What is Yoga?

In my experience growing up in America, in my particular demographic, it seemed that everyone knows what yoga is. Most people have taken a class or two at a local gym, or they’ve heard from a friend that they should do yoga as a way to relieve stress, increase flexibility, or maybe balance out their triathlon training. There is some ubiquitous perception that yoga is good for you, but maybe in a supplementary discipline kind of way, like as an add-on after a session of weight training in order to stretch out and wind down. Possibly there is something more to it, but that might be for the leftover hippies of the 60′s that like to burn incense and chant “om” and have out of body experiences… or something like that. In the mainstream West, we like tangible results: sweat and muscle definition. Spirituality is left for another venue.

The funny thing is, yoga has a way of sneaking up on you. When I first began practicing (I didn’t call it that at the time), I had no intention of having anything other than a peaceful physical experience. I didn’t know that the word yoga is defined as “joining, uniting, or union”, meaning the yoking of the physical to the mental. I didn’t know that the asanas (all that stretching and holding we were doing) were just one part of a philosophical system, and that the goal of the whole program was finding a way for us clumsy humans to transcend our suffering and embrace our divine nature.

I certainly had my suspicious, however, that something beyond hamstring-lengthening was taking place. Why was it that there was a feeling of lightness, of floating, during a hugely strenuous maneuver? How could the control of my breath for 60-90 minutes produce clarity of mind I had never experienced before? Why could recalling my experiences on the mat that morning help with the chaotic tumult of the afternoon at work? I began to feel I was connecting with something real – something that made sense, as elusive as the logic seemed at the time.

In fact, this connection with reality is the goal of yoga. Even though we Westerners might think spiritual and philosophical progress happens through the rigorous machinations of deductive reasoning, yogis believe that mental gymnastics alone will get you nowhere. As Stephen Cope puts it, “over centuries of practice, yogis discovered this truth… that we have to begin our knowing of reality with the body… No spiritual bypass will work. We cannot prematurely transcend the body. We must turn toward it, not away from it.”

This is the first encounter with a workable worldview I’ve had. Even my experience with Buddhism, while mentally fulfilling, has left me wondering what to do with this hindrance of a physical self. And I absolutely love the fact that so many people have had similar reactions while practicing yoga. They spend a little time moving around on a sticky mat, and suddenly feel clearer, happier, more grounded, and even more integrated as a person, without even knowing why. Maybe we don’t need to know why.

As I struggled to find a working definition of yoga during my teacher training, I was aware of my need to keep the enchantment in the process. I want to preserve that sensation of wonder, of curiosity, and surprise at the incredible benefits of yoking myself to a practice that has provided a small window through which to catch glimpses of the divine. I don’t believe that in our meager human state we are capable of grasping the totality of creation, but I love that this yogic practice gives us a path to move in that direction, while accepting each moment just as it is.

Again, Stephen Cope says it perfectly: “Life is always on the verge of waking us up to the huge mysteries at the heart of this world of flux and time.”

Introducing guest contributor: Darby Shields

Darby is a favored teacher at Cosmic Dog Yoga, and is known for challenging her students while simultaneously offering an experience of calmness and tranquility.