What Is Yoga?
You are not just a drop in the ocean, you are the mighty ocean in the drop. --Rumi
Yoga means union. The Sanskrit word yoga has many meanings: to unite, to join, to contemplate, and to be absorbed. When we practice it regularly, we unite our mind, body, and spirit. We connect with ourselves, and we are able to connect more meaningfully with others and the world we are in. It’s like calling a meeting with your whole self so that you can check in on you.
Yoga is the ultimate act of self-study. It is a daily dive deep into ourselves, where we come back refreshed and ready for all comers. Yoga goes much deeper than stretching. How you live in your body, how you experience it, is how you live in your mind, and the other way around, too. What do I mean by this? If your mind is tense your body is tense, and it dominos through the rest of your life. If your mind is out of balance, your body is out of balance, and your life can spiral out of control. If your mind is calm, open, and focused, your body and life also reflect and expand accordingly.
Yoga shows us how to wrangle the mind to serve us throughout our lives. Without such wrangling, the mind can spin off in many destructive directions. But get that monkey mind in hand, and your potential is limitless. Boundaries fade and life expands . . . the more you practice.
Why believe me? I’m not the only one to expound on the benefits of yoga. Many researchers throughout the world have studied yoga and meditation. They’ve just firmed up what we who do it already know: a regular yoga practice reduces stress, calms the mind, makes you happier, eases pain, increases mental sharpness, and prevents and heals all kinds of ailments and diseases. Yoga is a practice for living a better life, one deep breath at a time.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOGA--VERY BRIEF
No one knows exactly when the practice of yoga began, which makes sense since it is something that exists always and is inside of all of us. Traditionally, yoga is a practice to unite with the Absolute, recognizing that the Absolute is within all of us. Yoga joins together the body, mind, and spirit as one. Like air, water, and earth, yoga is an element that is contained in all of us. In the Indus Valley of northwestern India, stone carvings depicting figures in yoga poses have been found dating back five thousand years or more. There is a common misconception that yoga developed out of Hinduism. However, Hinduism’s religious structures evolved much later and incorporated practices and ideas that are yoga traditions. Yoga probably arrived in the United States in the late 1800s, but it did not become widely known until the 1960s, when it became popular in the entertainment, pop culture, hippie, and intellectual scenes. George Harrison’s interest in Eastern mysticism was sparked upon meeting with Swami Vishnu-devananda, the founder of Sivananda Yoga centers around the world, who handed Harrison a copy of his book The Illustrated Book of Yoga while the Beatles were on location in the Bahamas filming Help! The Beatles began to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in London and Wales, and eventually at his ashram in Rishikesh in the Himalayas. The Beatles were joined by Mia Farrow, Donovan, and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, who all jumped on the bandwagon.
Around the same time, Harvard professor Richard Alpert, now known as Ram Dass, conducted meditation and psychedelic experiments on prisoners. Upon being asked to leave Harvard for his unorthodox experiments, Alpert went to India to be with Neem Karoli Baba, who would become his guru and give him the name Ram Dass, meaning servant of Lord Rama. Yogis Sri Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda, Shri Yogendra, and Swami Kuvalayananda made efforts to include women and foreigners, who had been excluded from the practice. They also believed that Indian philosophy could coexist with Western science and medicine, an innovative idea that carries into the present. Swami Satchidananda, one of Sivananda’s students, demonstrated yoga at Woodstock. The practice of yoga spread even deeper into the West when the influential B.K.S. Iyengar began his teacher/student relationship with the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1954. Today, over $6 billion a year is spent on yoga, and approximately 15 million people in the United States are practicing. There are many styles, and hybrid styles, of yoga practice.
The poses are designed to heal you from the inside out. Each pose has specific purposes and benefits ranging from improving circulation, regulating digestion, enhancing metabolism, and improving range of motion to control, balance, and more. The yoga poses will carve out an optimal functioning body and mind. They will strengthen, lengthen, and shape your muscles in the best way to operate your entire system. An added bonus is that your body will be energized, strong, lean, and toned. Your skin will be glowing and fresh with life. The poses, in short, are designed to build your body’s energy stores from the inside out. Unfortunately the history of yoga hasn’t been immune to setbacks, misunderstandings, and corruption. Turned off by false gurus, religious overtones, attempted ownership, aggressive styles, and rigid prerequisites, many people have been excluded from the massive benefits of a practice that is a gift to everyone.
Patanjali was a sage and a scholar who compiled one of the earliest texts on yoga, called the Yoga Sutras. The Sutras could have been written as early as the first or second century BC or as late as the fifth century AD, exact dates are unknown. In the text, he outlined the Yamas and Niyamas, which together made up an ethical code of conduct for yogis to observe. Before we look at his code, I want to pause for a moment to focus on one aspect of it: ahimsa. It is an observance in the Yamas that calls for one to practice nonviolence. It’s a practice in kindness to all living things, including ourselves.
Yoga is about recognizing and being good to ourselves from the inside out. Don’t confuse being good to yourself with being selfish. We cannot extend love to others unless we truly love ourselves. If we are constantly hard on and judging ourselves, we do the same to others. We extend to others how we feel about ourselves. An easy way to see how we are treating ourselves is to look to those around us. They are a reflection of what’s going on with us.
Hopefully, we have all treated ourselves well at times and have enjoyed how good that feels. The more we practice yoga, the better we feel, and the better we are able to cultivate a lasting attitude of kindness. This sets us up for a whole lot more ease in all areas of our lives.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Patanjali wrote about the system known as Ashtanga Yoga, or the eight limbs of yoga. Here are the ethical guidelines he developed to be followed by any practitioner of yoga, including you, if you’re so inclined:
1. Yama: Restraint, which lets us refrain from violence, lying, and stealing.
2. Niyama: Observances. Following a set of outlined rules that lead to contentment, purity, and tolerance.
3. Asana: The physical exercises (yoga poses).
4. Pranayama: The breathing techniques.
5. Pratyahara: The preparation for meditation, a withdrawal of the mind from the senses.
6. Dharana: A state of concentration and being able to hold the mind on one object for a specific time.
7. Dhyana: The act of meditation, the ability to focus on nothing, or no objects, indefinitely.
8. Samadhi: Absorption. Being present, and the realization of the essential nature of the self.
I believe that when the number of people practicing yoga reaches a critical mass, many of our collective mental and physical health problems will begin to fade away. But for yoga to really go mainstream people need to understand that its practice is something anyone can do.
You don’t have to follow Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, or move away to an ashram to have yoga benefit your life. You just have to begin to practice it. Simple. Easy. Powerful.
What do you do first? Breathe.
What next? Observe.
OBSERVE WITHOUT JUDGMENT
Observation without judgment is the basis for all meditation including yoga, which after all is simply a moving meditation. Yoga becomes truly useful when you can translate this attention and observation into all areas of your life. Otherwise, it would just be a lot of stretching and bending, which is fine and good, but not really the point.
You are the same person whether you’re on the yoga mat or off of it. Practicing yoga is a great opportunity to observe your habits and tendencies. Do you give up too easily? Work too hard, but not effectively? Get down on yourself when things don’t work out? Show off when things are going well? When we practice yoga we are giving ourselves the space to observe all this without judgment, to gain perspective, and cultivate positive, lasting change.
When we practice observing without judgment, we are giving ourselves the space and time to remove ourselves from the stresses of getting emotionally involved in the moment and simultaneously softening the desire to react solely on impulse. This will decrease stress and unwind tension at its source. Increased stress and anxiety can raise blood pressure, affect the immune system, and over time can promote sickness and disease. Good thing those long, deep breaths are available to rush in and save the day!
BALANCING ACT: BEING HERE, NOW
When you are balancing perfectly in a tree pose, everything is easy; your breath is deep and relaxed, and your muscles are working for you just as you’d like. It’s pure and simple. Efficient. When you are having a great day, the same things occur. Your breathing is relaxed, your body is working harmoniously with your mind; everything just feels easier because you are in a state of balance.
Why is balance important? From a life lesson standpoint, it’s about learning to enjoy yourself without getting the ego involved. Say you’re doing a headstand. The moment you think to yourself, “Wow, I’m doing this pose!” is usually the moment you’ll topple out of it. You take yourself out of the moment and knock yourself off balance when you judge and think about what you are doing, rather than experiencing and enjoying what you are doing.
That’s what yoga teaches. How to be fully present now, no matter the circumstance. We focus on breathing because each inhale creates more space in our bodies. We focus on movement, as each movement reminds us that every moment invites a new opportunity for change. Each exhale allows us to let go of the moment that has just passed. Our attention to each breath keeps us in the now.
Learning to savor the moment keeps us from living in constant worry and fear and tension over things that haven’t happened yet and may never come to pass. Practicing yoga helps us to undo these bad -mental habits and stress triggers that we often unknowingly pick up along the way.
But you might be asking, “What if the now is crappy? How can living in the moment help that?” When your life is not in balance and you’re struggling to achieve stability, practicing observation without judgment gets really interesting . . . and very useful. How? Because you can learn to distance yourself from the roller-coaster ride of your emotions and circumstances but still enjoy the ride of life.
Outside means of escape like alcohol, drug use, and even overeating are a means of pushing uncertainty away and covering it up temporarily. And they may feel comforting for a moment, but I don’t need to tell you that eventually they will cause more trouble than they ever solve. There is a big lesson in experiencing uncertainty and calamity with a sober focus. The most chaotic moments are the ones from which we can learn the most. Let’s go back to tree pose. When your tree pose is going crazy and you’re falling, and your leg is burning, and it feels impossible to maintain any sort of stability, practice observing what’s happening instead of getting wrapped up in the circumstance. If you can learn to be easy with your breath in these moments, your body and mind will follow.
All the body’s systems and processes--your nerves, your emotions--take instruction from what is going on with your breath. When your breathing is easy and deep, your body works efficiently and your mind settles. That doesn’t mean that your balance (in tree pose or anywhere else) will be perfect and your life will be seamless, but you’ll be better equipped to deal with the wobbles and earthquakes that get thrown into the mix.
You can fall out of a tree pose with ease, or with frustration and a sense of defeat. Just like you can take a spill in your life and decide to dust yourself off--with a chuckle or an annoyed grunt--and get back up, or you can stay down, lie there, and give up. It’s entirely up to you. It’s your life . . . and your practice. And as I said before, what you practice on the mat is what you end up doing in your life.
Any of the yoga poses could be substituted in this analogy. How you practice is much more meaningful than what yoga moves you can or cannot do. A successful tree pose probably won’t change your life. Learning how to keep your breath easy, long, and deep no matter what the circumstance? It absolutely will.
FIND YOUR MEANING
I’m going to challenge you over and over to imagine yoga as moving beyond the poses and even the breath. I’d like to persuade you to expand your idea of what yoga can do for you beyond deep breaths, down dogs, and feeling great, although yoga is also about all of the above. What if you could be practicing and enjoying all the benefits of yoga and meditation at every moment during your entire life? Imagine having an extra split second to make decisions, more space inside your body and mind, and the ability to feel energized, creative, strong, open, and inspired all day long.
The more often we check in, or tune in, the more we feel connected, the healthier our bodies and minds get, and the more inspired and aware we become. It’s like juicing up a rechargeable lightbulb with no limit to the brightness and quality of the bulb. You are the bulb. Your yoga is the current. Your possibilities are endless.
When you are in the state of flow, you come into balance and experience happiness, health, and joy. The practice of yoga is designed to keep you in the state of flow so you can experience health, happiness, and joy during your entire life. The practice of yoga clears the clutter that collects on you like dust during each day. The practice of yoga brings you back to remembering your true nature, back to happiness, health, and joy. You didn’t arrive in this world full of worries. Yoga shows you how to dissolve anything that is blocking you from living out your full potential.
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