Sunday, February 8, 2009

What is Yoga?

A very apt second post for this blog would be to discuss the nature of yoga. In the West yoga has largely been reduced to a physical exercise, a way to get in shape, a mere option among other fitness options. There is also a segment of the population, particularly among fundamentalist sects (which is not meant in a derogatory way), who sees yoga as essentially Hindi: that its practices cannot be usefully or meaningfully separated from Hindi religious devotion, veneration of Hindi gods, or some notion of uniting the soul with Vishnu. So yoga finds itself, in Western minds, as a phenomenon on two extremes: extreme secularism or extreme religiosity.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts in yoga, defines yoga as "the restraint of the modification of mind-stuff" (Book I:2; Sri Swami Satchidananda, trans.). Another translation states it as "the mastery and integration of the activities of mind". "Yoga" itself means "union", the union of the mind with the body, the union of the mind with itself, rather than being scattered, disjointed, or at war with itself. It should be noted that if we accept this as a description of yoga's essence, it makes no dictates as to what the mind is (beyond that it has "modification[s]", which is hardly disputable) and that it requires no particular acceptance of the mind's nature, except that which is found in our own examination of it. The yogi/yogini who thoroughly examines their own minds, its workings, and its relation to their lives and finds nothing of Vishnu, a "larger Self", chakras, or any particularly Hindi religious contents is perfectly free to reject them. In my own practice and classes, I have seen no need to invoke any of these concepts and my understanding of how meditation and yoga works requires none of it: just the cultivation of the natural capacities of attention, concentration, and understanding.

In line with the above, yoga was originally sitting meditation practice without the asanas, or poses. This is how the term is still used in Buddhism. The physical practice was done primarily to strengthen the body so it can withstand the rigors of sitting practice, which can be excruciating when the body is not strong enough to sustain the posture. Even as the asanas became more prominent in yogic practice, they are intended as anchors for the mind: to become mindful of what is happening in the body (during and after asana practice), what is happening in the mind (during and after asana practice), becoming mindful of the relation between mind and body (during and after asana practice), and learning the body's capacities (during and after asana practice), while simultaneously expanding them during asana practice.

This points to one of the best aspects of yoga: it is not a matter of how flexible or strong your body is, but of how mindful you are during your practice, and afterwards. When practiced in this way, the physical benefits will naturally accrue, even though they are not the explicit focus, but the psychological benefits will also be cultivated: increased understanding of the mind's workings, developing the powers of attention and concentration, increased intimacy with one's own body and mind, and, with it all, increased overall well-being. How this occurs will be discussed throughout this blog, but an understanding of the body will be useful for seeing the particular usefulness of the asanas, what they add that sitting meditation, on its own, misses.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. You're right, we devalue yoga if we polarize it as extreme secularism and religiosity. I also view my yoga practice as a process of becoming mindful of the intertwining of mind and body, all the while quieting the mind by settling into the posture. The interplay at work here is what primarily interests me at this point: and how the breath can re-ground and remind us of our fundamental embodiment.