Well, this is a huge topic, why am I attempting to even broach the subject? There are near-endless books, journals, articles and indeed philosophies on exactly what is yoga, so why in the world would I attempt to add my two-cents into the mix? Well, for a start, it seems to me that many yoga students simply don’t know. Many go to yoga class for exercise, relaxation, because they think they “should” or because they like it. All good reasons (except for that “should” one…never do a “should”), but still people miss sooo much. So I thought – the more people talking and writing about this, the less people will miss. That’s gotta make sense, right? Well…I’ll give it a lash…
The main thing many people don’t realise is that yoga isn’t exercise; it’s a way of living. Sounds like a pretty big statement, huh, but stay with me. Most yoga classes only touch on one element of yoga: Asana, or yoga postures, but this is merely skimming the surface.
I’ll keep it short (famous last words!) and do some surface-skimming myself as an introduction and I’ll come back to revisit the topic from time to time to expand on what I say in this post.
The most obvious place to start for me (academic background and all that) is the meaning of the word itself: ‘Yoga’. Yoga translates to ‘yoke’, which before I started studying yoga I would have heard that word and thought of the yolk of an egg or (in an overly-exaggerated Irish accent) “that yoke over there”, translating to the Queen’s English as “that yonder object” – and my apologies to those of you who don’t know many Irish folk to relate to this type of ‘yoke’. Those older than I, or perhaps more well-read in, shall we say: less-modern? English would be aware that ‘to yoke’ loosely means ‘to unite’; yoke is ‘union’ or ‘to unify’. (A wooden beam called a yoke unites two oxen together for working in the fields, for example, but somehow I’m going further off the topic of yoga, so! Back to it…)
Unify…union…with/to what? My philosophy teacher, Roshan, used to always say that “yoga is the union of you with you”, joining and merging different parts of the self together, becoming at ease with the whole being, the entire self, All of Me (aside: it’s best to not let someone take all of you, regardless of what certain jazz standards may allude to, trust me).
What does this mean in day-to-day living? Well, firstly looking at simply the asana part of yoga, this means that you bring body, breath and mind together to have your entire focus on the asana in which you are. Another, broader example is mindfulness – being in the present moment, in your body, in your location, in your desired action (or inaction). Focus. One-pointedness.
Perhaps it’s easier to give an example of what’s NOT yoga, such as my ridiculous attempt to find my keys earlier, walking into the room where the keys were, picking up my phone and entirely forgetting about the keys. After which I remembered I needed the keys, walked back in only to leave moments later with a glass of water and, you guessed it, no keys…you get the picture. Four times I walked into that room to pick up my keys, the first three times my mind was elsewhere – it wasn’t unified with the task at hand. We all do it at times, some put it down to getting old (hey! I’m not there yet!) but I think it’s simply that we have too much in our minds in this fast-paced world and have forgotten how to focus one on thing at a time. (Yeah, yeah, women can multitask, but should we? I digress…)
Yoga can help us focus. From an asana point of view, balance postures are particularly good for developing focus. If you’re standing on one leg and lose focus, you lose balance. Practice makes perfect, as the well-worn cliché goes, and indeed it does. Gradually we bring body, breath and mind together to focus on where our balance is, questioning what muscles we are using to hold us in place, are we breathing gently, without strain, can we improve on what we did yesterday? Pure focus. Internal. How great it is to leave the outside world behind and keep our focus inward, body and mind collaborating beautifully together.
Moving on from asana practice, there is another aspect, or limb, of yoga called ‘dharana’, the main crux of which is concentration. As I said, I’m skimming here, so I’ll come back to this in another post along with the other 6 ‘limbs of yoga’. According to the ancient yogic text of Patanjali there are 8 limbs in total – asana is the third, dharana is the fifth, but for now, suffice to say, if asana is all you do, you’re missing out 🙂