I imagine that a lot of us will come up with similar descriptions or notions here. But none of our ideas will be exactly the same, and we will probably end up with lots of differing opinions. Surely, this means that there is no universal right or wrong answer when it comes to understanding what Yoga is?
Google “what is Yoga” and you will find that it is described as “a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practised for health and relaxation”.
However, in the modern western world, a lot of “Yoga” that is practiced today has lost this deep connection to its spiritual and/or philosophical origins, and instead focuses more on the physical and somewhat aesthetic aspects of the practice. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it could be the root cause as to why many of us are confused over what actually constitutes “Yoga”?
Ultimately, in the 21st century, it does not really matter what “Yoga” is. In today’s world, Yoga can be anything to anyone at any time! That’s the magic of it. As with all of history’s culture, Yoga has evolved, changed and developed over thousands of years, and has had to adapt to modern day living, otherwise there would be no place for it in the here and now.
Yoga is a journey unique to each and every individual who decides to practice it – hence “Yoga” meaning many different things to many different people.
I went to an Ashtanga Yoga workshop at the weekend. If you are not sure as to what Ashtanga yoga is, I have explained it in brief on my “Yoga” page. However, what is interesting about this practice, (and not explained in my short website summary) is that it was born out of the ancient yogic text that we touched upon a couple of weeks ago – The Yoga Sutras of Patenjali. Although “Ashtanga Yoga” itself is not specifically mentioned by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, the word “Ashtanga” is a Sanskrit term that means "having eight limbs or components”.
The eight limbs of Yoga in the Sutras are:
Yama (universal morality)
Niyama (self-study and discipline)
Pranayama (breath control)
Pratyahara (control of the senses)
Samadhi (union with the Divine)
What this means is that when the practice of Ashtanga Yoga was developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and T. Krishnamacharya in the 20th century, it was modelled on these eight limbs - making it a very traditional, ancient and sacred discipline.
However, the emphasis of Ashtanga yoga is on the correct performance of the third limb (asana) as a means of achieving all of the other limbs, eventually reaching Samadhi. Sri Pattabhi Jois taught that a person must first commit to daily asana practice in order to make the body strong and healthy. With the body and sense organs stabilised, the mind can be steadied and controlled (remember Patenjali’s Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah).
For me personally, Ashtanga’s “traditional” approach to practicing yoga, with its strong focus on the physical aspect, is what I equally like and dislike about it.
On the one hand, I love the fact that Ashtanga is rooted in an ancient Yogic philosophy dating back thousands of years – this gives it a really “authentic” feel. Being strong physically appeals to me because I love to challenge my body. Also, being of a modern western mind-set myself (unfortunately!), I like that the sequence is always the same so that you can measure “progress” in your practice. However, turn this on its head (pun intended!) and the practice can feel dated and irrelevant to the modern day person living a modern day life, and can perpetuate low self-esteem when the postures seem physically impossible and far out of reach!
It is one thing to be disciplined enough to get up at 5am and practice for 2 hours, 6 days a week, in the warmth of an Indian climate, without the distraction of laptops, tablets and iphones - but it is a completely different ball-game attempting to do this on a cold winter’s morning, or after a long day sat in the car, or at a desk staring at a computer screen!
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of dedicated Yoga practitioners in colder Western climates that do practice this intensely, and I have complete admiration for them; but my point is that we do not live the same lives as our ancient Indian Yogi ancestors (we do not even live the same lives as yogis did 100 years ago when yoga was first introduced to the west)! So as I said previously, if Yoga is to survive the modern world, it needs to grow and adapt, baring relevance today, and most importantly, being accessible to all.
All of this also got me thinking about the reason as to why people think that they are “not very good at yoga”! I hear this said way too much in my classes, and I flinch every time! Of course, when we are basing our capability to “do Yoga” purely on its physical element, then most of us will feel like we are not very good at it. This goes hand in hand with my post last week about body image, and basing our self-worth on what we look like/what our bodies are capable of “achieving”. Comparing ourselves to what we see on the cover of yoga magazines, social media, or even to our favourite Yoga teachers, will only perpetuate the idea that we are not “good enough” at yoga.
But if there is no universal right or wrong answer to what Yoga is, how can one be good or bad at it?? Does not being able to do a handstand without the help of a wall (or a tree!), or to cross your legs behind your head, or balance on your arms for 5 hours mean you are not very good at yoga? I suppose it depends on what Yoga is to you? And in the west, we are programmed to be fixated on the external appearance of things, and to be goal-orientated, so more often than not we measure our ability to “do yoga” on what we can physically “achieve”.
However, the word “yoga” itself comes from the Sanskrit word “yogah,” which means “to yoke or to unite.” And in all of Yoga’s ancient texts, the goal of the practice is to uncouple oneself from the material world and unite with the Divine/universe. Not to be able to stand on one’s hands or touch our feet to our heads!
I am not saying that I am united with “the Divine” myself either (yet!) - But for the sake of my own personal growth, healing, and yoga journey, I have to let go of the idea that Yoga is all about the pose! I simply have to believe that there is much more to yoga than meets the eye – otherwise, I am totally rubbish at it and wouldn’t be a “good” yoga teacher!!
I am continuously pondering what yoga is to me, and I encourage you to do the same. At its core, Yoga is about allowing ourselves to “go with the flow”, and in light of this, the practice itself, like our lives, is always in a state of flux. Thus, we do not need to tie ourselves down to believing one particular notion of what Yoga is – this will change in line with what we need from the practice at that moment in time. We need to let go of the notion of being either “good” or “bad” at Yoga.
I am therefore never really 100% sure what yoga is to me, and don’t know if I will ever be! The more I delve in to it, the less clear it becomes! But where’s the fun in having all of the answers all of the time and knowing everything?!
As Einstein says, “the important thing is not to stop questioning”.
All of us struggle to some degree with body image issues, and this is something I have battled with ever since I was a little girl. I grew up in an extremely loving household, whereby I was always told I was beautiful by my mum, dad, sister, other members of the family, and even friends. However, equally, these people were always concerned about weight and body image – it felt like a natural part of life growing up. It dominated conversations between my mum and aunties, my dad would comment on weight gain/loss, and most of my friends (myself included) would frantically count calories, workout obsessively, and continuously worry about how we looked.
When I was at primary school, I developed a lot faster than most of my friends. I had a lot of what was termed “puppy fat”. As a result, I was bullied both on and off the playground. I began to feel like I was different to most of the other girls my age; and boys would pick on me because of my weight. My earliest memory of feeling insecure about my body was when I was 7 years old. I was so embarrassed by my body that I was the only one in my class to ask to get changed for P.E. around the corner from everyone else so that none of my classmates could see me - only to have the other class come out and laugh at me!! “Fatso”, “sumo” and “chubby”, were just a few of the names I was called throughout my primary years!!
By the time I got to secondary school, I had lost weight (that is, I had grown out of the “puppy fat”). But as we all know, going through puberty is a whole other ball-game! Teenagers will always find something to pick on you about - your hair, your clothes, your shoes, your make-up! Along with this, music channels, beauty magazines, girl bands, American television programmes like Friends, and Sex in the City, were all extremely popular when I was a teen; then came the rise of social media! All of which were a constant stream of social messages that reinforced all the ways my body was not good enough.
To this day, I still battle with body-confidence issues.
Ironically, I have chosen a career in an industry fraught with conflicting messages about health, beauty, self-love and acceptance! Sometimes I feel that the thing I come to for help (Yoga), is the same thing that can at times perpetuate my self-doubt and self-deprecating thoughts about my body.
An article on DoYouYoga quite rightly points out that “for years, mainstream yoga publications, websites, and clothing companies, have carefully crafted a very specific image of what yoga looks like… Pictures of very thin attractive, flexible, and almost exclusively Caucasian women are being disproportionately featured in advertising and promotion for yoga. Very rarely do you see an “average” or “regular” sized person doing a simple yoga pose”… “Society creates this impossible image so companies can make money off your insecurities about yourself and your body—insecurities that this type of marketing helped create in order to sell their products”
It seems that the way the western world works is to perpetuate the idea that “you are not quite enough” – if you change something about yourself, if you “transform” in to something different, something better, then you will be worth more, loved more, more successful.
So from a very young age, one of the first things I believed about my body was that it was “fat” and I needed to change that. Thus, at the age of 14, I turned to yoga as a means of losing weight and toning up.
But I learnt so much more about myself and the practice of Yoga along the way.
I have enlisted the help of an article on the Yoga Journal website to articulate the ways in which Yoga can help you and I remember that we are perfect just as we are.
Firstly, it is important to note that basing your self-esteem on how you look is a sure fire way to create a negative body image. The unrealistic social expectations of how we should look cause a range of “heavy” feelings, such as discontent, embarrassment, insecurity, worry, shame, and an obsession with controlling weight, food, and exercise. Over time, these feelings lead to unhealthy beliefs about our self-worth. We will never be able to live up to the unrealistic photo-shopped ideal, so it is time to stop comparing ourselves physically to others, and focus on our values and gifts, such as being courageous, having a great personality, contributions to the community, and service to others.
Here is a list of ways in which Yoga can help to heal negative body image and low self-esteem.
1) One of the first tenants of yoga is ahimsa (nonviolence) — do no harm to yourself or others. The media creating unrealistic images of beauty is harmful to us, and it is up to us to set those images aside, and to love and be kind to ourselves. We are beautiful as we are.
2) In our physical asana practice, we need to focus more on what we can do and less on trying to be perfect at it. Mainstream media will continue to post picture perfect images, but we need to change the aesthetic and broaden the idea of what yoga looks like.
3) Yoga teaches us gratitude. We need to start being grateful for our wonderful bodies in all their glory, and thank them for all of the incredible things they do for us. As we work through our physical practice we can tune in with the ways in which our bodies help us balance, twist, sideband, backbend, and forward fold, and we can build a new awareness of our body’s power.
4) Yoga helps us change our mind-set so that we can see beyond our limiting beliefs about ourselves and turn them in to possibilities. It is so easy to focus on what’s “wrong” with our bodies, fixating on what our bodies can’t do. This negativity hardens our once playful and curious selves. Yoga poses can help us shed that hardened layer and create a safe space to “play.” No one is grading us on whether we can balance on one leg or not! Yoga encourages us to witness the self-talk that makes us doubt our body, and shift to language that embraces a curious spirit, approaching our poses from a playful mind-set versus one of perfection or ideals.
5) Cultivating this witnessing presence in our practice means that we are able to simply observe what comes up, without judging or criticising. Then we can begin to watch our bodies with compassion versus disdain.
6) Yoga teaches us to remain present. When we are caught in negative thinking about our bodies, we are not present. Instead, we are trapped in the past or future, comparing ourselves to how we looked last year or how we want to look next month. Feelings of guilt and shame often show up, causing us to lose connection with the present moment and making it even harder to feel confident in our bodies. Through breathing practices and yoga poses, we learn to practice presence - turning to our body to help soothe our mind. This is an essential tool in helping us calm spinning thinking about body image and other anxieties. Yoga helps us live in the moment and be content with exactly who we are.
7) Yoga helps us to clear the mental clutter that may have been suppressing wisdom and insights about why we struggle with body image. Such wisdom can get buried under the weight of shame and guilt and other feelings, or self-sabotaging behaviours. When we practice yoga, we are able to observe (not judge) the messages and lessons our inner wisdom gives us about our past experiences and habitual reactions and behaviours. This gives us the opportunity to both validate why body image issues exist and identify—or at least begin to consider—what might help us move away from body despair toward body affirming experiences, both on and off the mat.
8) During our practice it is important to remember to stay focused on what makes our bodies feel good. We are our own teachers, and our bodies are all unique and different from one another, so we need to learn to modify the postures so that it feels good for us. If your body doesn’t look just like the cover of Yoga Magazine, what does it matter?!
So there we have it. Yoga, with its tenets of peace, self-compassion, and acceptance, is a path to softening and even transforming harsh beliefs about our bodies. Through the path of yoga, we practice harmony within, and strengthen our relationship with our body.
Yoga has helped me massively on my path to healing these deep-rooted body image issues. But that demon still lurks within. So as I explained last week, just like Yoga, improving our perspective of our body is a life-long commitment that takes practice, determination, and patience. We must be committed to changing the way we think about ourselves, and “catch” ourselves whenever we have a self-deprecating thought, and replace it with a loving thought that nourishes us. Repetition, consistency, and time are essential to lasting healing.
… Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.
Recently, the “fluctuations” of my mind have been out of control. I have been feeling worried, anxious, stressed and overwhelmed. The spiralling thought mess has taken over! And the silly thing is, I know exactly why - a lack of meditation (I know - BAD YOGINI!!)
In the Yoga Sutras of Patenjali, the practice of Yoga is explained as the stilling of the mind until it rests in a state of total and utter tranquillity. When we are in this state, we are able to see and experience life as it is – as Reality – because it is no longer coloured or clouded by our thoughts.
The fluctuations that Patanjali refers to are a result of our desires, aversions, attachments, ignorance and the ego's sense of “I”, “me” and “mine”. So when the fluctuations of the mind are totally removed, we no longer have thoughts of good/bad, mine/yours, and we become totally at one with everything in the universe. We have no separation from our inner divinity and “the Divine”. This is yoga (“union”, or to “yolk”/“bind”).
However, we all know that it is impossible to remove our “mind-chatter” altogether, because we are always thinking! What Patanjali is actually teaching us here has to do with a method of quietening, or stilling the mind through a system of practices that lead us to mental peace (asana, meditation, etc.)
The reason life becomes a roller coaster ride of madness sometimes, and we can find ourselves feeling totally overwhelmed by our thoughts, is because most of us (myself included!) identify with the fluctuations of the mind so deeply that we can end up acting them out through our behaviours. And unfortunately, it is very easy to get stuck here.
But when we do yoga and practice meditation, we start to become the witness of these fluctuations, rather than identifying ourselves with them. In doing this, we are less likely to believe our thoughts to be true, and more likely to see them for what they are: ever-changing, fleeting and transient in nature. In other words, they are not really true. They are merely a truth/reality we have manufactured ourselves in our minds!
As we work to practice this art of quieting the mind, we need to remember a couple of things:
1) We must remain dedicated to the practice, as this leads us in a constant direction, and 2) we need to also practice non-attachment to the practice itself as this will alleviate a lot of the pain and suffering that will inevitably come our way when working towards self-realisation!
I’m off to meditate…