WHAT IS YOGA
"Yoga is not a work-out, it is a work-in". (Rolf Gates)
Yoga is so complex, with so many aspects and so much history that it is difficult to define without the risk of diminishing its value, its essence. It is important to note that there is no universal agreement on the definition of yoga. I will therefore define this practice within the confines of the knowledge I hold to date. I will do so whilst keeping in mind that it takes a lifetime, or more, to comprehend and indeed reach a state of yoga of which I am but merely a beginner - forever a student.
Having previously been an ardent student in the discipline of Anthropology, I cannot attempt to provide a definition of yoga without referencing its past.
Historically yoga is one of the six fundamental systems of Indian thought, or philosophy, and has its origins in the Vedas, the oldest record of Indian culture. As a non-Hindu I will not decipher its meaning in that sense, but rather attempt to provide an understanding of it through my eyes, a modern Yogini. I cannot respectfully offer this however, without providing a glimpse into what is considered to be one of the most important texts on yoga, the Yoga Sutras, which form the framework for the psychology and philosophy of yoga.
Yoga was systemised by the great Indian sage, Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras sometime around the fourth century BCE. In this ancient text, Patanjali provides a treatise on yoga as a discipline of the mind, body and spirit that was historically handed down through oral tradition. Today for many, including myself, this text provides a gateway into comprehending the psychology of yoga and therefore our mind, how it operates and what obstructs or hinders it.
"The Yoga Sutras provide deep, universal insights into the essential psychological, philosophical and metaphysical questions we pose" (Bouanchaud. B. 2001. The Essence of Yoga).
Patanjali set out guidelines for different aspects of yoga to help us to a deeper understanding of our mind and our life. These guidelines included the physical practice (asana), breath (pranayama), withdrawing attention from the external world (pratyahara), concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana). All of these are practised on the mat at one point or another, and they work together to advance our practice in whichever aspects are most significant to us.
The aspect of yoga which most of us are familiar with is the physical practice - asanas. Usually practised in class group environments, the practice consists of a sequencing of postures designed to cultivate health and wellbeing within a 1 to 1.5 hour time frame. The style and methods taught vary from teacher to teacher although central to all is the collection of asanas, or postures.
Yoga is not just about the physical, although it can be if that is all we seek from it. Neither is it purely esoteric. In fact, yoga is not a religion, although it features in religion. There are no deities to worship, nor particular ideology, dogma or compliance to a set of rules.
As complex as it seems, whether we begin in the physical aspect or another aspect of yoga is our choice - it is always our choice. There is no right or wrong way. No right or wrong yoga. We may choose to start in the physical practice and remain there for the rest of this life or we may find ourselves gradually being drawn along into another of its limbs.
By working through all of yoga's limbs we bring into our existence a quietness, contentment and acceptance of what is that can only come about through contemplation, discipline and dedication. When we then allow the psychology of yoga to guide us, we learn to rest our attention on whatever activity we are engaged in. By working and focusing on this state of attentiveness we learn to become present in each and every action, every moment. And, if this is what I need to do to ensure not a single memory, interaction or moment goes unnoticed by me, then this I shall forever practise.