If you ask this question in a yoga class, you are guaranteed to hear the teacher even a few of the eager yoga students chime right back at you the same answer you will read in every book written about yoga, which is also likely to have a chapter called “What is Yoga,” that answer being “Yoga means yoking. Yoking your individual self with the Devine Self.”
“Really?” say you rolling your eyeballs into your head. “I am just here ‘cause my doctor told me it’s good for my back.” Or “I am just here to work out.” Or “I am just here to be away from the kids and the significant other.” Or “I am just here because…..” Perfect! Be that way and be proud of it. Honesty is the first step towards even getting a chance to grow. So, good for you for being honest.
I love this practice and for me it is a lifelong exploration of the mystery of living, being human and growing. But don’t fool yourself – going to a yoga class, just any yoga class, won’t get you any closer to your True Self or Devine Self, any more than buying that new style of Lululemon pants, or the latest model of Yoga Toes.
Yes, going to a yoga class may increase your chances of occurring to you to connect to your body and be curious about your personal process, but there are no guarantees. Why so, if this ancient practice promises to transform the mind, body and spirit into enlightenment and eternal bliss….? Why so?
Folks, you are paying $5 - $15 per class and sometimes you are taking the classes for free. What do you think the price of enlightenment really is?
For starters, the teacher teaching you is likely to have just rolled out of cookie cutter yoga school, which any one can attend without any apparently important pre-qualifications, and anyone can graduate from without anyone as much as suggesting a way of testing the worthiness of this new fledgling of a teacher to spread the goodness around. The time is long gone when for one to learn the meaning and practice of yoga, one had to chop wood and carry water for the guru and collect every crumb of wisdom that said guru may choose to drop, thus toiling and learning one valuable lesson at the time through living, serving and stewing in his/her own juices for considerable amount of years before finally being kicked out to meet the world. Besides, most yogis of old, didn’t really care to meet the word. If the world wanted to meet them, a long journey up to a cave somewhere may be required. Those guys were outcasts on the fringes of society, controversial in their practices and experimentation and most definitely underappreciated by the status quo.
Not only is the average yoga teacher today incapable of pouring any amount of meaningful insights or wisdom into you, for they lack it themselves, but often they will annoy you with the things they throw at you while teaching you the physical postures, standing above your downward dogs like great eagles who are sweetly repeating things out of books you too have already read, or bubble gum-feel-good advise you too have already heard on TV. A lot of yoga teachers don’t know the difference between a yogi and a yogini and you will often hear them use yogi universally. Well, folks as a female practitioner, I resent you calling me a yogi. I have the appropriate apparatus to be a yogini and intend to keep it that way.
Furthermore, there are many aspects of yoga that TOGETHER lead the practitioner on the road of Self discovery. Asanas – or what you do while you are in a yoga class, is just one of the practices of yoga. One and not all. For a moment here, I’d take the Zen approach and tell you that you don’t really need to do anything to become enlightened. Actually, one can never become enlightened because one already is so. That being said, an asana class may indeed be more than one really needs to realize their own enlightenment, but it’s not really likely to happen. If you are anything like all the other humans on Earth, your ego is well settled in and it will take a lot of convincing to, willingly or unwillingly, relinquish its grip on your reality.
Therefore, even though you don’t have to, you still have to practice something to help yourself along. Asana is not enough. Most people only do asana. Most yoga teachers only do asana if they do anything at all. I am willing to bet that there are yoga students who do asana more often than the teachers who are teaching them…
Good news is that those asanas, when practice correctly for the level your body needs to be in, have endless benefits for you physically. That’s kind of why they exist in the first place – to purify and to keep the body healthy so that the practitioner can then go around doing more important and subtle work, such as, oh, say, mediation or self inquiry… instead of camping out in front of the doctor’s office or popping pills or dealing with ailments of all sorts. They are also suppose to be the training wheels on your mindfulness bicycle so that when you do end up trying some of the other stuff, and when you do leave the yoga room, you have at least a glimpse of the way you habitually are, what your mind map may be and therefore, they lay one more brick in the foundation from which you are to grow, if you so choose.
Bad news is that those asanas are an awesome opportunity to show off and thus they are a great tool to increase the ego’s bubble beyond bursting proportions. Of course, you wouldn’t know the difference either way, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Most teachers will encourage you to try new things even though you hardly have a clue about the old things, show you harder postures as if postures are something to be had and accomplished, and as if postures mean anything at all. So, as a good student, you will want to please your teachers and show your fellow practitioners how much better you can do things and how much better you generally are. There’s nothing more fun than walking out of your yoga class with your head up high telling yourself “piece of cake” and it’s even better when the teacher says to you “You have a beautiful practice,” or another fellow student stops you and beams at you their admiration for your postures. Right? Who do you think that is, talking to you at those moments???
So, let’s get a few things straight.
Asanas, or as you know it “a yoga class” is like car maintenance. If you want the car to drive you around to all your important appointments, you need to rotate and change the tires, change the oil, put in gas, check on the transmission fluid and so on. Asanas are body maintenance. If you don’t move your parts, they freeze. If you don’t fuel the body with circulation and oxygen it poops out. If you carry too much weight, your shacks give out. If you don’t pay attention to the way you drive it, the alignment goes out and all sorts of things start creaking and squeaking. If you drive it all the time, non-stop without rest, it overheats and wears out its parts. Bottom line – body needs maintenance. Asanas are great for that. Asana practice is not a glorified experience or meaningful endeavor. Of course anything is meaningful if you learn to pay attention, and asanas are a great way to learn to pay attention. To pay attention you don’t have to do cart wheels. Just sitting there is hard enough. If you don’t believe me, take up mediation. So, asanas have no meaning it terms of “who “ you are or “what kind of person” you are, or “where you are going” from here, or “what are you going to become.” They are meaningful because if you choose to pay attention to how you are, what drives you and what you are doing, you can learn about yourself.
Yoga is more than asana practice but asana practice may be all you want to be involved in at this stage of your life, so being honest about it is admirable. So, don’t let people look at you like you are a second grade yoga citizen just because you don’t wear mala beads on your neck, don’t smell like incense, don’t know what “Namaste” means, or you don’t belive the Universe is like UPS delivering whatever you need at your door when you need it. Someday, you may be interested in finding out more and then it will be a good thing to pick up a few books, seek out teachers who live the practice not just talk the practice for an hour during your class, go on a retreat, experiment with things at home… the opportunities arise as you become ready for them, or at least it seems so because you are able to spot things out that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
Finally, don’t make your yoga teachers your spiritual guides. Let’s face it, how old is the average yoga teacher you’ve met lately? That’s right. Don’t you remember knowing everything when you were in your 20’s too…? It takes years and years of practice for a yoga practitioner to earn the right to share any kind of meaningful growth advice. And I mean “grow” advice; I don’t dare say “spiritual” advice. It takes countless hours of study to even scratch the surface of yoga spirituality. With more than 10 years under my belt of teaching and thousands of hours of studying history and philosophy I am still hesitant to open my mouth and make a claim that I know what I am talking about. All I know is that there is a vast body of information which spans thousands of years in time and it is so diverse that it is often contradictory and one cannot fully appreciate it unless one puts it in the context in which it was created. Therefore, I am pretty sure that the average yoga teacher in her 20 or 30 is not likely to be of any spiritual assistance to you. That’s not to say that age matters but time on Earth spend does matter in a sense that, if you were just born yesterday, you are unlikely to have already finished reading the Vedas, and you are unlikely to have asked any of the Big questions about Life, the Universe and Everything Else between your feedings.
So, all this being said – don’t go to yoga classes thinking you are getting anything more than what you are getting. Enlightenment ultimately comes at the price of sacrificing your own habits and hang ups and letting go of any notions about enlightenment. Ultimately, enlightenment is not a set point in time, which once reached is the end of your journey. It’s actually where things start getting hard. It’s the beginning and an on-going process that demands your attention and your refinement because like it says in the Bible among many other places: For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” and that folks, is the real challenge. The rest is easy as pie!
So, what is Yoga?? Well, what’s it to you? Don’t accept the canned answers you hear every day. Find out on your own. Good luck.