What is Yoga?
When we think about Yoga, we immediately think of the super flexible woman in her very tight Yoga pants contorting to within an inch of her life, smiling serenely and annoyingly, right?
*Cue eye roll* 🙄
Since the physical part of Yoga has become so unbelievably popular in the West without the Eastern philosophy taught with it, it’s quite a surprise to realise that there is so much more to Yoga than just stretching. Instagram and other social media platforms have made Yoga out to be a competition between people to perfect the most complicated and difficult poses or to show a yoga practitioners perfectly formed “yoga bum” in a Warrior pose. The majority of people out there think that Yoga is purely physical and is what you do on the mat. People say they’re “going to Yoga” to learn how to make the shapes and postures look as good as possible. Yoga in the west has come to be known as the physical practice. The asana practice. When, in actual fact, Yoga is so much more than just the physical practice. It is an entire philosophy and way of life.
Yoga is a many-layered and intricate set of practices set out thousands of years ago to lead a human being, step-by-step, to live life consciously, compassionately and with full intention. You can’t “go to Yoga” but you can learn the many different practices of Yoga and incorporate them into your life. Although these teachings are ancient, the wisdom and lessons are completely applicable, and necessary, to this day and age.
Yoga, which originated in India, is a philosophy and spiritual practice, it is not in any way a religion. It is, above all, a way of being. The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” which means “to yoke together”. Many people say that it means union and go on to say it is union of the body and the mind or union of the body and the breath but this is not what Yoga means. Yoga means “union with the Divine”. The practices of Yoga help you to realise that you are divine, that you are the universe. This vast and wondrous energy has just been compacted into the human form. The teachings of Yoga offer us a practical guide to remember that we are the Universe, we are Source energy, we are Divine beings. We are not just a drop in the ocean, we are the entire ocean in that one drop. The Sanskrit words atman and jiva explain this: atman refers to the Universal Self whilst jiva refers to the individual or small self.
When we learn and understand the teachings of Yoga we come to this realisation that we are so much more than our small selves. We are so much more than our personalities, the labels we put on ourselves and allow others to put on us and the perceptions we have of ourselves. Our small selves are so busy and involved with our “humanness” that we have forgotten our higher Self, we have forgotten how powerful we are, we have forgotten how intimately we are connected to one another and Yoga reminds us of these things. We are spiritual beings having a physical experience, not physical beings having a spiritual experience. The teachings of Yoga talk of God but not in the religious sense. God is referred to as expanding consciousness, that divine spark in each of us, source energy, higher power, the universe. Whatever “God” is to you. It is not a man-made thing, as religion is, and is not manipulated by man, it is that deep connection to everything that we all have inside of us. Yoga scriptures say that we are this divine energy made manifest to learn certain lessons.
There are ancient Yogic scriptures and philosophies written somewhere between 5000 and 2000 years ago. These philosophies are instructions, stories and manuals that teach us how to live a Yogic lifestyle; how to behave towards ourselves and others, and they give us a vast variety of practices to use to reach a point of absolute happiness and contentment in our lives. The whole aim or goal of practising Yoga is samadhi or enlightenment, of being so conscious and present in every single thought, word and action that nothing you do harms any others or yourself and everything you do contributes to the happiness of others. Reaching enlightenment while living in this lifetime is why we practice Yoga. Becoming constantly, contentedly happy and understanding we are God is why we choose this path. Anything less than that is not a Yoga practice.
Yoga means learning, understanding and opening our minds each and every day to ourselves and to human nature. It’s understanding that through kindness, compassion and unconditional Love we can change our perspectives, the way we see things and our own lives. Yoga is using the ancient (yet still very relevant) scriptures and teachings to be a better person to oneself and to all beings, it’s seeing every other being that crosses your path as a divine teacher. Yoga is understanding that we are all intimately and intricately connected to each other, so much so that if one is suffering, we are all suffering. Yoga is dedicating one’s life to easing the suffering of all beings. Yoga is learning and knowing that we are all absolute divinity and universal energy made manifest to experience this reality at this time and to contribute to the happiness and freedom of all beings. You see, very little of this has to do with getting into a handstand or showing off a Yoga bum.
When we start to come together with the divine, we remind ourselves of how magnificent and powerful and perfect we actually are. That we are able to manifest anything.
Yoga is a holistic practice. It takes care of the physical, of the energetic, of the emotional and of the mental. Being mindful is a very important part of the practice. Practising mindfulness helps to bring you into the present moment where everything takes places. The past and the future don’t actually exist, everything that is happening is occurring at this moment right now. Yoga teaches us to be aware of this and to use this to our advantage.
Patanjali, an ancient Yogic philosopher, starts his discourse in Yoga with the sutra “atha yoga-anuśāsanam”, which means “Now, this is Yoga as I perceive it in the natural world”. What that means is that if you are paying attention, right now, in the present moment and are open to the many lessons set our for you, EVERYTHING in your life is Yoga. Everything in your life can be a lesson in humility, kindness and compassion. Every thought, moment and interaction can take you closer to that goal of enlightenment - if you only have the presence of mind to see and understand these teachings. This is why Yoga is known as a way of life. It is an every day, every thought, every moment practice. If you are truly dedicated to the teachings of Yoga, your life becomes your Yoga practices. You don’t just turn it off and on when you step onto a Yoga mat, it is a constant practice.
When people say “I do Yoga” they are actually referring to doing the physical practice of Yoga, the asana practice. You cannot “do” Yoga, Yoga is a philosophy and way of life. You can “do” the practices of Yoga. Asana translates at “seat” or “connection to the earth”. A good way to remember this is ASSana...get your ASS on the floor. Your connection to the earth is not necessarily only your ASS, it is also your feet, your elbows, your hands, your head. That connection to the earth is any part of your body that is grounding down and taking the weight of the asana, or pose. Bringing Patajali back again, his Yoga sutra “sthira-sukham-asanam” says “the connection to the earth should be steady and joyful”. He says nothing about having the perfect pose, only that when you do the asana, you should feel grounded, strong, steady and happy. It shouldn’t be a competition with anyone (including yourself) and should move you towards happiness not towards frustration or beating up on yourself (if you don’t get it “right”).
The asana portion of the Yoga practice is a very important part but not for the reasons you’d think. It’s not important to “get the pose right”. Our bodies are all so different and each pose will look and feel different for each person. There is no “perfect pose”. Every day when we come to the mat to practise asana, we arrive in a different state of being, with a different energy, different emotions and something different on our minds. The practice today will be vastly different from the practice yesterday and from that of tomorrow’s practice. That is neither a good nor a bad thing. It is what it is in that moment and we, as yoga practitioners, learn that how we arrive at the mat is perfect for what we need to learn in that moment. The perfect pose is not the ultimate goal. What is important is to get to know your own body deeply and intimately, to go through the poses, to push yourself beyond your physical comfort zone.
It’s important to explore into your body using your breath and connection to the present moment. It’s important to use your breath and intention to address and process past unresolved energies, stresses and emotions that are stored up in your body and release that tension that no longer serves you. It’s important to move your body, increase your heart rate, to get everything twisting and bending to stimulate your body, your nervous system and the other systems. It’s important to breathe deeply while you’re doing this. Focusing on a higher intention. Again, none of this has anything to do with perfecting the most difficult poses or being the “best” at eke-pada-raja-kapotasana.
Yoga is Magic. Magic is a shift in perception. Using all the practices laid out in all the Yogic texts and philosophies help you to start to shift your perspective and change how you see and interact with the world and how the world sees and interacts with you. These practices can be incorporated into our everyday lives so that leading a yogic life becomes a constant practice and lifestyle. Everyone wants to be happy, it’s that simple. Yoga is about realising your inherent happiness. It exists in each and every one of us and the path of Yoga provides us with a very practical means to awaken this joy, this happiness, this samadhi - that is our natural state of being.