What is Yoga? No, really.

Before I had my own yoga practice, two things would come to my mind when I hear the word “Yoga”. First is a vivid image of a woman with her limbs over and around her head. Second, a seated man crossing his legs and levitating. Haha! Sorry. I think it’s safe to assume we’ve all had our misconceptions about this ancient practice.

But what REALLY is YOGA? In the modern world of scientific fitness programs, yoga is an exercise performed by contorting your body into a pretzel like the Lululemon ladies of Instagram. Right? Well, not exactly.
Yoga is not just about doing these things. Asanas or postures are only one aspect of Yoga.
This is how Google defines yoga:
noun: yoga
  1. a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practiced for health and relaxation.
Sanskrit, literally ‘union.’
If you’ve ever tried a yoga class even once in your life, you would know that there is much more to yoga than acrobatics. Doing a set of postures, as cued by the instructor, is only one of the aspects of yoga. Personally, I like the challenge of withdrawing my senses from my surroundings in order to concentrate on breathing and posture.
According to the Hindu sage, Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, Yoga actually has 8 aspects. The Eight Limbs of Yoga are:
  1. Yama – deals with ethical standards and focuses on behavior. The five Yama’s are:
    • Ahimsa – non-violence
    • Satya – truthfulness
    • Asteya – non-stealing
    • Brahmacharya – continence
    • Aparigraha – non-covetousness
  2. Niyama – has to do with self-discipline and spiritual practices. The five Niyama’s are:
    • Saucha – cleanliness
    • Samtosa – contentment
    • Tapas – asceticism, or severe self-discipline for spiritual growth
    • Svadhyaya – study of the scriptures and of one’s self
    • Isvara pradnidhana – surrender to God
  3. Asana – the postures performed to care for and strengthen the body
  4. Pranayama – control of breath
  5. Pratyahara – detachment from the senses in order to direct awareness towards the self
  6. Dharana – concentration of the mind
  7. Dhyana – meditation or uninterrupted concentration
  8. Samadhi – a state of ecstasy as a result of a profound connection with the self and the Divine. Samadhi can only be experienced through constantly treading the yogic path

Each of these limbs of yoga warrants its own blog post, and I will exhaust all efforts to comply. But for now, let me conclude the Yoga Sutras by saying what we know about yoga is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to being a Yogi than just being able to hold an inversion or a deep stretch. You may show up on your yoga mat every day, but if you still wear your ego like a badge of honor, then you will still have failed at being a yogi.

Yoga is a way of life. It’s not just a weight-loss program. It’s the whole nine yards. With how I understand it, it’s completely surrendering to something bigger than yourself. It is adhering to the laws of this land in order to coexist with other beings in perfect harmony. It’s being aware of our thoughts, words, and actions at all times to ensure we do not hurt ourselves and others. It’s taking care of our physical being, knowing that the body is the instrument to reach our own divinities. It’s not giving in to temptations of greed and indolence. It’s focusing our mind to achieve our goals. It’s directing our energies into great and positive things.

But of course, these things are easier said than done. I can pour my heart out in detailing how yoga changed my life, but if we are not open to the idea, everything will still seem like utter bullshit. You see, yoga may not be for everyone. Yoga is for the one who has set an intention to become a higher version of him/herself.

There are so many words to define what Yoga is and who the true Yogis are, but in the end, it’s the experience of yoga that truly matters. It is that part of you that you lose when you start to take your practice seriously. You will (hopefully) lose your anger, your arrogance, your ego. It is that lightweight feeling deep in your core that tells you you’ve let go of the negative, unhealthful trivialities in life. It’s knowing that there is something/someone out there that is bigger than yourself, and that everything will be okay. It is being able to laugh at yourself for the times that you have fallen. It is knowing that you will fall again and again, and being okay with it. It is knowing peace. That’s what yoga does to you. And if you’re still not doing yoga, that’s what you’re missing out on.

Yoga for Yolanda - a fundraiser for the benefit of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in Central Philippines. A true yogi would not think twice about helping a soul in need.
Yoga for Yolanda – a fundraiser for the benefit of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in Central Philippines. A true yogi would not think twice about helping a soul in need. Image from the Facebook page of Marichi Yoga House.

* The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is just one among so many ancient texts about yoga. Modern texts on yoga are even more numerous. It is not my intention to stir a debate on which text is the most accurate. This is a personal blog, not an academic one. *

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