As part of the RYT 200, we were all asked to write an essay as titled, ‘What is Yoga?’.
This is my take on it
What is Yoga?
I think it far easier to answer questions such as’ what is the sound of one hand clapping’ or ‘if a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody to hear it, does it make a noise?’
(the answer to the latter at the end)
Forty years ago, yoga, to me, created visions of scandinavian men and women, all in leotards and all with thick moustaches, as I’m sure they were the images impressed on me when I picked up a magazine about Yoga as a child in a dentists waiting room. Initially yoga for me was a memory of painful fillings.
Now, four decades later, Yoga is the fastest growing activity in the world and the leotards have changed to designer spandex and the dentist’s assistant is an Ashtangi.
Of course most people confuse yoga with asana – the bendy, stretchy stuff.
For some, yoga is endless selfies posted on social media showing off circus act feats, from head stands to handstands wearing designer clothes adorned with Om and Lululemon symbols mostly done in exotic locations or in front of a candle lit mandala or an iconic Hindu or Buddhist deity.
However, are these amazing contortionist images, pictures of someone doing yoga?
Of course not.
They are simply pictures of people showing off circus act feats, from head stands to handstands wearing designer clothes adorned with Om and Lululemon symbols mostly done in exotic locations or in front of a candle lit mandala or an iconic Hindu or Buddhist deity.
You cannot, by definition take a photograph of yoga anymore than you can take a picture of a dream. And whether you have long or short hair or wear a Saddhu beard or are clean shaven or dress in woolly Ecuadorian coats (fleece lined or not), play the pan pipes, eat only gluten free, sport Ganesh tattoos or are able to do a turn on a didgeridoo whilst juggling flames does not make you more spiritual or yogic ‘than thou’.
* As a side note I am considering setting up a male yoga shorts empire which will be branded as BudgieSmugglers (© Kev Ollier 2016) *
Some of the earliest photos of a westerner doing Asana were of the eventually- presumed- murdered, Theos Bernard in the 1930’s. Bernard’s intention wasn’t for admiration or instagram hits but to show how to execute (possibly a bad choice of word) a particular posture to get an inner result.
Bernard was of one of the most influential Western Yogis of the twentieth century, whose guiding light was to know the truth, free from the trappings and tapestries of illusion.
So is yoga, asana?
Yes but mostly no.
Yoga is said to have derived mostly from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali of which there are 196. Compiled 400 years BC/BCE/CE, depending on your preferred acronym, asana is only referred to three times and yet the whole world now assumes that yoga is asana when asana is, in truth, a very minor aspect.
In the sutras, Patanjali suggests, when practicing asana, for it to be “steady and comfortable”.
“The body is held poised with the practitioner experiencing *NO DISCOMFORT*. When control of the body is mastered, practitioners are believed to free themselves from the duality of heat/cold, hunger/satiety, joy/grief, which is the first step toward the non-attachment that relieves suffering”
Surely that’s the whole point. That paragraph just quoted is probably it – what yoga is, though I think even that can be minimised and summed up in one word……..but we all like to read volumes and volumes of books saying exactly the same thing, from Buddhist philosophy to the Gita to get to that all encompassing and simple word, so continuing on…
Listed below are traditional rules for performing asanas:
- The stomach should be empty which means not eating for at least 3 hours before asana
- During asanas force or pressure should NOT be used, and the body should NOT tremble.
- Lower the head and other parts of the body slowly; in particular, raised heels should be lowered slowly.
- The breathing should be controlled. The benefits of asanas increase if the specific breathing to the yoga type is performed.Having practiced asanas for 20 years I have witnessed that very few people follow even these. Navasana makes me tremble. In fact if I want to feel like I have rickets, Navasana ticks the box.The heart of Patanjali’s teachings is the eightfold path of yoga of which asana is only one and with modern hatha yoga aka Ashtanga yoga, this is seen to be ‘what yoga is’
In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follows: Yama : Universal morality –
Niyama : Personal observances
Asanas : Body postures
Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
Pratyahara : Control of the senses
Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
Samadhi : Union with the Divine
Anyone of us can experience something nearer to what yoga is whilst doing asana.
Many fingers point to the moon for us to experience yoga in asana, albeit with a different and revised set of distractions from the usual thoughts occupying our minds during our practice. Following and concentrating on one’s breath, having focus points within each pose (drishti), pulling in or up parts of the body rather than wondering what to make for dinner or being anxious of the day to follow or does my bum look big in this Lulelemon swimsuit?
An asana practitioner can spend a lifetime working out and feeling where the perineum is.
One can usually tell when someone is trying to find it as the face pulled is similar to that of a face that’s just eaten a non-agreeable Vindaloo – and there is someone in the loo. (For the record, the perineum is on the ‘bridge’ between the anus and the genital area/scrotum and trying to pull that centre up is akin to riding a see saw – you want the calming centre, not the ends)
The yogic distractions, if followed with meditative discipline, will bring you into your body and by default the postures will be deeper and more comfortable as your mind relaxes and lets go, but most modern classes, only having five breaths to work with in each posture, more often than not don’t allow time to get to those ‘spaces’ – for most people, and this could be why ‘Yin’ yoga is becoming more popular. There is fundamentally no difference between Ashtanga and Yin expect the length of time held in an individual posture. Yang is Ashtanga flow, Yin, Ashtanga slow. If we were to stay in each posture in a Hatha Ashtanga class for just one dedicated minute, it would do what Yin achieves, giving space and time for the mind and body to relax and be comfortable – apparently the whole point of Patanjali’s reference to asana.
This seems to be the whole point of asana. Without this aim, all we are all doing is stretching and bending. The mind has to be fully involved in the moment before becoming eventually uninvolved, which is nearing what yoga truly is, as far as my own understanding goes.
The book of books, the Bhagavad Gita concludes that yoga is simply doing what you do in everyday life without any attachment to ‘the fruit of your actions’
Donna Farhi – currently my very favourite ‘yogi’, once asked, in a workshop, what is yoga?. The usual stock answers were forthcoming of course but one girl said, and I paraphrase, that yoga is clearing up after a workshop, it’s helping the old lady across the road, it’s holding a door open for somebody. It’s doing RAOK (Random acts of kindness)
Currently it could be helping refugees in some way or it could even be feeling so much warmth and sorrow for Donald Trump. If you can do the latter, you’re nearly there.
So, what is Yoga? There are 7 billion people on Earth and therefore 7 billion correct answers but for me it comes down to one word.
Is that word, God? The problem with the word ‘God’ – a word I think should be banished from all language is that people perceive God as a person, a person to many in the west who looks a lot like Santa only with more sensible clothes and a longer, indeed eternal, Hell if you’re naughty, than just no presents on Christmas morning
The word ‘YOGA’, same as the word ‘GOD’ can be changed to another word and that is LOVE.
The ‘secret’ is seeing everyone as one of your own relatives or friends. The BIG ISSUE seller or the lady camping out every night in a doorway is your mum, sister, daughter, best friend. The abusive guy in the car that just cut you up is your son, brother, dad having a bad day. The refugees living in squalor in Calais are your family and friends but with all of these it very simply could be you. Compassion and Empathy is part of Love.
Practicing asana may eventually take you so deep into yourself that you can’t do anything else but to feel compassion and empathy, firstly for your own self and then, like gravitational waves from your own heart, to every being alive
To me that is what Yoga is.
As for the falling tree in the forest. No