What is Yoga?

For our second paper in yoga teacher training, we had to answer the following questions: What is yoga? What resonates for you? What challenges you? Are there examples of liberation in our culture that inspire you? How would you explain yoga to a brand new student? Here, I share my answer with you.

Atha yoganusasanam. The question of exactly what yoga is depends upon the particular school of thought from which you approach yoga. However, I would argue that all of these definitions share a common view of yoga as a uniting, and this is what yoga represents for me (more on that shortly). Some perspectives of yoga, for example Jivamukti, posit the unity as one between the practitioner and God. The practices of yoga serve as a vehicle through which one might achieve the yoking of the individual to the divine. Some perspectives, for example Ananda, focus on the increased unification with the wider spiritual consciousness. Iyengar yoga (and some might say Bikram and Power Yoga) address the union of the mind and body, such that they become one. The differences between styles, perspectives, and practices range from subtle to extreme, but it seems to me that the thread of unification is woven through all, and it is this that yoga represents to me.

If asked to explain yoga to a beginner, I would likely say that yoga is a process by which we achieve unity – unity of body and mind, unity of intellect and spirit, and unity with the universal life force. I first began yoga as a physical practice, to ease RA joint pain and develop the muscles around the joints for greater support. As I practiced, following the directions of instructors (on videos at that time), I didn’t consciously pay much attention to any information about the spiritual or meditative aspects of yoga. But, over time, I noticed that when I practiced regularly, I felt more calm, more able to “go with the flow,” and less stressed about myself or others. Eventually, this caused me to start really thinking about what it was in the yoga practice that created these changes for me. Around that same time, I started to attend classes “in real life.” Instructors of those classes spoke more about the spiritual and meditative aspects of yoga, and this, in combination with the changes I was seeing in my own being, encouraged me to read and study more of the philosophy of yoga, and to begin develop my own understandings of it. This view of yoga is something that I have come to gradually over the last few years, and I cannot say that I don’t still find parts of it challenging, as well as compelling.

The ideas of unity with others, connection between all life forms, and a universal life force that flows through us all resonate strongly for me. When I consider, read about, or discuss these ideas, I feel a sense of calm and connection that is wonderful. I am strongly compelled by the idea of liberation – liberation of all voices, all beings, all realities. I believe that we must respect, accept, and protect the lives around us, as we seek to grow in our connections with the universal. The Dalai Lama says: “Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life”


Photo by EverydayBalance

While some ideas of yogic philosophy and thought resonate strongly for me, I find that I am still challenged by ideas of the essential self, or the divine expressed as a god/goddess. I’ve spent many years of my life being philosophically trained that there is no essential self. If we were to strip away the veils of culture and belief, there would be nothing left but perhaps the physical. So, when I am in a class and the instructor addresses the notion of breaking through the layers to reach the “real” self, I get sort of… antsy. I’ve also spent much of my adult life working through my understandings of divinity, realizing over time that I experience discomfort in any “embodiment” of divinity in a God (or gods) of any form. Working through how this belief relates to the philosophies and histories of yoga will, I think, continue to be a challenge for me.

That which resonate and that which creates dissonance are not opposites. They are part and parcel of the same (like light and dark, or joy and sorrow). In my own path, I look forward to continuing to examine these issues. And, I look forward to sharing this experience of examination, reflection, and unification with my students some day.

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