What do you think of when you hear the word Yoga? It is a symptom of our modern day obsession with physical form that Western Yoga has become synonymous with back bends on the beach in front of the sunset. Every day on our media, we are bombarded with images of beautiful athletes bending themselves into impossible Yoga poses. While it is encouraging to see that Yoga has made its way into mainstream culture, the real meaning of Yoga seems to have been lost in modern times. By clearly defining Yoga, perhaps we can shed light on the original intent of this ancient spiritual practice.
Yoga is a system of self-realization that dates back thousands of years into Vedic scripture. The Yoga Sutras were originally written by Patanjali sometime between 200-500 AD. In these Sutras, Patanjali explains exactly what Yoga is all about. Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with being super flexible or looking good in spandex pants. At the very beginning of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gets straight to the point and defines Yoga as: Yogash citta vrtti nirodha- Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. This can also be translated as: Yoga is the practice of stilling the mind.
What are these fluctuations that Patanjali is referring to? Simply put, he is talking about the constant chatter that is always taking place in our heads. Have you ever noticed that, when you think, you can hear your own voice speaking quietly inside your mind? Left unchecked, this inner voice will just ramble on and on forever. We are always thinking about something, which reminds us of something else, which leads to more thoughts, and so on. Every time this happens, we are taken out of the present moment. Most of us aren't even aware that we are doing it. Becoming aware of that incessant inner voice- and realizing that this mind chatter is not actually who we are on the inside -is the first step in Yoga.
While the goal of Yoga seems simple on the surface, it is not always easy. That is because the mind is conditioned to stay active- always observing and judging, remembering the past and planning for the future. This constant background chatter doesn't mean that there is anything necessarily wrong with us, that is just the way the mind operates. The mistake we make is when we identify ourselves with our thoughts instead of the empty space in which these thoughts are taking place. Moving beyond identification with the mind and the ego and into the infinite space of Divine consciousness is the Yogic path to self-realization.
What we think of as Yoga- stretching and holding poses- is actually called Asana. Asana is an important aspect of Yoga because it means treating your body as a temple that houses your infinite spirit. However, regular Asana practice is just one aspect of the discipline. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lists a total of eight branches of Yoga. He taught that by committing to these eight aspects, you will ultimately realize a state of 'Yoga' or 'Union' with the higher Self. Very briefly, the eight branches include Yama- ethical behavior, Niyama- self-discipline, Asana- practicing postures, Pranayama- breath control, Pratyahara- sensory withdrawal, Dharana- concentration, Dhyana- meditation, and Samadhi- a state of pure bliss in which you realize your connection to the Divine as well as the inter-connectedness of all living things.
Unfortunately, many people who practice Asana are not actually practicing Yoga. If you perform your Yoga postures without the intention of stilling your mind and seeking self-realization, then you are not really practicing Yoga- you are just doing calisthenics. The next time you practice Yoga, pay close attention to the wanderings of your mind. Focus on your breath and watch your thoughts as they come and go. Work on catching yourself anytime you get swept up into a thought stream- always returning back to the present: this moment, this breath, this inhale... this exhale. In this way you can learn to disassociate yourself from the constant chatter that takes place in the foreground of your mind and begin to identify with the infinite space of consciousness that is present in the background of all experience.
Finally, as with anything in life, Yoga is a process. As such, try not be disappointed if you don't reach Samadhi right away. It's about the journey, not the destination. Yoga is a discipline in which the ultimate goal and the practice required to attain that goal are one and the same. The whole idea is to surrender into the flow. Remember that it's not about flexibility or looking good on your Instagram posts. Yoga is about stilling the mind to the point that you can realize the true nature of Self, everything else is just gymnastics.
Nick Hughes is a massage therapist, yoga instructor and co-owner of Well Being.