What is Yoga Anyway?
By Leslie Gravlin
Before I trained to become a certified yoga instructor, yoga was a class I attended several times a week. I simply practiced yoga because I knew I would feel better afterwards. The more I practiced yoga the better I felt, physically and mentally. I felt relaxed and re-energized. Yoga teacher training was an opportunity to gain the knowledge to make others feel better too. Since then I have learned so much. I was not interested in history and philosophy of yoga. Reading those two words would easily invoke a yawn response. I didn’t care about being inspired. I only wanted to learn how to teach a yoga class; how to make people’s bodies feel better.
Yoga by definition means union. It is about more than just the physical poses. How can you control your body if you cannot control your mind? The mind and the body have a relationship. Yoga gets that. This is why you feel empowered after a yoga practice. Yoga trains your mind and body to communicate more effectively with each other through the breath. I never realized the power of the breath until I read Refining the Breath. The connection force that takes us from the busy-ness and preoccupations of life to our natural state of awareness that is and always has been the breath. (Keller 2007). By controlling our inhale, our exhale and even the pause between the breaths, we are controlling our prana, our life force, our connection to the universal force of nature.
Engage your mind. Engage your muscles. My teacher Mitchel uses the word “engage” in so many of his lectures. “Yoga invites you to engage your heart,” he says. Yoga means union. Yoga invites you to actively participate in life. We are all connected in this world. Every life has meaning. You are not alone. Somewhere in between the listening and the silence, the meditation and the movement, these ideas started to sink in. I began to feel, you guessed it, inspired! Yoga is amazing. If yoga has been around in some way shape or form for 3500 years, how do we Westerners have such a limited understanding of its meaning?
“Yoga is a workout for flexible people.” This is how my friends define yoga and I would guess this is how most westerners would define it. In a sense, I agree with this definition. Yes yoga classes generally make you sweat; therefore, falling into the workout category. Yes those who participate in yoga are generally more flexible. Why? Flexible people feel less intimidated by a yoga class because they are flexible and isn’t that what yoga is: a workout for flexible people?
The philosophy of yoga teaches you how to be flexible, not just in your body but in your life. It teaches you to accept yourself just as you are, to accept others just as they are. Maybe you cannot control what happens to you or to those you care about, but you can control the way in which you react to your situation. When you practice yoga you build strength, flexibility and resilience in your body and your mind. You can practice on your own or join a yoga class. You begin to recognize the good in yourself and in others.
Today’s yoga attempts to keep ancient philosophies alive, but has certainly changed into something less religion-centered. B.K.S. Iyengar (1977) states that the western reader must not forget that in ancient times all the higher achievements of man, even in the western world were in the service of God. “Yoga is a timeless pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years dealing with the physical, moral, mental and spiritual well-being of man as a whole” (preface). Part of the philosophy of yoga is people joining together for the common good. People do this with their respective religions. Yoga shouldn’t be classified as a religion these days, but it is important to keep the legacy of yoga alive.
Yoga was a conversation of great ideas before it ever involved a sequence of poses; philosophers trying to figure out the inner workings of the universe. Around the 2nd century BCE a man named Patanjali founded classical yoga. He believed that what matters is the unmovable, unconditional self. Patanjali systemized the practice of yoga in the form of the yoga sutras, yoga teachings which prescribed adherence to the eight limbs of yoga. Asana, the physical postures and pranayama, control of the breath come from the eight limbs of yoga.
Hindus live by the concepts of the sutras and adherence to the eight limbs of yoga. Buddhists believe in four noble truths and use the eightfold noble path as the way out of suffering. Buddhists work to overcome samsara, the suffering of conditioned existence. These two, among other eastern religions use yoga in their journey of life. Similarities and overlaps exist among eastern religions exist just the same as among western religions. The Ramayana is one of the two great epics of India which played a huge part in Hindu religion. It tells the story of good over evil. William Buck re-told this 2000-year-old story to be passed on for years to come. Yoga teachers today refer to these gods and goddesses and their triumphs of good over evil (Buck, 1976).
Historically, yoga was a means to an end, a path to heaven, a science of meditation. Hatha yoga is where the body comes in to play. Hatha yoga was used to make the body immortal, consisting of cleansing techniques and meditative postures to sit still for long periods of time. Yoga was introduced to the west over 100 years ago, eventually becoming more of a physical practice with more asanas being developed and practiced.
B.K.S Iyengar played an essential role in the evolution of yoga. He was one of the most important students of our modern day yoga (mbyoga inc 2010-present). He wrote Light on Yoga, which is a straightforward and thorough guide to asanas, meditation and the benefits of each pose or breathing exercise. Yoga is union of the body, mind, emotions and intellect (Iyengar 1977). Mr. Iyengar himself began teaching yoga in 1936. He began practicing yoga solely as a way to recover from an illness.
Today, there are so many different types of yoga. The most important thing to remember is that yoga should make you feel good. Try out different studios. Find a teacher who has significant yoga experience. To reap the benefits of each pose may require the use of props like blocks or a strap. A consistent practice will bring your body back into alignment. Day to day life requires your body to maintain positions that sacrifice the natural curve of your spine, resulting in pain and gradual degeneration of your joints. Jobs, errands, driving and even certain sports strain your body, compromising your posture and alignment.
The medical community is recognizing yoga as a way to prevent illness and protect the body. Physically, people are practicing yoga to heal injuries and make their bodies feel better. Word is spreading that yoga will lower your blood pressure and your stress level, two epidemics in this country. People are searching for healthy ways to calm down. “Meditation is now mainstream in the sense that it is non-denominational. It is a tool to help relieve stress, focus the mind, heal the body, and in many cases become more successful (at whatever that is)” (mbyoga inc).
Patanjali’s description of the yogic enterprise links control of the breath to control over physical and mental processes. Modern terminology puts its own spin on this:
By intentionally changing the depth, duration and frequency of the breath, we can profoundly influence the autonomic nervous system and thus exercise control over physical processes such as our heartbeat, circulatory and digestive systems (to name just a few), as well as control the activities of our mind. With the body and mind disciplined and under control, then the higher yogic practice of meditation comes more within our grasp (Keller 2007, p.8).
Born from ancient Indian culture and religion, yoga has evolved into something new. Yoga is about making connections with your body and your breath. Yoga is waking up and noticing what you have to offer to life. Yoga in the west is more about finding the self-awareness that you are in control of your body, your decisions and your thoughts. I always knew that yoga is beneficial to your body and your mind. Now, after my yoga teacher training with Mitchel Bleier, I recognize that a daily yoga practice is a sweet treat for the soul. Honor the philosophy of yoga. Yoga doesn’t ask you to be dogmatic, it asks you to show up and be who you are. Just like life yoga is about the journey, not the end result.