In the exchange of personal information that characterizes first encounters between humans, one of the usual first questions is, “What do you do for a living?” My short answer is that I am a teacher. If the person asking is interested she might pursue my answer to the next level and say, “What do you teach?” At that point I must calculate in the moment whether I am feeling predominantly a science teacher or a yoga teacher? In fact I play both roles. Science is simple, everyone knows what science is. Yoga however is a bit more problematic because most people, even if they’ve never taken a yoga class, have an impression of yoga that is by and large off the mark or, at best, incomplete. And for those who have taken a yoga class the chances are pretty good that they did so in a gym where the only focus was on stretching.
In the beginning…at least for most folks I’ve met…yoga is simple enough. They join a gym, walk the treadmill, take a Zumba class and decide to stay for what is called yoga. After all, stretching is good, right? And so they stretch. Walk, Zumba, Stretch. Repeat regularly until their schedule changes or their will power wanes and they are are left with a memory of feeling good and a recurring whispered thought, “Shouldn’t I get back to the gym?” Maybe even the thought, “I really liked how I felt after the yoga class.” But is stretching all there is to yoga? The short answer to that question is, “Stretching is good but it alone is not yoga.” At least it is not very much of yoga. So if stretching is not yoga then it is easy to become confused. What is yoga?
The confusion around yoga is widespread. Some years ago I attended a performance of Cirque de Soleil with family and friends. The physical flexibility of the acrobats led one of our group to comment, “ Boy, I’ll bet she’s good at yoga!” I replied, diplomatically I hope, that she might indeed be good at yoga. What I did not add at the time is that physical flexibility has next to nothing to do with being good at yoga. But this mis-impression about the nature of yoga is widespread and deeply ingrained in our culture. I remember an article from the foremost yoga magazine, Yoga Journal, in which a reporter who was investigating yoga for his readers, penned a piece entitled, “How Yoga Kicked My Butt.” The article was amusing in its way but unfortunately, it left the reader with the very distinct impression that yoga is a system of exercises that can be very challenging. So if not a system of exercise then the question remains. What is yoga?
Okay, try this. Yoga is:
· A science and an art.
· Union. Of body, mind, breath and Spirit.
· Breathing exercises to control life-force energy.
· Meditation to still the mind and open the heart.
· Training the mind to be supportive or still as required.
· Devotional Chanting, Prayer and Mantra.
· Selfless service to others.
· An inward experience of Joy, Peace, Love or some other Divine quality.
· An expansion of human consciousness beyond ego and into Universal awareness.
· A system of physical exercise that helps accomplish all of the above.
If this were a conversation between you, the reader, and me, the yoga teacher, I might at this point ask, “Is it clear now what Yoga is?” And you might look me clearly in the eye and say, “No. Not one bit.” Okay, fair enough. But here is one challenging thing about yoga: it needs to be experienced. We can read about yoga and that is a good thing to do. We can go to a yoga class and, depending on the quality and consciousness of the instructor, learn bits and pieces about yoga. And that too is a good thing to do. But in the end, yoga must be personally experienced to be understood. And so, when we bring yoga into our lives on a regular basis we call it a yoga practice. We practice bringing our body, mind, breath and awareness into a single, shared moment of experience.
So perhaps it would helpful to ask, “What do I mean by “yoga?” As my friend, Nayaswami Hriman McGilloway writes, “This is a constant and frustrating issue for those who us share the true yoga. The term refers in the common view to the physical exercises, movements and positions of but one branch of yoga: hatha yoga. One might just as properly use the term “meditation” to describe all of the yoga practices and goal. But in fact, the correct term is “yoga!” And “yoga,” which means “yoke” or “union,” refers to both the practice and the goal of that practice: a state of consciousness that is not limited to confinement and identification with the body and ego. It is akin to the state referred to by such words as enlightenment, liberation, moksha, satori, nirvana, samadhi, salvation, cosmic consciousness, oneness, mystical union and on and on. This state is said to be the true state of Being and the only true reality from which all differentiated objects and states of consciousness derive. It is the underlying, primordial “soup” of God-consciousness that wills into manifestation the cosmos and which sustains, maintains, and dissolves the ceaseless flux of thoughts, emotions, and objects.
The practice of yoga includes a wide range of disciplines from the bodily positions of hatha yoga to the advanced meditation techniques of kriya yoga. It is supported by a lifestyle of high ideals, integrity, moderation, and self-control in the form of simple living and includes, by tradition, the practice of vegetarianism. Codified by the sage Patanjali in the renowned Yoga Sutras, yoga is achieved through eight stages of practice and eights levels of ever expanding consciousness.”
If you have a sense that yoga is something that you need in your life, I encourage you to keep your thinking about yoga bigger that just the postures. At Ananda Scotts Valley we offer many classes each week on the practice of Ananda Yoga. On Thursday evenings we offer free meditation instruction. On Sunday mornings we have group meditations and Sunday services to sharing the common yoga teachings of the East and West. We also regularly offer extended and in-depth classes on the various teachings and practices of yoga. So come and join us. Our complete calendar is available at http://www.anandascottsvalley.org.
Blessings and Joy,