What is Yoga?… Really

Yoga has become quite popular in the past few years and more and more people are turning to yoga as a way to relieve stress, a way to relax, and as a way to stretch and strengthen the body. Here is my take on the meaning of yoga:

Before I delve into the depths of yoga and start talking about the mental side of yoga practice, let’s first cover what yoga means from the physical, exercise aspect. Yoga as a physical practice involves practicing a variety of postures/poses called asanas. These asanas are practiced individually or strung together in a flowing sequence and aim to stretch, strengthen, tone, and align the body. There are many different types of asana practices such as Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Hatha, Yin, Bikram etc, however, the main purpose is to strengthen the body and calm the mind. In fact, Yoga Asanas originated as a way to strengthen the body to be able to sit for long periods during meditation.

 “Yoga is the unity of the body, mind, and soul” What does this mean?

When looking at how yoga is defined, we have all heard the standard yoga definition – “Yoga is the unity of the body, mind, and soul” but what does this mean? When we think of yoga, we tend to associate the word with flexibility, stretching, and pretzel type positions…while these associations aren’t necessarily wrong, they are somewhat limiting. Yoga is far bigger than that, what we know as Yoga in the Western world is that Yoga is a form of exercise, again this isn’t wrong, but it also isn’t entirely correct either. The exercise part of Yoga that we have become familiar with, termed ‘asana’ in Sanskrit is actually only a really small part of what Yoga is as a whole. Yoga is a very broad topic, it is not just an exercise regime, Yoga is a way of life.

What IS Yoga then? 

When I attended my Yoga training in India, our philosophy teacher described Yoga as being “the art of expressing the true self”; it is the journey that we take to find out who we really are and connect with our true identity. He further explained that from a child, our minds are conditioned in a certain way and we firmly believe everything that we are taught. This conditioning that we receive from society and the people that surround us often depicts the type of person that we become; these norms become the framework through which we grow and develop, it is these norms that shape the way we think and act. This then means that we are living our lives in line with the views and opinions of others, we become a partial duplication of the people that surround us as we take the conditioning received from society and believe it to be our reality.

Yoga is the journey we embark on to break out of this pre-conditioned reality in search of who we really are outside of what we have been conditioned to believe. It is an inward journey of self-discovery. We are constantly chasing happiness, searching for things that will make us happy, however, according to yogic views, you cannot chase happiness, it is not something you can attain in material objects or in reaching certain destinations and milestones; happiness is something that comes from within. This peace, happiness, and love that we chase after are inside us, we just need to find it.

Why do we want what we want? 

The happiness that we find in material things and experiences is only temporary. Yes, buying yourself that new car or eating at the new restaurant you’ve been dying to try will make you happy and will create happy memories for you, however, this happiness is short-lived; this type of happiness wears off. What we are in search of is lasting happiness, true happiness where we are content in life. We have reached a point where we can never seem to have enough, we always want more and we want it instantly.

We need to take a step back and ask ourselves why do we want all these things? Are they just a distraction? Ways to occupy our minds to make us feel better about ourselves and our situation? Often the answer is yes; yes we place our happiness in the hands of others and objects. I have often heard the term ‘destination happiness’ and I have come to understand this as living from one event to the next, for example, you have a holiday booked and you are really excited for this, so you kind of just muddle through the days leading up to it, not really paying attention to them, just focusing on that moment when you get to go on holiday, the holiday then comes and goes just as quickly and now you are left feeling empty as if you now don’t have anything to live for, so you find something else to pin your happiness to and follow the same vicious cycle.

“The next breath is not yours”

Yoga teaches you to live in the present, to be here right now, not to dwell on happenings of the past or stress about what is still to come. To truly live in this very moment! Our teacher used the expression ‘the next breath is not yours’; by this, he was trying to highlight that the future is unknown and that by living in the past or future, you are losing your present life and that is something you can never get back, you don’t know when your last breath will be, so live a life that focuses on being in the present, in making the most of every moment that you have.

This was all a lot of information for me to take in, I mean, I am here to learn to teach yoga classes to people back home, as a form of exercise, now I find out yoga is so much more than that, it was somewhat overwhelming! While I was already aware that yoga goes beyond the physical practice, I wasn’t fully aware of how extensive yoga is and what the journey of yoga truly entails. As I spent time mulling over the things I was learning each day and chatting with others on the course about our opinions and our understandings about all of this, I decided that yoga, although written in books as a path that needs to be followed, is a journey that you can make unique to you. I believe that yoga is personal, that you can take all this knowledge and use it in a way that helps you to better your life, to help you better understand yourself, and to help create that feeling of calm and ease inside yourself.

No person is perfect, but we can make small changes in our life that help shapes us into being the person we truly want to be and to learn to find happiness and peace within ourselves.

In the yogic view, we are controlled by our thoughts; we stress, we overthink, we let our thoughts take over us. Yoga teaches us to control these thoughts, to quiet the voices in our head to find calm, peace, and focus. Yoga sees us as being one with the universe, that there is no difference between us and the universe. Yoga is about connecting with your soul, your true self. Your soul is the navigator or pilot within you, it guides you and tells you what you should and shouldn’t do. For this reason, it is important to listen to your heart, to follow what you feel in your heart is the best path for you. It is your soul that carries all the information about you, but this societal conditioning often leaves us questioning our heart instead of following our pre-conditioned mind. Yoga teaches you to connect with your soul, to let go of what society has programmed you to do, and to create your unique life journey.

For me, the part of yoga that I love is the physical part, I love the feeling of calm and relaxation that washes over me at the end of a session. I love the feeling of flowing and moving with the breath in an almost dance-like fashion. For me, this is one of the best ways to de-stress and clear my mind.

I have learned so much and absorbed so much information in my yoga journey so far and although I don’t see myself ever following the full yoga path in search of enlightenment, I have taken a lot of what I have learned and applied it into my own life. This has had a positive impact on me, I have gone from being overly stressed out, constantly overthinking, and very anxious to feeling a lot calmer and more in control, although I’m not perfect, I am working on these things daily and improving every day.