Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What is yoga?

        As a graduate student doing my research on yoga I have spent a lot of time answering the question, what is yoga. Surprisingly, I don't get asked this question nearly as frequently as I thought I would by other academics or people interested in my research but I also understand that most people either take for granted that they know what yoga is, or they have developed their own understanding of it from their own practice and some literature on the subject. Although I have practiced yoga for years, during my research and travels to India I spent a lot of time working with translations, reading research, books, philosophy, poetry and of course talking to people; I have compiled here a definition of yoga as closely as I can from all of my research. Although creating this article is satisfying in that it achieves a goal that previous literature has struggled with, I don't feel that this represents many different interpretations of yoga; I have come to understand that yoga has evolved and been adapted by many people around the world. This article seeks to explain yoga as more than a word, it's literal translation - instead of answering what does yoga mean I have sought to explain what yoga is.

Misperceptions of Yoga

        As a male yoga teacher I get comments like, "yoga, isn't that for women?" all the time! Or I frequently get the "yoga, it's good for you like a good workout, right?" and of course people tell me "yoga's just stretching." Well, not exactly to all of the above. Yoga classes in the west are predominantly filled with women, it's picking up amongst men though. Scientific research shows there are much more efficient ways of getting in shape than doing yoga so making the argument that yoga is the ultimate workout is not really a part of what the yoga community tends to do (anymore). So we're left with what.. yoga is stretching, yes it definitely is: yoga was used as preparation for long periods of seated meditation, essentially warming up the body. That isn't what yoga is though.

Yoga is a Union

        There are many discrepancies in what this union means but many authors have called yoga a "union." Calling yoga a union, I believe is a natural conclusion because the Yoga Sūtras, the document associated with the founding of yoga is written poetically and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. When you read the Yoga Sūtras or books interpreting it's philosophy, yoga sounds a lot like bringing things together that weren't together previously.

In yoga, a union is not exactly the right description, although some say it's a literal translation, it's not. The literal translation is "yoke" as in "yoking." This gives readers or new scholars a sense that when I tie two things together I have yoked them. Correct, this is yoking but this is not yoga, we are not two separate things being tied together. Similarly if I spill a bucket of water into a lake, this union of water is not yoga. Yoga expresses duality, like the beginning and end of a rope that has never been cut, one long piece of rope that is one. This is a more

Intellectual Nonsense = Yogic Commonsense

        Academic research on the meaning of yoga exists but it is not good, this may be because, intellectually, the things that are written in the Yoga Sūtras may not make sense; to a rational mind they seem far fetched, a mix between poetry and philosophy. Some of what I'm going to write here also will not make sense intellectually but as someone who experiences yoga by practicing it, this will sound right and be accessible information. When you do yoga poses, you are making the ultimate expression of yourself. Sometimes in yoga our bodies appear contorted, they depict duality. This duality is a great metaphor for understanding what yoga is.

The Yogic Practice

        When I wrap my arms or bind my hands you may not know from first glance, which arm is which or which hand is the right and left, body parts cross the sagittal plane, moving to the opposite side confusing sometimes ourselves. For example, my right arm is on my left side and my left arm is on my right side. We express ourselves through our poses but the poses are not simply yoga, they are a part of the practice of yoga. We use breathing to link body and movement together but yoga is not simply breathing or combining breathing with movement. Yoga's union between mind and body does not treat breathing and the body or the mind as separate entities, yoga practices and teachings do but this is not what yoga is.


        Poses are not a means of obtaining enlightenment, to take the posture itself is the purpose of yoga, there is no need to try and obtain enlightenment. By practicing yoga, you are expressing yourself, your own nature. You exist for yourself and yoga is a way for you to demonstrate your true nature freely. Obtaining enlightenment is not an objective, teachings which instruct practitioners to attach to this awareness is wrong. There is no need to talk more about enlightenment or "the right state of mind." Simply having a practice that brings you to the here and now, a practice which expresses your true self is enough, don't attach yourself or your yogic practice to other meanings. There is a potential through your practice to forget yourself, once we forget ourselves and exist only in the moment, we can express ourselves in complete freedom.

Yoga is the Expression of Self

        Every body is different, poses do not need to look a very specific way. Simply, own your physical body, it is yours - do what you can to honour your yogic practice. Don't slump, be in your body and be present right here and right now in the moment as you do your poses and breathing. Everything at this point will exist in the right place and in the right time. This also means someone with extremely limited mobility can practice yoga. Yourself for example, you may be sitting and reading this blog or listening to the words transcribed for you by an audio assistance program, right now you can take the right posture and be yourself in your own body as you experience these words.


1 comment:

  1. I think it's great to go back to the "basics" of any practice and really examine what the original intent of it was. Trends and shifts in priority often alter these original states and it is good to read about what yoga is and isn't.

    Thanks for the information!