In practical terms, what is Yoga and what is it for? If I am sitting, cross-legged and eyes closed, am I practicing Yoga? And when I go to physiotherapy and do a position used in Yoga, am I doing Yoga? In Yoga, we do breathing exercises… but if we think about it, we breathe all the time… are we practicing Yoga? Undoubtedly, Duchamp’s urinal is art, even though it is visually the same as all the others urinals. In Yoga, the answer is the same. Visually, a gym and Yoga class may look exactly the same… but in reality, they are very different.
WHAT WOULD ALL THESE EXAMPLES LACK TO BE CONSIDERED YOGA?
We can start with the objective. According to classical texts, the purpose of Yoga is liberation from suffering, it is fullness, understanding the cycle of life and death, it is a state of expanded consciousness. Personally, I’ve never met anyone who started practicing Yoga to reach this state of hyper-awareness, or liberation, or expanded inner development. Perhaps because this is not (and generally speaking) usual, or even valued, in Western culture. We dedicate much more time to the exterior aspect, which is also very important, and less time to the interior. The fact is that, at some point in time, the purpose of Yoga, for those who created it, was the release of suffering, or that state of expanded consciousness. In a generic way, in the culture in which I belong, people start to practice Yoga with several other goals: either because they want to feel better, or because they want to have more flexibility, or because they want to reduce stress, or lose weight, or reduce pain in the body… These goals can change throughout life. Whatever our personal motivations for practicing Yoga are, Yoga, by itself, will always be a process, with the same goal.
the fact that I can work on all the planes of my body. It helps me to be aware that, when I am sad, I can more easily understand which plane of the body is asking for help: it could be the tired mind because I worked too much, it could be the emotional, because I miss being with friends, etc. And then I can be proactive and resolve this imbalance. If I don’t act, then the snowball effect begins. For example: I am tired, then I don’t want to cook, I will feel cravings to eat worse food, then I will sleep worse and then my emotional will be more pessimistic about things and the physical will be susceptible of getting sick. I might do body positions, or even a meditation, but it won’t work because Yoga is much more than just this amazing techniques.
Other topic that differs from a gym class is that Yoga practice does not end when the class is finished. We can spend a lifetime studying it and learning new things every day. It is really very vast. Also, Yoga is daily practice! It’s not worth taking a Yoga class and not having ethics in your personal or professional life. Nobody is perfect and even Masters make mistakes. It is what gives us human characteristics. But there has to be a daily concern with this aspect and there are certainly limits. And, going back to the question above… Asanas, body positions, are a technique… If I’m doing these positions, I’m practicing yoga, right? Not necessarily. If we are focused on the present moment of practice; if we bring our awareness to practice; if we put intention, purpose – sankalpa, into practice; bhava, or our state of being, feeling and authenticity; ishwara pranidhana, or self-surrender; if in our life we try to follow ethical norms, deciding what is most ethical, for ourselves and for others; if we seek to live ethically with our body and planet; if we practice with contentment and self-improvement; if we are doing all the techniques with study, dedication and with abhyasa, that is, on a regular and constant basis; and finally, with our eyes on the goal… then yes, we are practicing Yoga. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. It is certainly a process that goes back and forth but also to bring us happiness, to make it easy and not the other way around.
Words: Rosario Alves