The Many Faces of Yoga
What does "yoga" mean? I've been doing yoga for a very long time and it's meant very different things to me over the course of my life. Really, that's one of the things, maybe the thing, that I love most about it.
This morning I went to an Ishi Yoga class. I had never been to an Ishi Yoga class, and I will not become a devoted practitioner, but it was interesting. The founder, Sadhguru, defines yoga as "unity". From what I learned today, Sadhguru applies this concept of unity to what he refers to as "sub-yoga" or "upa-yoga". He's created a series of simple movements, breathing practices, and chanting that anyone can do. The movements can be done in just a few minutes at the office, in the middle of walk in the park, anywhere at anytime. He's taken the concept of unity and created a broadly inclusive practice. Sadhguru's definition is clean and simple and one that I've heard from other sources.
The unity of the mind, body, and spirit is a widely accepted definition of yoga. In my last post I wrote about Ashtanga Yoga and how the practice has taught me to breathe through the discomforts of life. For me, one of the most poignant moments of unity in my practice comes from balancing poses and transitioning from one balancing pose to another on the same foot. Extended hand to big toe pose (or if you prefer Utthita Hasta Padangustasana) is a great example of this. You stand on your left foot, bring your right knee into your chest, grab onto your right big toe with your peace fingers, straighten your leg, exhale and bow over the extended leg, stay here for 5 breaths. Then on an inhale, you stand up straight, exhale and move your right foot out to the right, gaze shifts to the left, stay here for 5 breaths. Then on an inhale, bring the leg out front again, exhale and bow over the extended leg, inhale stand up straight, exhale release the leg but keep it lifted for 5 breaths.
I dare you to try that while thinking about almost anything. You won't get very far, or you'll fall over more times than you care to admit. Balance requires concentration. Concentration requires a keen sense of self-awareness. When you're standing on one foot, you feel the way the weight is distributed and the way it shifts as you struggle to maintain balance. As you shift your center of gravity from directly over your standing leg to out in front of you and then to your side, your standing leg adjusts. It has to. If your mind is focused on your to-do list, or on your relationship, or on your kids then you miss the subtle shifts required to maintain balance. This aspect of yoga falls more inline with T.K.V. Desikachar's defintion which is "the ability to direct the mind without distraction or interruption." It's in these spaces of precarious where we find a moment of detachment from life, where we may experience something that feels like union or communion. At least that's how it is for me.
I personally don't associate God with my yoga practice - that's intentional and not something I foresee changing anytime soon especially since my belief and understanding of God is not something that fits neatly into that three letter word. But there are those, like B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar Yoga, who believe that yoga is a communion with God. Iyengar writes that: "[T]he word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one's attention on, to use and apply. It also means union or communion." He goes on to talk about God from here but for me yoga has never been about God. In fact, I think in some ways it's provided an opportunity for me to have a spiritual practice that doesn't rely on the notion of God. I won't go into a diatribe on theism, don't worry. It's just not my thing.
This brings me to the last definition of yoga that I'll cover today (is my research background showing through in this post a little bit?). According to Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga, "...the meaning of yoga is upaya, which means path, or way which we follow or by means of which we can attain something." I personally don't like thinking of yoga as a means to an end and I believe that Ashtanga Yoga is a great example of how yoga is path rather than a destination. There is always something you can do that requires more strength, more flexibility, more balance. But I 100% agree that yoga is a path. When I signed up for my yoga teacher training 11 months ago through Yoga Teachers College, I stepped onto a path that is being paved as I walk along it by those who've gone before me, by my peers, and by my choices.