What does “Yoga” mean to you? —Do you consider Yoga to be a form of exercise, stretching, complex twists and poses for only the ultra-flexible, meditation, a religion or religious cult? The idea of Yoga is different for many people.
“Yoga” has become widespread in our modern culture. This is a wonderful thing. However, the understanding of the true meaning of Yoga still remains elusive to most Westerners, even many who “practice” yoga regularly. For most, it is a form of stretching exercise or crazy postures that many (including myself) cannot perform.
I never thought I’d see the day when my dad was doing yoga, or my patients would stop making funny faces when I suggested they practice yoga. So, yes I’m delighted that so many more people are being drawn to yoga, even if it is initially only to the physical aspect. I myself came to yoga for the physical benefits but what I have gained is far more.
The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root, “yuj”, which means to yolk, unite or connect. But what is united?
Yoga is a Science, the intellectual and practical study of the structure and behavior of human nature – why we suffer and how we can reduce our suffering and find peace.The goal is to help human beings become Aware of their deepest, truest nature. Thus, Yoga “connects” us to our highest nature. The practice of yoga strives to connect body, mind, and spirit. This can only be achieved by quieting the mind. The physical practice we know (the Asanas) is one small part of this “practice” towards that goal.
How do we achieve this lofty goal?
Yoga is the path and the destination
Yoga is an Art, a way of life, an approach to life. This way of life has been around for thousands of years. A wise teacher by the name of Patanjali codified yoga into what is now known as the Yoga Sutra — 196 Aphorisms or concise statements of Yogic wisdom. “Sutra” is Sanskrit for “thread” and these threads of wisdom offer guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life.
In the second sutra of the first chapter, Patanjali defines Yoga as the control of the modifications of the mind; the modifications being the mental chatter that constantly distracts us from the present moment – the only time and place where we achieve a peaceful mind.
The Yoga Sutra describes an 8 limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice, which includes physical practice (Asana), breathwork (Pranayama), Concentration, and Meditation. What most of us know as yoga, the physical practice is just 1/8 of its true meaning and potential. The objective is to use the body and breath in a concentrated and focused approach to foster an awareness of our true Selves. With focus and concentration, we quiet the mind. And in that quiet space, lies our true Selves. In addition to these 4 limbs, Yoga gives us guidelines on how to treat ourselves and others with kindness and compassion. This too brings us Peace.
The goal of trying to experience this deepest potential is not part of any religion, but an experiential science of self-study. Yoga does not contradict or interfere with any religious beliefs and can be practiced by everyone, whether they regard themselves as agnostics or members of a particular faith.
There are many paths but only one Truth.
So, next time you take a yoga (asana) class, bring awareness to your mind. What are you thinking about? Then, without judgment, shift your awareness to your breath and how you feel. Over time, your distracting thoughts will fade for .. at least for a few moments.
And so … We Practice.
Dr Millie Lee