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”.