What is Yoga?

What is yoga? Where did yoga come from? What is the point? What determines a “strong” or an “advanced” yoga practice?

As yoga becomes more and more popular the world over, and more and more people practice it in one form or another, an individual does not have to be a student of yoga at all, does not have to ever have set their foot on a yoga mat or into a yoga studio to have asked themselves, or another, any and or all of the questions above.

Perhaps a piqued curiosity of yoga led you to a local yoga studio like Shree and you excitedly jumped into a yoga practice without hesitation. However, most people who wish to answer these questions were probably more like me at the beginning of their yoga journey. Timid, shy, afraid to join the spandex-wearing crowd because of self imposed ideas of limitation leaving them feeling unfit to fit in.

Like most people who come to the mat I was encouraged to try it by many before I ever let my curiosity overcome my fear and allow an open minded perspective create new space in a mind that had previously been full of preconceived ideas of yoga being just about the stretching and the stretch pants. Nearly a decade ago when I began my yoga practice and I allowed myself to cross the threshold of fear into curiosity where I could begin to answer the aforementioned questions for myself the most logical place to seek out information was at a yoga studio. These days, in the age of high speed internet connections, researching and studying yoga and the variants between the many schools and philosophies of yoga has become not only more easily attained for the curious seeker, but also perhaps, even more confusing.  After all, where do you start?

At the top of the Google search page for Yoga is a link to the home page for Yoga Journal, a magazine dedicated to the culture of the practice. Yoga Journal is a wonderful product that has served the yoga community for years and is a fantastically informative print magazine, as well as online version, yet does not concisely answer any of these questions previously stated. Next on the Google search engine page is the Wikipedia link for Yoga. Like Google and the many other wonderful bits of information that are readily at ones fingertips with the advent of high-speed internet Wikipedia has become a widely used resource, and for good reason, it quickly gets to the point.  At the top of the Yoga Wikipedia page, above the brief synopsis I have come to trust and rely on as the concise and generally accurate information I seek, however, is the following disclaimer.

“This article is about the umbrella term yoga which includes both religion, philosophy, and practices. For one of the six Hindu philosophy schools, see Rāja yoga. For the popular yoga that explains and emphasizes the physical practices or disciplines, see Hatha Yoga.”

In this disclaimer alone are eleven possible avenues of information one could venture down in order to answer the simple question, “What is yoga?” The Wikipedia synopsis translates the Sanskrit “Yoga” into it’s more literal meaning of “yoking together” rather than explain briefly what is yoked in Yoga and how. Should one continue to seek the answers to these simple questions via the World Wide Web, they will most definitely have the opportunity to become more informed, yet as I mentioned before, there is a great potential they will also become more confused.

Akin to the failings of finding viable and concise answers to these simple questions on the prodigious blogs and articles published daily on the internet and in publications like Yoga Journal, one may also find these answers hard to come by in a yoga classroom setting as well. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest failings of the rapid growth and popularity of yoga in western culture today. Yes, the health benefits of Hatha Yoga (yoga in its physical form) are many and great, however the exercise is a tool to be used as a means to the end, and not the end itself.

Yoga is to yoke, to bring into balance. As I was taught, Yoga is also another word for discipline, which is rooted in the word disciple, meaning student of. In this vein, Yoga becomes the deliberate and repeated act of bringing into relationship all aspects of oneself into a well-rounded nature; body, mind, and spirit. The practice of Yoga consists not only of the physical (Hatha Yoga) and breath exercises (Pranayama), it includes focus and meditation (Dharana and Dhyana), the practice of the withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara), and the study of the philosophical principles through which one can create a sustainable lifestyle of ethics and morals to better ones relationships with self as well as with community (Yama and Niyama, as well as Raja, Kriya, and Bhakti Yogas), and not in this specific order. It is through the yoking of oneself and the continuous return to disciplined practice that attachment to the body and the concepts of the mind as well as the emotions of the heart fall away with ease. It is then in this place that radical freedom or the transcendence of the self (Samahdi) is obtained.

Where did yoga come from? What is the point? What makes an advanced practitioner?

The origins of yoga are up for debate, however it seems to be pretty clear that no matter the “School” in which you study your yoga, “Ashtanga”, “Iyengar”, “Bikram”, “Anusara”, “Hatha”, “Vinyasa”, “Kundalini”, “Kripalu”, “Bhakti”, “Kriya”, “Raja”, and on, all modern Yoga is rooted in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Sutras are a series of philosophical threads (Sutras) that explain in detail the many aspects of the practice dating back to 400 CE. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is in effect then, the questionable source of debate. Were they actually written by one person, or was Patanjali just the guy who decided to transcribe the teachings into a concise* format? (Using the word *concise loosely as the book is a series of four parts with 196 teachings.) The Sutras have been translated and interpreted many times and is the source for all pertinent information on yoga, if not concise, viable for any who are truly interested in being a disciple of yoga.

In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states;
Yoga Sutra 1:2, (Book 1, Sutra 2)
Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah
Yogas=Yoga; Chitta=of the mind stuff; Vritti=modifications; Nirodhah=restraint.
The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga.
(Translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda)

This mind stuff being the attachments, expectations, sufferings, disappointments, resentments, hopes, fears, happiness’s, stories, and endless chains of chatter by the mind.

So, what’s the point?

I like to tell my new students “I want you to leave happy and the instructions are an invitation not a command. Please do whatever you need to do to leave happy.” Not only do I want my new students to leave the class happy, I want all of my students to leave life happy, this is why I teach yoga. In essence I feel that the teachings of yoga, and the continued practice of yoga enable any level of student of yoga to surrender their beliefs and feelings of limitations as well as their attachments with more ease, and eventually learn to set new ones down as quickly as they picked them up. Inevitably this practice leads to more happiness. The long term sustaining of this state of quiet mind stuff makes an advanced Yogi. Perhaps this Yogi can do handstand, perhaps not. Perhaps they know all of the Sutras, perhaps not. The advanced practitioner responds to life with ease, open to the invitation of enjoying being no matter how life appears beneath or beyond the surface of their skin.

So, what is yoga? Yoga is a series of precise steps of dedicated practice taken toward freedom. Yoga is a spiritual practice that uses the tools each human is born with to facilitate their personal growth on and off the mat. Yoga is multifold, and a lifetime of learning. Yoga is an invitation to enjoying life through learning to surrender with ease. Yoga is all of this and so much more, and that is why the answer to this question is hardly ever concise. If you were thinking of trying yoga but havn’t yet, please take the leap over the threshold of your fear into a wonderful exploration of you, your limitations, your freedoms, and your willingness to change those boundaries at any moment. If you are a seasoned student, thank you for spending time with yourself, your spirit, your community, your skills and your liabilities both on and off the mat, and thank you for being an ambassador to what I feel is one of the most rewarding of disciplines to undertake.

If you are still curious and the questions still feel unanswered, in asking and seeking, you are doing yoga. It is when we come to know that we have stepped out of the classroom.

With Love, Always, For Giving, In Joy,
Genevieve

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