Updated: Feb 27
I am sometimes baffled at how language works with yoga today. "I am going to yoga" "I will meet you after yoga" "I did yoga this week" "yoga kicked my butt today" all of this implies that yoga is something that we can pencil into our schedule. It also implies that yoga happens only when we are doing asanas, or on a mat, or in a class, but a deeper dive into yoga reveals that the practice is much more than the poses, it is ongoing, a lived experience, not an on and off button. Yoga is a verb as much as it is a noun. It is action or skill in action as Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, and I don't think Krishna was leading Arjuna though a hot flow class when he said it. I don't think the Bhagavad Gita ever refers to an asana other than a seated posture for meditation. This is interesting because it illustrates that yoga can be done without ever getting into the warrior poses, pigeon pose, handstand, or any pose in-between. It is action that we take within ourselves, it is a practice in focus, presence. Yoga is a means to an end.
But what is Yoga? Yoga is often referred to as union. It is hard to pinpoint it to one single definition but a starting point is to look at the word yoga itself. Yoga is defined as "yuj", or yoke, the act of yoking, joining or harnessing. And when you think about a yoke as a tool it is used to move two or more animals together as one. That can be seen as a simple metaphor for training the mind, body, and breath together. On a higher level, this means liberation from suffering by uniting the self with the true self (Purusha), or the divine all-knowing infinite source (Isvara). To achieve this union we first need to pull some parts of ourselves together and the practice of yoga aims to do just that it pulls us into a singular focus.
It is important to add that yoga has a very complex, rich and diverse history, with many lineages, teachers, and stories. Yoga is not specifically Hindu. To speak to that Seth Powell states on his website Yogicstudies.com "There is Buddhist yoga, Jain yoga, Islamic Sufi yoga, and more—all prior to the colonial period". There is not one yoga that is absolute. In our culture, it is easy to boil yoga down to being one thing and view it as monolithic but when we do that we miss out on its prolific history and complexity as well as the rich culture it comes from. Yoga originated in the Indian subcontinent over 5,000 years ago and since then has been colonized. Ancient texts were destroyed during colonization. Some of the history was passed down through oral tradition. Other parts of the history were watered down and whitewashed. Lineages have been corrupted, stolen, secularized and stripped of all cultural context.
Yoga, its teachers, and linages have adapted and changed as yoga has spread around the world, but that does not mean that yoga is a free for all at this point and ripe for the taking. Yoga still has a cultural context deeply rooted in South Asia that needs to be acknowledged and respected otherwise appropriation happens. Cultural appropriation beyond being a buzz word that often gets dismissed is theft from a culture that holds less power than the culture that is taking. The dominant culture usually cherry picks what it wants to claim, typically the more savory or stylish components that are easy to sell, and leaves the rest behind. It is a power play that results in the culture that was stolen from either being erased, distorted or made to look exotic. What it was that was taken often is made to appear as an original idea from the dominant culture. Cultural appropriation is now rampant in the yoga world, and with that in mind, it is not hard to believe that it might not have occurred to some of us that yoga goes far beyond a 75-minute power class.
Asana is postural yoga. Asana's are the poses themselves such as hanumanasana (splits), ardha chandrasana (half moon pose), vriksasana (tree pose) and so on. There are different branches of yoga and Hatha Yoga is one of those branches. Asana is one of the eight limbs of yoga named in Patanjalis Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras is a guidebook that defines yoga, the mind, and the true self. Patanjali also discusses the practice of yoga, obstacles to the practice and rewards of the practice. Patanjali also lists eight limbs or guidelines to practice yoga by. Studying the Yoga Sutras is a powerful and unfolding process that I recommend to anyone who practices yoga or would like to better understand the nature of their mind. It is important to keep in mind that there are many interpretations and translations of the Yoga Sutras and it is not the only text on yoga.
The Eight Limbs summarized from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras:
Yama: External ethical practices or you could say boundaries. There are five.
-Asteya: Not stealing
-Aparigraha: Letting go of material possessions, non-possessiveness, not exploiting
Niyama: Internal ethical practices. There are also five.
-Shaucha: Purity or internal/external hygiene
-Santosha: Contentment or acceptance
-Tapas: The fire of discipline or commitment
-Svadhyaya: Self-study or study of the self
-Ishvara Pranidhana: Self-surrender or devotion to the divine.
Asana: Yoga postures
Pranayama: Breathing techniques and observation
Pratyahara: Withdrawal of senses as a byproduct of concentration
Dharana: Concentration or bringing the mind into focus
Dhyana: Meditation or focus
Samadhi: Complete and total absorption in focus or meditation
To sum up the yamas and niyamas in a comprehensive way I will include a passage from the book The Heart of Yoga written by T.K.V. Desikachar who studied yoga with his father Krishnamacharya (considered to be the most influential yoga teacher of the 20th century and the "father of modern yoga") for over 25 years.
"What suggestions does yoga make about our interactions with others—our behavior toward those around us—and about our attitude toward ourselves? The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is called yama in yoga, and how we relate to ourselves inwardly is called niyama. Yama and niyama deal with our social attitude and lifestyle, how we interact with other people and the environment, and how we deal with our problems. These all form a part of yoga, but they cannot be practiced. What we can practice are asanas and pranayama, which make us aware of where we are, where we stand, and how we look at things. Recognizing our mistakes is the first sign of clarity. Then gradually we try to bring about some changes in the way we show our respect to nature or relate to a friend. No one can change in a day, but yoga practices help change attitudes, our yama and niyama, it is not the other way around."
I think this passage is especially compelling because it teaches us the practice of asana and pranayama cultivates the frame of mind, or capacity, for the yamas and niyamas as well as for concentration. It suggests that the physical practice of yoga is the ground where we plant the seeds of action.
Getting back to Hatha Yoga, you may have wondered how it differs from Vinyasa or Yin Yoga when you see it listed on a class schedule. Different types of postural yoga, like yin, power, vinyasa and restore all fall under the Hatha Yoga branch. Asana and pranayama are Hatha Yoga. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali describes asana as being both sthira and sukha, alert and steady and comfortable and light. In asana we follow our breath and track what is happening in our mind and if we begin to lose our concentration or if our breath starts to become jagged, or irregular than that is a good indication that we need to back off a bit. Asana has the potential to bring the body in sync with the mind and breath. It is a somatic practice. It harmonizes the systems and functions of our body so we can find balance, stability and better organize ourselves to turn our focus inward. Practicing asana helps us to see our dysfunctional tendencies and habits while carving out new pathways of action as we organize the mind, body, and breath into more efficient patterns. Asana ultimately creates space, it gives us a cushion of time so that we have a moment to be a witness to ourselves before reacting to impulses or trained habits.
My affinity in yoga has been with asana and movement because I am so interested and curious about how the body works and asana gets right to the heart of anatomy and movement. Developing a relationship with the broader or more philosophical teachings of yoga has been a struggle for me. I continue to struggle with setting the physicality of the practice aside and getting into the subterranean grittiness of getting to know myself on a deeper level. The act of self-study has helped me tremendously in beginning to understand the parts of yoga that felt inaccessible in the past. I seek out teachers now who speak about yoga beyond asana with clarity and integrity in a way that is graspable to me. Some teachers that have greatly influenced me are Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, Michelle Cassandra Johnson, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Hala Khouri.
As I have developed more of a core basis of understanding yoga I realize it is not up to me to judge what is and isn't yoga. I will continue to ask questions and think critically but ultimately it is up to me to continue to do the internal work in my practice that digs up the stuff that doesn't feel sexy and fun, that doesn't necessarily feel good, or doesn't flow to a playlist. I have asana to thank for inviting me back to myself so I could realize that my capacity for transformation is always growing. I had to feel that first in my body before I could even begin to understand what it would feel like in my mind.
So yes yoga is much more than an asana class but that doesn't mean that the asanas or the classes are not important. Perhaps the importance is in how we approach the practice. Also not getting stuck in just the movements or poses and missing out on the potential for growth that happens beyond the superficial. Yoga asks us to analyze ourselves, our minds, our habits and behavior. It teaches us that we are more than our mind and more than our body. We are something more, something infinite that is free from the drama of suffering. How we grow from the practice is what matters. Yoga is something that can teach and inform every part of ourselves on a moment to moment basis, it is a lifestyle, an attitude, a way of being that gathers the multitudes that we contain and brings them together, to rein in the chaos so to speak, so that we can begin to understand what freedom might look like. It allows us to look at ourselves and see what is there and only from that point of acknowledgment can we begin to make real changes.