one towards consciousness and being present in one’s life.
As such one can definitely expect inversion. For example, inversions offer a “head-down” position of the body, as a counter to the “head-up” position in most of the asanas in a training scheme.
You’ll also find that the movement of the asanas and vinyasas in Universal Yoga is not limited to the single mat – in fact, practitioners can expect to find cross mat setups where the structure of the training sequence takes them through directions in multi-dimensional space.
QN: That’s interesting! Please tell us more about the cross-mat set-up in Universal Yoga.
ALYSSA: An example of schemes of a simple training in Universal Yoga, based on the emphasis on the influenced joints and spine, from legs to head, would be an “ascending flow”, from the head to the legs, and a “descending flow”, by alternating the legs, arms and spine, and working inwards from the periphery (“centripetal star”), and from the centre to the periphery (“centrifugal star”).
A full cross-mat mandala practice – including asanas, pranayama, mudras, bandhas, savasana and meditation – is typically three hours. You may find that I often explain in the one hour regular classes that what we can experience is but a glimpse of what a full good Universal Yoga practice can offer.
ABOUT ALYSSA LEE
A theatre aspirant in her early youth, Alyssa has always been interested in the exploration of perspectives, movement and space. But the yoga practice has always been a little more special – the mat is her sanctuary and safe space. In 2014, Alyssa took her first Yoga Teacher Training in Universal Yoga with Andrey Lappa. The profound realizations from the holistic system sparked off an immense desire for her to plunge further into the pursuit of knowledge of ancient yogic sciences. The following year, Alyssa found home in Mysore, India, amidst a beautiful global community of sincere practitioners, when she stumbled upon the Mysore-style practice of the Ashtanga Yoga method. To-date, she continues to return frequently to Mysore, where she spends time practicing with, and assisting, her beloved Ashtanga Yoga teacher, Vijay Kumar.
Alyssa hopes to be able to share the immense benefits of yoga and hold space in the same grain that she has been privileged to receive from her teachers. Her classes are gentle, dynamic yet playful, placing focus on building up awareness of the breathe and alignment of the mind-body connection. Click here to find out more about her classes.