Let’s get technical, technical, I wanna get technical… Let me hear your ego rock…
OK fellow yoga students. Here’s the deal. The word ‘Yoga’ gets bandied about all over the place, but it’s rarely defined. We assume that we all know what we’re talking about, but often we’re talking about different things.
First up, physical postures are not Yoga. They are called ‘asana’. When you go to what is commonly called ‘a yoga class’, you are likely attending an asana class. You are learning how to do postures with your body.
These postures are a tool of Yoga. Ah… but then what is Yoga?
I’m going to further define what most of us think of as Yoga as Classical Yoga. Classical Yoga is a system of self-realization that was codified by Patanjali sometime around 200 – 500 AD in a text called The Yoga Sutras. When I refer to Yoga in this article, I’m referring to Classical Yoga.
The Yoga Sutras lays out eight limbs, or aspects, of practice which lead one to realise a state of Yoga. In this context, Yoga becomes a final state which one experiences as a result of practice. That state is in defined in Chapter 1 Verse 3 of the Sutras as Self-Realization:
Then the Seer abides in Itself, resting in its own True Nature, which is called Self-Realization. Yoga Sutras 1.3
What is Self-Realization? It is also known as enlightenment. This is a place where the fluctuations of the mind have mostly stilled, and you no longer identify with any remaining fluctuations or thoughts.
Have I lost you yet?
Think of it this way.
Your mind thinks thoughts. Most of us identify with our thoughts. We think that we ARE our thoughts. We have a depressed thought; WE are depressed. We have a happy thought; WE are happy. Our thoughts are the puppet master, pulling us this way and that way. Yoga is mastery of your thoughts, where they no longer control you. YOU are in charge.
Self-realization is the place where you drop down deep beneath your thoughts. You may have a depressed thought, but YOU are not depressed. You may even have a happy thought, but YOU are not happy. Instead, you are resting in your own True Nature, which is unbounded consciousness.(Sometimes this is called Sat-Chit-Ananda, but that’s another article.)
This is Yoga – a state of Self-Realization.
However Yoga is also the practice required to experience Yoga. That is, it is the things that one does to shift from identifying with our thoughts to witnessing our thoughts. This includes but is not limited to asana.
Other practices identified in the Yoga Sutras as part of the practice of Yoga include observing the yamas and the niyamas, pranayama, withdrawal of the senses, intense focus and meditation.
Yoga is the control (nirodhah, regulation, channeling, mastery, integration, coordination, stilling, quieting, setting aside) of the modifications (gross and subtle thought patterns) of the mind field. Yoga Sutras 1.2
You can translate this Sutra as Yoga is the Mastery of the Mind. That’s the simple version. I like that.
So where does this leave us then? What is Yoga?
It is both an end-point on the journey – Self-Realization – and the practices one uses to travel that path. It includes asana, but is not limited to asana.
In fact, it is entirely possible to practice asana without practicing Yoga at all.
One can be focused on doing the physical postures without using them as a tool to observe the fluctuations of the mind.
This is the entire point of Yoga – to work with the mind, recognizing that it is the greatest obstacle preventing us from knowing our true nature.
Here is a concrete example.
I recently worked with a student who is recovering from an injury. This student came to me because they wanted a specific sequence that would aid their recovery. As we spoke, it became clear to me that the injury itself was pointing back to the way this student’s mind was working.
Yes, I could have given the student a physical asana sequence and sent them on their way. They would have got what they wanted and been happy.
However, I would have missed an opportunity to teach yoga. Instead, I drew the student’s attentions to the fluctuations of their mind. Through my observations and questions, the student was able to ‘see’ their mind, when before, they had been identified with the thought streams.
Now, I still gave the student a sequence to work with. More importantly though, I gave them clear instructions on how to relate to the postures while doing them. Now the student is practicing yoga. They are using asana as a way to observe the fluctuations of their mind.
This is where the role of the teacher becomes vital in the practice of Yoga. Students are usually not able to see the fluctuations of their mind when they begin practicing.
Like the fish swimming in water, the mind is invisible because they are completely identified with it. The role of a yoga teacher is to teach in such a way that the student learns how to witness their mind, and then how to work with what they are witnessing.
Many asana teachers are not walking the path of Yoga and so are not able to offer this level of teaching to their students. They haven’t been taught in this way, nor do they practice in this way. Perhaps this is because of a lack of desire, perhaps it is because of ignorance. You don’t know what you don’t know.
However, if you teach asana and you want to teach Yoga, it is important to understand how to foster a state of Yoga within your students. How do you teach in a way that supports students in dis-identifying with their mind? How do you help them shift into a state of witnessing the mind?
First, you need to practice this. When you do asana, you need to be witnessing the fluctuations of your own mind. You need to catch yourself when you’re identifying with your thought streams and learn how to drop back down into unbounded consciousness. Then, when you can do this yourself, you are able to assist other people to do it too.
It requires constant practice – what Patanjali calls abhyasa.
Practice (abhyasa) means choosing, applying the effort, and doing those actions that bring a stable and tranquil state (sthitau). Yoga Sutra 1.13
That is – when you choose to witness your mind while doing asana, over time you will spontaneously drop into a stable and tranquil state.
Where you are situated shifts – no longer trapped in mind, you find yourself in consciousness. You find yourself conscious.
If you are a student who has been practicing asana and you would like to practice Yoga, seek out teachers who teach Yoga. Start to witness your mind the moment you step onto your yoga mat. Internally, imagine that you are dropping down, or stepping back. Imagine that your thoughts are up on a big movie screen fifty feet in front of you. Then stop giving those thoughts any more energy.
Instead, bring your focus to your breath. Feel yourself inhaling. Feel yourself exhaling. Feel where your inhale goes in your body. Feel where your exhale goes in your body. As you feel your breath, observe what thoughts arise, but let them go immediately and come back to your breath. Inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling.
Ponder, where do you go when no thoughts arise? That is the Yoga.
So next time you hear someone talking about yoga, stop them; ask – are you talking about the practices that lead one to Self-Realization or Enlightenment? Or are you talking about physical postures? Yes, postures can lead to Yoga, but they aren’t always yoga.
The forest yogi’s six thousand years ago (who created this system of yoga) weren’t trying to get washboard abs, or trying to lose a few extra pounds to finally be able to squeeze their buns into a new pair of Lululemon tights.
Rather, these yogis were looking to liberate themselves from their bodies and minds, and from the suffering of life. Their yoga practice allowed their bodies to be comfortable enough to sit for long periods of time. These longer sittings stilled their minds and allowed for wisdom to arise. There practice allowed them to see the true nature of their being, and use this knowledge to live a deep, compassionate life.
Accepting ourselves for exactly who we are and relaxing into life has become pushing ourselves in order show off how advanced we are in asana practice.
Meditation instructor and author, Jack Kornfield, often reminds practitioners how true meditation practice is about living fully and loving deeply.
At the end of our lives we won’t be looking back on how awesome our handstands were, or how much weight we’ve lost after years of Bikram yoga, but rather how well we have lived, and how well we have loved.
These are not easy tasks, yet they must be practiced endlessly, day in and day out.
We must make our way back to the basics and align ourselves with the original intention of what practice truly means, which I believe, is living a complete, peaceful, balanced, liberated and compassionate life, in which asana is only one small part.
At the very least, teachers and students must attempt to practice what they preach.
I’m not asking for perfection, but at least a wholehearted attempt to practice the teachings in daily life.
Bring peace to all that arises, pleasant or not.
Most importantly, remember that practice isn’t meant to make you feel good all the time. That’s another unrealistic dream of the ego. Keep check of your ego. Use it wisely, don’t let it use you.
If you are new to this practice, make sure you start off understanding that it’s not about being able to stand on your head, or show off cool poses to your friends on social media, but instead it’s about creating a balanced life, both on and off the mat.
Remember to start where you are, be gentle and kind with yourself, take it slow and be safe.
The teachings of yoga have the potential to transform the lives of those who truly practice, and if we all get on board with the best of our ability to make changes in ourselves, we can slowly make changes on a more global level.
It starts with each one of us. Let us practice together. Let’s begin now.