Ironically enough, it’s never an easy task to answer the question “what is yoga?”. However, one thing that I can tell you is that it always rubs me the wrong way when I get questions along the lines of “do you practice other sports?” or “what's this exercise called?”. Because I don’t consider yoga a merely physical practice, and because my goal for practicing yoga goes beyond the tangible results, I always find myself struggling to respond to such questions in a way that doesn’t reduce or dilute yoga into something that doesn’t define it for me.
So, what is yoga?
Is it all about balance?
Is it all about love, about cheap positivity, good thoughts, prayers, rainbows, and unicorns?
Or maybe it is about honoring your uniqueness, because surely you must be a special being?
And it feels so good -- doesn’t it feel good?
It must be the joy of being able to accomplish a pose, to realize that your body can do things you never imagined possible?
What if I told you that the answer is neither of the above? That, while all of the above may be byproducts of the practice of yoga (except the cheap positivity, the rainbows and the unicorns, maybe), none of those is the true goal of this 5,000 year old practice that has, almost miraculously, survived its way through to this day.
Yoga means “union” and, as its very name indicates, it’s the science of self-realization or, in better words, the state of unification or enlightenment.
What is commonly called “yoga” in the West usually refers to the practice of physical postures or asana, which are but one of the eight limbs of yoga.
The practice of asana comes with many general benefits, such as increased strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance. In addition, each posture targets a different area of the body, both externally and internally, meaning that we’re not just toning and stretching our superficial muscles, but also our internal organs. Asanas also work on an subtler energetic level, helping mobilize stagnant energy, thus purifying the body in preparation for the path of spiritual practice.
The eightfold path of yoga, as described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is called “Ashtanga,” ashta meaning eight, and anga meaning limbs. “The Yoga Sutras,” compiled prior to 400 CE by Sage Patanjali, is a collection of 196 aphorisms on the theory and practice of yoga, and describe the process a practitioner must go through in order to attain Samadhi (self-realization or enlightenment.)
The eight limbs are the following:
- Yamas or ethical standards
- Ahimsa (non violence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (nonstealing)
- Brahmacharya (moderation)
- Aparigraha (non covetousness)
- Niyamas or spiritual observances
- Saucha (cleanliness)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (austerities, discipline)
- Svadhyaya (self-study)
- Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to God)
- Asana (physical postures)
- Pranayama (breathing techniques)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (self-realization)
As illustrated by this list, asana isn’t but a very small part of the bigger picture, when it comes to a yoga practice. In fact, the eight limbs are listed in order, meaning that one must first start practicing the yamas and niyamas before proceeding to the physical practice. Likewise, the physical practice would precede the breathing techniques and, together with these, prepare the body for the remaining 4 limbs as the practitioner advances towards the goal.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classical text written in the 15th century, however, describes asana first, followed by shatkarma (purification techniques) and pranayama, mudra and bandha, and, finally, samadhi. The reasoning behind this order is that “in this day and age too many problems can arise if an aspirant comes into direct confrontation with his mind at the beginning of his spiritual quest. [...] Hatha yoga commences with purification of the body, the shatkarmas, then come asana and pranayama. Yama and niyama can be practiced later when the mind has become stable and its outward-going tendencies can be controlled.” (Commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda on Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.16)
Regardless of the method that one prefers to follow, one thing is clear: asana is a tool for the purification and preparation of the body and the calming of the mind, in order to become able to control it as we delve into deeper spiritual practice.
Of the above, no method is superior to the other, as long as it is suitable to the practitioner and followed with discipline. Yoga can also be classified into different types (raja, jnana, karma, bhakti) which appeal to people with different characteristics, but the end goal is always the same: transcendence of this material world.
With the popularization of yoga in the West and its growth in recent years into a multi-billion dollar industry, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of its actual purpose or significance, reducing asana to a some type of oriental gymnastics. It is also true, however, that while many come to yoga initially drawn in by the idea of exercising a bit more or becoming more flexible, many find in it an oasis of well-being that invites them to dig deeper - asana becoming a stepping stone into a vast ocean of knowledge.
Ultimately, I believe, it’s up to us what we make out of our yoga practice.
Truth, however, always remains the same (whether we can put it into words or not.)
In the same way, the essence of yoga always remains the same. We can pick and choose the parts that we actually want to practice and integrate into our lives, or we can surrender and follow the path in its integrity.
Yoga, however, doesn’t change according to our preferences.
It is what it is, and it is us who change, evolving or not, in the way in which we relate to the practice.