What is yoga?

If we look first at the meaning of the word, then yoga is the union of the individual consciousness, or soul, with the universal consciousness – or to put it simply, the union of the invidual with the Divine. The word also refers to a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, incorporating physical and mental practices, aimed at achieving this state.
But in the modern world, where most of us are neither ascetics nor scholars, and in which yoga is, in the words of the ashtanga teacher Richard Freeman, “spreading like mushrooms,” it may be useful to look at yoga in more pragmatic terms. Freeman has said that rather than the word ‘union’, he prefers the word ‘linking’, as in when two oxen are linked by a yoke. Yoga is the point of communication, where this linking brings things, such as in-breath and out-breath, day and night, man and woman, or even different traditions, together, and at this meeting point, the nature of reality seems to be revealed. The resulting moment of openness, of joy, is yoga. Mark Whitwell, who studied for years under Krishnamacharya and his son Desikachar, describes yoga as, “direct, non-dual intimacy with life itself.” He is echoed by Michael Stone, author of the inspirational, The Inner Tradition of Yoga, who suggests that yoga is “the recognition, in the present moment, of the unification of life.” What is unequivocal, however, is that yoga is an experience.

Yoga: a present-moment experience, or the path to get there?

In the Hindu tradition, there are innumerable branches of yoga, all of which aim to lead Man to knowledge of his oneness with the Divine. There is the path of devotion, the path of selfless service, the path of wisdom, and, of most interest to us perhaps, the path outlined in Patanjali’s sutras, which are a bit like a road map outlining the stages of the journey leading to the state of yoga. But the idea of a path of yoga is thought-provoking. For one, it implies a movement between a present state and a desired one, that is, from the present moment to a future one. Mark Whitwell, however, insists on the word ‘direct’ in his definition of yoga: yoga is not a pathway to something but the immediate experience of something. He suggests that we already are the fullness of life, right now, and that seeing that fullness is yoga. Furthermore, the paradox of yoga as a path, is that most branches are addressed to the person: “you” can do this, “you” can do that, in order to attain the goal. And yet, when the state of oneness is experienced, it is seen that the “I” that thought it was in the driving seat, doing practices, striving for a state, is seen as a mental construct, a false identity. In short, there was no “I” entity walking a path in the first place.

Why do yoga?

But let us return to a more down-to-earth approach, beautifully encapsulated by David Swenson, who has often described yoga as “a tool for life”. For indeed, what is the purpose of yoga if it is not useful in daily life? The way yoga becomes a tool is through a yoga practice. The most popular practice at the present time is that of hatha yoga, the physical practice of asana or postures, and for many people, this foundation enables them to bring more awareness, compassion, and other qualities into their lives. Of late there is much talk about how yoga is being reduced to the mere practice of these postures, and while this is undeniable, it begs the question, what, then, exactly, is a yoga practice? For the great sage Maharaj, a simple preoccupation with knowledge of the Divine, meant that a seeker had already begun a yogic enquiry. Desikachar went as far as to say that just speaking to others about yoga made a person a yoga teacher. And Richard Freeman points out that whenever a person is completely absorbed in what they are doing, such as playing a musical instrument, they are in essence doing a form of yoga. For most of us, we practise yoga partly for physical and mental well-being. Spiritual preoccupations and purpuse, and seeking a deeper meaning, lead us into ambiguous territory. Here again, Richard Freeman provides interesting insights. We cannot really arrange, through cause and effect, to reach yogic states of mind, he is very clear that there is no guarantee. When we mistakenly think there is a guarantee, a method, we know the ego is involved, clinging to a point of view, the idea that there’s a sure way of doing things. What the practices do is create better conditions for the arising of these openings. And Michael Stone reminds us that yoga is not a willful attempt at union, but, as we saw above, a recognition of the wholeness of things.
As yoga spreads in the modern world, the practices evolve, and people adapt them as their lifestyles and obligations allow. But there are certain principles fundamental to the practice of yoga, and these are thousands of years old. These look at how we act and think, and how we relate to the others and the world.
Ultimately, yoga is also, of course, what it means to people. Some, like a practitioner from Greece, whose ashtanga practice had taken him to the fourth series, say that yoga is the practice of love, pure and simple. But I think many of us feel that yoga is a way of life, based around certain principles, that looks at our habits, our conduct and our state of awareness, with a committed practice as its foundation. And it is a way of being, both within ourselves and in the world, a way of responding and acting, made possible by these principles and the practice. May the message of yoga, practised simply, without expectation, and from the heart, reach ever more beings, for the greater good of all.

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