What is Yoga?
Yoga and meditation is an inquiry into the Self. The practice of linking breath to movement and settling into stillness unmasks layers of who you’ve learned to be (tension), so you may get to the truth of who you truly are (relaxation). It is in this relaxed state of embodiment that we can live our best lives, follow our intuition and flow with life. In a Western society that values the rational thinking mind and logic over all else, yoga will help you develop and be guided more by your feeling, heart-centered self. Through yoga you build a stronger and integrated mind and body that is perfectly able and authentic in its expression.
After practicing on my own for many years, I realized there was only so much growth that can come from a solitary practice. In order for change to occur, it must be preceded by support, and so having spiritual guidance and being in community (sangha) with others can be a very powerful experience. This is the potential power of private group classes and individual instruction.
Coming from a religious family background I always felt like something was missing. While religion is all about yoga, yoga is not religion. It has been my experience that while religion can oftentimes be dogmatic, divisive, judgmental and fear based, yoga is meant to be compassionate, liberating, and celebrating of diversity. In terms of their similarities, in both yoga and religion it is in the silent spaces where we can commune with the universe, ask for direction and trust that we will receive wisdom. It is here that healing happens. We become quieter, less reactive, more grateful, and overall happier. The anxieties and triggers we’ve developed from the past and the harsh environment around us become less and less. We raise our sensitivity and in turn our tolerance. In yoga there is no linear path; no goal. Philosophically, yoga is the process of returning to our natural state of being, a state that is available to anyone.
A little history…
While I won’t attempt to launch into yoga’s rich and complex Eastern history, evolution and synthesis of many of its separate texts, and New Agean Western philosophies, I will say that the postures are only one of the aspects of the eight-limbed system for living life. As with any practice, there needs to be balance and discipline.
Eight-limbed Path of Yoga according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, dated 200 A.D:
1) Yamas (restraints; actions best avoided)
2) Niyamas (positive actions to cultivate)
3) Asana (physical postures to release tension from the body)
4) Pranayama (harmonizing body, mind and breath)
5) Pratyahara (withdrawing attention from external distractions)
6) Dharana (concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness)
7) Dhyana (devotion to a higher purpose/energy/God that can be achieved through meditation; a state of flow)
8) Samadhi (effortless integrated being)
When looking at asana (postures), there are generally two types – therapeutic and meditative. Therapeutic postures work to strengthen and purify the physical body (Example: Warrior poses, Sun Salutations, balancing poses, etc). When practiced regularly, these postures help lubricate the joints, create flexibility in the hips and legs and strengthen the spine. In short they make it easier to sit for long periods of meditation.
In a Western culture that spends so much time sitting in chairs, hunching over in cars, and typing behind computer screens, it is not surprising that therapeutic postures are emphasized so much in yoga studios all over the United States. On the other hand, meditative postures work to enhance focus and meditation by unlocking certain energy centers (bandhas) in the body. These poses are seated postures and include Padmasana, Vajrasana, Siddhasana, and Swatikasana, and can be some of the most challenging poses. At the same time, the fruits are abundant. Meditative postures take us on a journey to the ultimate realization of our soul’s purpose and liberate us from the cycle of suffering and illusion of separation.
Basically you can’t have one set of postures over another. Meditative postures and therapeutic postures are Yin and Yang; they must be in balance -- particularly if one is living the life of a householder and not a sannyasin (spiritual ascetic). Of course for each householder that balance of how much time should be spent stretching and strengthening versus how much time one should spend in meditation will look different depending on the person’s constitution, lifestyle and activity level.
And still, when we take a step back and look at the big picture, yoga is even more than what we know as Hatha Yoga -- combination of the postures, breathing and meditation. There are still many other aspects of the practice meant to harmonize, heal and awaken a person.
All the other branches of Yoga include:
Karma Yoga: the yoga of dynamic action and service to humanity
Jnana Yoga: the yoga of discriminative wisdom
Bhakti Yoga: the yoga of devotion
Raja Yoga: the yoga of concentration and meditation
Tantra Yoga: the yoga of integrating the polarities