All Life is Yoga, Isn’t it?

“All life is yoga,” says Aadil Palkhivala, quoting one of his teachers, the Indian spiritual master Sri Aurobindo. It’s an apt tagline for someone who credits his birth to the practice. (Palkhivala’s mother struggled to get pregnant. But after she and Palkhivala’s father started practicing yoga with B.K.S. Iyengar, voilà, a son was born!) Palkhivala, a lifelong student of yoga, created a holistic healing system with his wife, Savitri, called Purna Yoga. The Sanskrit term purna means “complete,” and Purna Yoga aims to provide students with tools and practices for living full, complete lives, such as alignment-based asana, Heartfull™ Meditation, applied philosophy, and nutrition and healthful lifestyle wisdom. On the following pages, Palkhivala shares his incredible story and an exclusive asana sequence to get you started on the Purna path—the focus of his online Master Class workshop with Yoga Journal, which launches this month.

My first experience with yoga was in my mother’s womb. For seven years she had been unable to conceive, then she found yoga. She and my father studied in India, directly with B.K.S. Iyengar. Thanks to yoga, I was born. When I was very young, I would watch them take class. Iyengar wouldn’t allow children to participate until they reached age seven. At that age, the mind connects with the body, he said.

See also Iyengar Yoga 101: What You Didn’t Know + Myths Debunked

While my memory of my first class (back in 1966) is a blur, I have a lifetime of memories with Iyengar. He was a great taskmaster. As the most famous yoga teacher in the world, he had no one to answer to but himself. I was his youngest student ever, and he wanted to be sure I would be an excellent practitioner. I became one of his star students and protégés. He pushed me very hard, which was both good and bad. Good because it taught me immense discipline, and bad because I incurred many injuries. At seven, when I first started practicing, he would sit on my back for 10 minutes in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) while I cried because it was so painful. But in India, you don’t say “no” to your teacher; there is a great respect for them, so I bore all the pain. The benefit of enduring pain was developing strength of character—today, I can handle difficult life situations with aplomb.

I stuck with the practice. When I was about 15 years old, school officials asked me to teach yoga to my peers. In keeping with tradition, the student must respectfully ask permission from his teacher. So, I asked Guruji (at that time we called him Iyengar Uncle), “May I teach?” He said with a smile, “Yes, go teach.” When I started, I realized that if I was going to teach yoga, I had to be serious about mastering it in my own body. 

My practice intensified. In 1975, the Iyengar students of Bombay, where we lived, helped build Guruji’s famous institute in the nearby city of Pune. He invited me to spend time with him there. Sometimes we practiced eight hours a day: from 7:00 a.m. to noon, plus two more hours in the afternoon. The later practice was comprised of only two poses: Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand) and Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand). We’d hold Sirsasana for 45 minutes and Sarvangasana for an hour and a half, with variations. It was very intense so it was usually only Guruji and me, alone, face to face. Through my practice I developed the tenacity to hold on, to develop a nervous system with a buffer.

See also 5 Life Lessons from B.K.S Iyengar

I continued working with Iyengar for more than 30 years. I chaired committees in the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, but the politics were not appealing to me, so I stepped down and began to focus on other aspects of yoga. My family had been introduced to the Indian poet, yogi, philosopher, and spiritual giant Sri Aurobindo when I was about 10 years old. Later in life, my studies with Savitri (a meditation master in her own right) and my research on naturopathic healing and lifestyle changes led me to deeply embrace the yoga of Sri Aurobindo. Due to illnesses in my family, I also began studying nutrition, which was not a part of the Iyengar system. Eventually Savitri and I developed Purna Yoga, which strives to encompass the vastness of Sri Aurobindo’s vision.

There are many unique things about Purna Yoga. I developed asana practices based on what our bodies need—specifically for hips, lower back, shoulders, and upper back—with sequences for treating specific conditions. A student can do a single sequence or link them together to create a complete class. The asana are both diagnostic tools and remedies for physical and mental problems. Purna Yoga also uses ancient sequences, like classical Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), but adds an alignment focus for safety. Because I had injured myself so many times in Iyengar Yoga, I set out to make the safest yoga practice possible. This doesn’t mean that no one ever gets injuries in Purna Yoga; rather there is careful emphasis on physiology and how the body works. Purna Yoga is really deep and careful work. That’s why we have 200-, 500-, 2000-, and 4000-hour teacher trainings.

See also Remembering B.K.S. Iyengar: Aadil Palkhivala

Another unique aspect of this practice is the use of Heartfull Meditation, which was gifted to Savitri from great yoga and meditation masters. Savitri is a living master of meditation, and her techniques teach students how to bring light and love into their bodies and their lives. Purna Yoga also includes extensive education in ancient and modern nutrition and lifestyle. We are teaching students how to make lifestyle choices in order to be healthy. All things in life matter, not just practicing stretches on the mat. Your life off the mat is much more important. The asana have a purpose—they open up our bodies, making us strong and vibrant and prepared to receive life. But yoga is about how we use that strength and vitality. It is about how kind we are, how much we care about others, and how respectful we are to planet Earth. It is about living in integrity with your dharma. 

Sri Aurobindo said, “All life is yoga.” That means yoga is about the thoughts you think, the words you speak, and the actions you take. It is about the person you are becoming each moment. This is the power of Purna Yoga. We use it all the time: in our relationships with others, in the way we interact with the world. It is our life experiences that count; the shape of our bodies is superficial. Unfortunately yoga has become very egocentric. Yoga is not about fitness. Our bodies are going to die, but our spirits, which we take with us from life to life, will live on forever.

I want people to focus on now. If we take care of the moment with integrity, the future will take care of itself. It’s high time yoga moved toward a holistic system of living and away from egotistic asana practices. Our spirit must flow in our lives, not our egos. Observe yourself throughout the day to determine if you are living in your highest integrity and highest ideals. Ask yourself, “Am I educating myself every day so my ideals grow?” We need to realize we are not here to play around. Yes, we must enjoy life, but we must also evolve and be of a kind, loving nature. I’m not talking about a woo-woo kind of love. 

I’m talking about actually being of value to others and the planet. Purna Yoga is very real. It scares away some because it demands self-observation and change, but those who want more out of life love this magnificent system. 

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