There are many activities going by the name of Yoga these days, each so different from the other, that it can be difficult to understand what Yoga really is. Most people in the west probably know about Iyengar Yoga, and the Ashtanga Yoga of Patabhi Jois. Both of them are based around the idea that physical culture (the correct alignment of body parts, or performance of certain postures) will bring about a purification or integration of mind and body, leading to health and well being. From these Indian Masters and their students , come the various adaptations of what has been called Postural Yoga in the Modern world.
What many people don’t know is that both Mr Iyengar and Mr Jois, learnt their craft from the same man, a certain Sri Krishnamacharya, who is probably the most important Teacher of the Modern age. Krishnamacharya was a scholar, a Master of Yoga, who almost single handedly rescued Yoga from the obscurity in which it was languishing in India (Yoga was suppressed in Colonial India by the British, and was seen as old fashioned by many Indians), and with his deep knowledge and ability, set about adapting it to the Modern Age, and here is one of the less known secrets of Yoga:
It is always Yoga which adapts itself to the Individual, and never the Individual to the Yoga
So Sri Krishnamacharya adapted Yoga to suit the conditions of the time and the people who lived in it, he learnt the Yoga from his Guru in the Himalayan foothills, and brought it out into the Modern world, adapting it as necessary.
So, according to Sri Krishnamacharya, Yoga is different for each and every person, place and time.
Different for each and every person, place and time.
But, what is Yoga?
The basic text of Yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a series of concise aphorisms presenting the aim, the method and the effects of Yoga. If there is one authoratative text on Yoga, free from cultural bias, historical context, agreed upon by everyone and accessibile to all, this is it.
In Chapter 1, aphorism 2 Patanjali states:
yoga chitta vrtti nirodhaha
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward and object and sustain that direction without any distractions
That is Yoga! (according to the greatest authorities, don’t blame me!)
So why all this bending and jumping and stuff at the Gym?
Well, its all about the distractions and the link between the mind, body and the breath. Any kind of physical discomfort, be it disease , back pain or indigestion, creates a distraction for the mind, and makes yoga difficult. So you have to be healthy and comfortable. So physical exercises (asanas) are devised to make the body healthy, so that it does not disturb the mind.
Here I am going to back up a bit, lets have a look at that stuff about focusing the mind on something, why is that so important anyway?
According to Yoga philosophy, whether we suffer or not depends on our perception and evaluation of a given situation. Yoga also says that when we do suffer, it is because we do not percieve the situation correctly, our perception is “veiled” by conditioning created by our past history, what we have been taught, our desires and fears etc. So , unless you remove the “veils” you will not be able to percieve a situation as it really is. It follows from this, and I’m just thinking aloud here, that the experience of “seeing things as they really are” is a positive and desirable state, free of suffering.
More or less.
However, doing Gymnastics or Dance, although good for the body up to a point, does not usually lead to mental and emotional clarity, so what does Yoga do that other physical disciplines don’t?
The answer is in the breath, and the mind’s focusing on the breath.
If the mind wanders from the breath, then it is no longer Yoga
Yoga is a doing, an activity, it is the minds awareness of breathing and doing . When the mind is focused on the breath, and the movement is harmonised with the breath, then we find ourselves in the absolute present moment, without thought. As soon as a thought arises, we have lost the contact with the breath, and we are no longer aware of the present moment, and are no longer doing Yoga.
Breathing , of course, is what keeps us alive from moment to moment.
Yoga is to participate mentally and physically in the miracle of life.
Of course , there is more, but that’s basically it.