Yoga. What is it? Many have set out to answer this question and it is the subject of much academic and philosophical study. The answers are as diverse as the millions of people practicing some version of it. My attempt here is not to provide a definitive answer nor to explore the different types of yoga but to give you a brief overview and to offer guidance on why you may want to begin your journey into this ancient yet evolving wellness practice.
When we think of yoga many of us call up images of young women dressed in Lululemon outfits moving their bodies in timed choreography in a heated room. Merriam-Webster defines yoga as “a system of physical postures, breathing techniques, and sometimes meditation derived from yoga but often practiced independently….” That’s nice but is that all there is to it? Stretchy outfits? A workout? Breathing? A little meditation? No. There is SO much more to it.
Yoga has been around for thousands of years. The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which means “to attach, join, harness, yoke”. It is believed that the chief aim of yoga is to unite the human spirit with the Divine. Yoga as a system of wellness practice originated in India and is believed to stem from two main source texts, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and The Bhagavad Gita.
According to T.K.V. Desikachar, the author of the Heart of Yoga, yoga is sourced from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras which described an eight-limbed path of yoga. He tells us that “…the essence of Yoga, was formulated by the great Indian sage, Patanjali, more than two thousand years ago when he described yoga as ‘the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions’.” -Yoga Sutra 1.2 Citta Vritti Nirodhah. The other source text, The Bhagavad Gita, which translates to “Song of God”, is a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, and is believed to represent the battle within ourselves to realize our true natures as we teeter between choosing our lower verses higher qualities. It contains the guidelines for understanding how to seek and find your truth. Both texts outline a variety of ways to reach higher awareness and fulfillment. Interestingly, these texts say very little about “asana” or the physical poses that make up the yoga we know and practice on our mats today. In fact there are only a few lines in the Yoga Sutras that address yoga as a physical practice. Asana, or the physical poses, were only meant to be one part of the overall discipline of yoga. Today however, the majority of Western practitioners focus solely on the asana and may never explore all the benefits of a comprehensive yoga practice.
Yoga as derived from these texts is meant to be a comprehensive system for wellbeing on all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Yoga is meant to be guidance for living a life of awareness and fulfillment, not just a workout. That is why traditionally, yoga has emphasized the student-teacher relationship. The teacher helps the student develop a practice that is personal to the student using the various aspects of yoga that bring about the experience and reflection necessary for each student to deepen his or his understanding of their true self. For some students this may mean cultivating a physical practice for improved fitness. For others, it could mean adopting a breath and meditation practice for mental clarity and stress relief. For those seeking spiritual growth and transformation, it may mean exploring all aspects of yoga including studying yoga philosophy. Regardless of the method of practice, all aspects of yoga are interconnected and aim to promote comprehensive wellness.
Yoga as a practice continues to evolve. It has branched out in many directions, some of which are quite different from it’s traditional roots. Whether you’re stepping onto your mat for a heated power flow, taking a gentle restorative class, sitting in meditation or practicing mindful breathing, the benefits of yoga is improved wellbeing: body, mind and spirit. While the journey into yoga may begin on the mat, doing physical poses, it isn’t long before you will begin to notice how using your breath to direct your body leads to improved focus and staying present. Staying present on the mat allows you to connect with the sensations in your body. This builds intuition. As your yoga practice deepens, you will find that you feel more intuitive and begin to develop greater self-awareness, thus making better, more self-loving decisions off the mat. The deeper the practice, the more you experience the comprehensiveness of yoga.
If you’re reading this, then I suspect that you may be feeling a quiet yet persistent internal nudge to dip your toe into water. Regardless of how you choose to begin (a beginner class, a guided meditation, simple breathing exercises to calm your anxiety or perhaps reading the Yoga Sutras) you can be assured that you are embarking on a time-tested path to wellness. The benefits of yoga continue to make headlines and I encourage anyone wishing to start a yoga practice, take the time to find the styles and teachers that feel right to them. Best wishes on your journey. Namaste.