Updated: Mar 7, 2019
Yoga can be experienced in many different ways. For me, yoga is the practice of overcoming the mind by mastering the breath to understand the body to tune into the soul.
So we go to the local yoga studio, take a class or two that fits into our schedules, leave feeling on top of the world and then back to our grind until the next class that fits into our lives. Many of us know and associate with this idea of attending a weekly yoga class but is there more behind this ancient 5,000-year-old tradition?
In the western world, yoga classes focus on the physical aspects of the practice. It has become a form of exercise and the person teaching it, a fitness instructor. But there is much more to practicing yoga than performing postures or “asanas” and also more to that fitness instructor than you think.
After a yoga class, do you ever wonder why you feel so charged up and full of energy? Sure, you have an increase in adrenaline after working out and that helps to release endorphins in the body. While that is true, when we exercise, our mind helps us to create movements in the body while facilitating this through, oftentimes, unconscious breathing patterns. In yoga, we practice conscious breathing or “pranayama” and the breath is known to be the life force or “prana” in the body. When we are able to control and consciously direct our breath as we do in asana practice, we are able to control the mind and when we have ability to still the mind, we are able to be more present. So after a yoga class, what you probably feel is being more in tune with your breath sparking that prana inside of you.
Yoga comes from the sankskrit word “yuj” which best translates to union. In asana practice, this union of the breath, body and mind is what is being referred to. Ultimately beyond asana, the teachings behind this idea of union are to connect to something deeper within, to your true self. You may call this light, God, the soul or even the Universe, something higher than our own existence.
In ancient times, yogis would have a rigorous practice of asanas so they can understand their bodies and stimulate the breath enough to be able to sit in one meditative posture for long periods of hours, days, weeks and in some cases, months at a time. For thousands of years, it has been known that we reap the most benefits of meditation after an asana practice. Stimulation of the body through asana leads to appreciation beyond the physical aspects of ourselves.
There are still yogis who attempt this, living on the foothills of the Himalayas. Some of them have become gurus, the yogic version of fitness instructors, if you will. “Gu” means darkness and “ru” means to remove, and from dissecting ancient mantras, a guru is one who leads the student from darkness to light.
Modern day fitness instructors don’t always see themselves as gurus but they actually are, especially if they encourage the stillness of the mind, a fundamental teaching of most meditation schools. Meditation in yogic sense or “dhyana” can lead us to a state of “samadhi” which is known to be the final state of achieving union with the divine or, self-realisation.
The Hindu texts known as the Vedas, written more than 2,500 years ago, discuss the various branches of yoga all of which lead to samadhi whether in the form of performing good deeds through the path of action (karma yoga), worshiping a form of God through the path of love and surrender (bhakti yoga), studying philosophy through the path of knowledge (jnana yoga) or controlling the mind through the path of willpower (raja yoga).
Yoga as we practice it physically is closest to the raja yoga philosophy focused on the writings of Patanjali, who wrote around 400AD, the 196 aphorisms or “sutras” that define the eight limbs of yoga or “ashtanga”. Of these 196 sutras, only one sutra is about asana practice, one of the eight limbs. The further 195 explore the remaining seven of the eight-fold discipline including social principles (yama) such as truthfulness & non-violence, self-discipline (niyama) such as commitment & self-study, pranayama, control of senses (pratyahara), intense concentration (dharana), dhyana and samadhi. If we are able to work towards these disciplines, we bring yoga into our life beyond sole asana practice.
Yoga is a way of life. So the next time you go to a yoga class, listen for the little snippets of wisdom your guru will throw at you during the session. Sure, yoga can be a learning experience on the mat but it is very much a growing experience off the mat.
Yoga is the practice of overcoming the mind by mastering the breath to understand the body to tune into the soul. If you practice yoga or decide to in the future, I sincerely hope you take the opportunity of partaking in classes with gurus who help you deepen your practice beyond postures to wholly experience the true essence of yoga.