What Is Yoga, Really?
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*Begins September 2019
I had a yoga teaching dream the other night. I was leading a class through movement and one by one every student began doing their own thing until it was a room full of people completely disconnected from one another. I became so frustrated I finally got everyones attention by shouting, 'Do you want to do some real yoga?' Then I proceeded to lead a meditation practice in stillness for the rest of class.
It's clear I needed to take a deeper look at something that's been on my mind lately. Yoga in the west has become centered around physical fitness. People go to a yoga class and typically expect a moderate to sweaty flow style workout with occasional reminders to breathe. The thing is, these yoga asanas (physical postures) were not developed until much after the first yoga theoretical scriptures were written. Today, asana is practiced both in the west and east, but in the west, it often severely lacks the fundamental philosophies that transcend the physical and mental into the embodied and energetic. Humans in general, but especially our western culture tends to require a lot of stimulation to settle the mind down, but the real practice begins in stillness, and silence. This is where real awareness and peace are found.
So, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts as well as yoga philosophy to help you gain a broader understanding of what else yoga is made of.
So, what is yoga really?
Well, by definition, yoga means 'union' or 'to yolk.' This is the concept of oneness. Often, classes try to address this by describing yoga as exercise for the 'body, mind, and spirit.' It is also a union of heaven and earth, light and dark, solar and lunar - much like the concept of yin and yang. It expresses the idea of uniting pairs of opposites to transcend the fallacious thought process that opposites can exist exclusive of one another - thus, deeming everything good and bad, necessary for existence. This concept helps the mind cope with things we don't like by providing the wisdom to understand that without that which we don't like, that which we do wouldn't even exist. (This uniting of pairs of opposites is what we are doing when we bring our hands together in a prayer position or anjali mudra at our heart.)
Which leads to the concept of ego. Yoga teaches that the ego is the part of ourselves that attaches to and identifies with anything other than our spirit, or atman (a Hindu word referring to the essential self that continues to exist through lifetimes as we take different forms). Examples of these attachments include our personality, career title, husband, wife, friend, an image such as sophisticated, trendy, etc. Yoga doesn't say that these things are invalid, just that they are transitory, and to identify with them strongly limits us from understanding our true nature and growing into who we might be. So, union refers to what happens between and among the sensual human experience, and the spiritual experience of atman - all of which could not exist without comparison to one another.
Another point I would like to make, perhaps the most prominent, is the practice off the mat. Yoga for many people begins in a studio on a foam mat. But the practice of yoga extends out into the world through what is called 'karma yoga', the yoga of action, or selfless service. My teacher, Baba Hari Dass, has asked what good is the practice if it isn't helping and reaching out into the world? This karma yoga is the joy you bring to your job, your attitude of gratitude, volunteerism, charity, taking less and giving more. This is something you can think about when you go to class - who could use this more than me right now? And keep them in mind with loving intention as you energize and purify your body and spirit.
So, where does all of this come from? The most classical school of yoga is called Ashtanga (8 limbs) Yoga. The eight limbs are:
1) Yamas - Restraints, the 'don'ts' of yoga.
1 - Ahimsa - Non-violence (the golden rule of yoga)
2 - Satya - truthfulness
3 - Asteya - non-stealing
4 - Brahmacharya - continence, energetic preservation
5 - Aparigraha - non-possessiveness, non-hoarding
2) Niyamas - Observances, the 'do's' of yoga.
1 - Saucha - cleanliness, purity
2 - Santosha - contentment
3 - Tapas - discipline
4 - Svadyaya - self-study
5 - Ishvarapranidhana - surrender to God/nature/higher self
(The yamas and niyamas are ethical practices often referred to as the 'ten commandments'.)
3) Asanas - Physical Postures
4) Pranayama - Breathing techniques
5) Pratyahara - Practices to withdraw the senses from the outer world.
6) Dharana - Concentration, steadying the mind.
7) Dhyana - Meditation, single pointed/uninterrupted focus.
8) Samadhi - Absorbtion, enlightenment, transcendence
These 8 limbs of yoga can be studied for an entire lifetime, and as you see, asana is just one branch of classical yoga. Through asana, however, many people have come to appreciate and experience the emotional, philosophical, mental, spiritual, and energetic benefits of practicing yoga.
I feel much better having shared a brief sliver of an overview of what truly ignites my passion for this practice and I hope you gained greater insight and interest in the deeper layers. There is much, much more where this came from and I hope we find ourselves in an inspired conversation about it soon.