June 21

What is yoga, really?


 June 21

It is “International Yoga Day”. People are practicing yoga en masse all over the world. Many of my friends and family have reached out to wish me well for this day. Some ask me what I’m doing for this special occasion and this question evokes the same answer every time, “There is no day that is not yoga day!” To see what this means, we must first understand what yoga really is.

Yoga is often misunderstood to simply be an exotic sport. Since its introduction in the west decades ago, it has gradually attained the status of an activity that the “cool folks” indulge in. It is after all what the celebrities swear by, clad in their designer gear and toting their yoga mats for hungry paparazzi. Yoga studios have popped up in most towns, advertising everything from “hot” to “naked” yoga. And it isn’t uncommon for these studios to branch out into selling raw foods and expensive juices, jewelry and “Om” bearing t-shirts, all in the name of “yoga”. Further, there are master businessmen who have “patented” poses (that were perfected and freely given by ancient sages) to attain name, fame and yes, great wealth.

It is not unusual for my colleagues and friends to say that they would love to try out my yoga program, except for their lack of physical fitness and inflexibility. Most participants in my program are shocked to hear on the first day that our sessions may or may not include yoga postures. They listen with fascination when I say that some of the greatest yogis that the world has known were/are unable to touch their toes, let alone twist into pretzels!

What is yoga then? Derived from the Sanskrit root, (yuj = union) yoga is a comprehensive science that strives for union or joining of the mind, body and spirit in awareness. Why would this be important? To understand this, we must discover the nature of suffering and the “connection” between the mind and body.  Although it seems like the body and mind are two different entities “connected” by some third entity, there is no boundary that clearly separates the two. The one “thing” that binds all these seemingly separate parts of ourselves is the sense of “I” or “me”. It is this “I” (or rather, what we mistake the “I” to be) that is the cause of all suffering. We mistakenly assign our identity to the body or mind, both of which are in constant flux. The body will invariably decay and die. The mind is fickle by its very nature and our lives can (and are) governed by our constantly changing beliefs, ideas, judgments, comparisons and the general non-stop commentary that rests only in deep sleep. The root cause of suffering is the war within, stemming from this fickle nature of the mind. It is the result of being a slave of the mind’s many components – thought, memory, projection, intellect and ego. Suffering is translated into the body (because of lack of boundaries between body and mind) and most of us lead lives of struggle due to this (mis)identification with the body/mind and the sense of being separate from everyone else.

While “union” is the popular definition of the word “yoga”, it is a misnomer since “union” would apply to two separate objects (body-mind, mind-awareness, and so on). While this is how it seems for a while on the path of yoga, eventually we come to see that the body and mind are emanations of the one awareness. Awareness is all there is. That which prevents us from seeing this truth is called “ignorance”. The primary cause of this ignorance is the mind and its constant turbulence, which forms a thick veil that obscures reality. Thus, the ancient Indian sage, Patanjali defines yoga as the mastery of the mind’s modifications (“yogash chitta vritti nirodhah” (Yoga Sutras, 1:2). Thus, yoga is the journey through the veil of the mind to finally come to rest in the knowledge of our true identity. The light of this knowledge that banishes the darkness of ignorance is the the sole goal of yoga, and of all life. This knowledge is known as “enlightenment” or “self-realization”.

The paths to this great knowledge of our true identity are many. When we utilize our actions in the world to attenuate our selfish desires (one form of the veil), it is karma yoga. When we use our emotions to rise higher and higher in devotion towards our ideal, it is bhakti yoga. When the various elements of the body and mind  (postures, breathing techniques, meditation, ethical values and so on) are used to thin the veil of ignorance, it is raja yoga. When the intellect with its reasoning abilities are used to penetrate the veil of ignorance, it is jnana yoga. Many other yoga forms (Hatha, Ashthanga and so on) are combinations of the above with a strong emphasis on yoga postures and breath awareness.

Although these seem like unique “paths”, they are merely superficial descriptions. Each of us will be initially attracted to a specific path based on our individual tendencies and desires. Proceeding in one yogic path invariably leads to the others, and all of life (actions, emotions, mental processes, bodily functions, relationships, work and roles) eventually flows into one path with no distinction between life and yoga. We become anchored in our true identity and everything flows from this, saturating every experience with love and beauty.  This is the fruit of yoga.

Perhaps the time is ripe for an “International Yoga Day”, where there is greater awareness of the transformational power of yoga. It must begin somewhere, and yoga postures, beads and juices are good starting points. Yoga moves on its own and transmutes everything in its path. And so we will collectively move past the (mis)identification with the body/mind that drives the desire to attain the perfect yoga posture or look/act spiritual. We will then come to discover the inner sweetness that needs no flexibility of the joints, fancy outfits, studios, patents or lifestyles.

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