What is Yoga? Really?
As a yoga instructor and yoga studio owner for over 8 years, I have navigated my way through the yoga world, but I can’t say it has always been with ease. When I first started my yoga practice, it was to experience the physical benefits. The poses and movements were a way for me to supplement my running habit, and to help alleviate my lower back pain. I loved that my body naturally responded positively to the bendy and stretchy poses, and I felt it was a great way for me to have some “me” time, as a mother to two very young children.
Eight years’ later, my practice has dramatically evolved. I decided to study yoga to explore what it really is all about, because the practice naturally takes you to a place of wanting “more.” I’m not exactly sure why this happens, but it does in almost everyone I meet who has a regular practice. I have some hypotheses about the natural and inevitable shift toward the mental and spiritual benefits of yoga, however, based on my own experience and what I’ve seen in so many others.
My first understanding of the natural progression from the physical to the mental benefits of yoga is in the part of the yoga practice that encourages mental focus and concentration. Balance poses, challenging transitions, and deep physical strengthening and stretches encourage us to focus. In our world, focus is not something that is practiced often. We are constantly distracted by outside stimulants in our world, and yoga brings us to a quiet place where our intention is to focus and concentrate.
This is the practice of Dhāraṇā (Concentration), which is one of our 8-limbs of yoga mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, a 2000 year old text written about the act of finding joy in our lives through yoga. The act of withdrawing awareness from the outside world (Pratyahara, also part of the 8-limbs), sets the stage for concentration, which is a way to give our minds relief from the constant rat race. With this practice of internal awareness and concentration, we clear our minds and increase our ability to focus and be present with our bodies and current moments. When we practice this on our mats or in our quiet spaces, we are able to access this skill of concentration more often in our daily lives.
The second understanding of the natural progression of the yoga practice is centered around breathwork. When a yoga instructor adequately teaches breathing methods, whether during yoga poses or in stillness, we are bridging the disconnect between our bodies and our minds, as well as providing our bodies and minds with a much-needed increase of oxygen. Most of us are oxygen-deprived because we don’t notice our shallow breathing patterns, especially when stress is a big part of our day. Deep, mindful breathing automatically stimulates the calming response from activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It brings us from our quite frequent state of fight or flight, into a more calm and peaceful state of presence. As a result, we are present with our thoughts, which naturally leads to our awareness of our emotions surrounding our thoughts.
Let’s pause for a moment and discuss emotions. The word itself, when looked at closely, represents the idea that something is in motion. E-Motion. What does the E stand for? Energy. Energy-(in) Motion. This alludes to the concept that our emotions are actually energy in motion, and if energy is in motion, what happens? Creation! This introduces the idea that our emotions actually play the part of creating our experience. Even if you don’t believe that we create our own reality (the whole Destiny vs Free Will argument), maybe you can at least wrap your mind around the concept that we perceive our experiences with our five senses, and experience any array of emotions based on those perceptions. Those emotions can be positive or negative, based on your perception of the experience. For example, two people could be on a hike in the mountains and based on the emotions of the individual on the hike, could have two completely different experiences. The first person could see the gorgeous views and flowers and have positive emotions, and therefore will experience joy on the hike, the other could see the bugs and hate the incline and have a terrible time. Our emotions perpetuate our experience in all situations.
Most people know yoga as going into pretzel-like positions to encourage flexibility in the body. While this is a small part of the practice, the poses encourage so much more than just flexibility. The actual origination of the yoga poses occurred with the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in 1350 AD. They are the newest part of the practice of yoga. It’s my understanding, that they are designed to accommodate for the newer phenomena of stressful stimulants and situations in our lives. The poses help to expand, stretch, heat, and strengthen the body for the primary reason of dissolving the stress that we hold in our tissues, which leads to dis-ease. Asana is the third limb of the Yoga Sutras, but the yoga sutras were written far before we ever started practicing poses like Warrior 2 or Tree. Asana, in the sutras is referring to the practice of physical stillness. So, it’s important to realize, through the evolution of the practice, that the poses we know so well today are meant to get us to a place of stress-relief in our bodies and eventually ease and stillness in our physical form.
When practicing yoga, our goal is to use the tools of breathwork, concentration, sensory withdrawal, and poses to get to a mental space of complete awareness of our emotions. Once we create that awareness, we can enter into a state of insight in regard to what we are feeling. Only then, can we start to practice the re-direction of our thoughts to entice more positive emotions, which will begin to change your entire outlook on life....and this is meditation. Meditation is not about making your mind blank, it’s about practicing the awareness of your emotions to enter into a state of insight, so that you can rewire your brain toward more positive emotions. Just by practicing these tools of yoga, we can change our entire lives!
So what is Yoga, really? Yes, it is physically beneficial, but it is so much more. Yoga is about using these tools to practice living a more joyful life (called Samadhi, which is our 8th Limb in the Sutras). Once we take responsibility for our ability to create in our lives, we can practice utilizing these tools of yoga to live happily, even when something happens that we don’t expect. The ability to be aware of your thoughts and emotions is something you can utilize every moment of every day, and you can CHOOSE to shift your emotion to a more positive place. This will make joy a more solid energy and state of being in your life.