What is Yoga?

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Occasionally, I’ll have someone ask this question. A good one to ask, because like most things out there, misconceptions and untruths abound. The media doesn’t help much besides give us headlines, and the more sensational, the better. The Internet is comprised of a plethora of information, and much of it is creative fiction. If one were to ask a student of yoga why it is that they decided to have a consistent practice, there will be a lot said about how it makes them feel good, how they’ve lost weight and are sleeping better, how they feel happier in their lives and small annoyances don’t seem to trouble them as much. They may talk about how great a particular teacher is, and how the community created at the studio with like-minded people has enriched their lives. All positive and true statements for them. An instructor may give a textbook answer, or may simple invite the one inquiring to come to a class and experience for themselves.

Because yoga originated thousands of years ago, and in a country where Christianity is not the most widely practiced religion, yoga has been colored by a different language and the culture of India. The names for the poses and practices in yoga are often first told in the language of Sanskrit. Thus, much of the translations aren’t exact, and therefore, different practitioners, or those from different schools of yoga, are likely to have slightly different names for the same pose or technique. “Yoga” itself is a Sanskrit word meaning “union” or “yoke”. The purpose of yoga is to unite body, mind, and spirit. The “yoke” translation comes in when we utilize the tools of yoga to harness the mind in order to live more peacefully, happily, instead of swinging wildly from elation to depression.

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How does yoga attempt to do this? Working the body, working the breath, becoming aware of and consciously deciding what to do with thoughts, and the accepting of, through practice and experimentation in one’s own life, scientifically proven techniques and findings that allow one, if followed and practiced and reflected upon, to live life more artfully. By first becoming intimate with the physical body, then understanding scientifically how the body and breath and mind word in unison, or not, other facts become known. There is no “goal” of yoga, though depending on what brings one to the mat, it could begin with the goal to touch one’s toes. For others, it is enlightenment. For most, that “goal” will never be “reached” consciously. Another way to think of enlightenment is to “transcend the ego”, to discover what and who we really are, which isn’t the physical body or the thoughts in the mind. However, all along the way, as techniques are practiced, as one pays attention to the moment, as one alters their habits, then more happiness becomes acknowledged in one’s life. And that, happiness, is the goal of every human being.

There are shades of Hinduism in yoga, but that doesn’t exclude people who claim membership to organized religions from practicing yoga and garnering the benefits. Even if the only benefit they want is to touch their toes! What is yoga? For me, a practitioner and instructor, it is a huge box which contains the tools that allow me to reside in contentment, in peace, when I choose to use said tools. Does that mean that my life is perfect, that I never experience pain or self-created misery? Nope. That means I’m human. I still get attached to people and experiences and things. I still allow myself to not be in the moment, to be concerned about the judgement of others, or to not always accept or surrender to my present circumstances. But yoga, like law or medicine or education, is a practice. Every moment, every time we step on the mat, every circumstance is an opportunity to practice the breath, acceptance, surrender, responding instead of reacting, letting go, allowing, and being.

What is yoga? It is a practice, a lifestyle, a spiritual path, a toolbox of techniques that offer the student ways to be in alignment with themselves, to cohabit more peacefully with their ego and body and thoughts, and to live a more happy life.

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While completing yoga teacher training, I compiled some poems about my experience. I bound them together in a unique project titled Yogis All: A Journey of Transformation, Part I, which can be found on my website: www.myjoyenterprises.com

How would you define yoga?

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