What Is Yoga?

Most Westerners today are familiar enough with yoga to associate it with stretching and working out at the gym. Or maybe the term conjures up images of hippies in crazy pretzel positions. Either way, we have an inkling of the practice, but suspect (or fear) that there must be something more. Why else would an exercise have it’s own language? And why do eccentric yoga teachers insist on breathing and ending every class with a nap?

Yoga is certainly a great way to get fit, no doubt about it. Who doesn’t want a yoga butt? Beyond that, though, yoga doesn’t have much in common with your favorite spin or step class. It predates the entire concept of “exercise” by thousands of years.

Yoga is an ancient technology for quieting the mind and finding inner peace or enlightenment. Yoga means union, generally regarded as a reference to the union of mind and body. Classical yogis, such as Patanjali (of Yoga Sutras fame), saw the world in terms of duality. Basically, that means mind and body are separate; mind = good and body = bad. The ancient sages believed that meditation was needed in order to transcend the body. But that was only possible if the body was able to sit comfortably for long periods of time. Later, tantrists emerged touting non-dualism; mind and body were both equal partners to be celebrated on the path to enlightenment. In either case, it was important that the body be a fit vehicle, as well as the mind.

Classical yoga involves the physical asana practice, as well as ethical living, breath work (pranayama), and meditation. These are helpful practices whether or not you’re aiming for enlightenment. Much of the current scientific and medical research on yoga has focused on the many benefits of breathing exercises and meditation. Got stress? Try yoga. As with asana, it’s best to find an experienced teacher to introduce you to the practice. If you’re intrigued by this brief introduction to yoga philosophy, by all means pursue further study. If you think it’s a bunch of hocus-pocus, that’s fine, too. Keep attending your favorite yoga class; enjoy the way it makes your body feel, appreciate the calm it brings to your mind and spirit, and don’t worry about the rest. Yoga is non-dogmatic, after all – take from it whatever bits and pieces you can use, and leave the rest. You might even find some deeper benefits emerging in your life along the way.

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