So, what even if this yoga everyone seems to be talking about?
Contrary to the 62.7 million #yoga's on Instagram - of which I estimate around 90-100% of the pictures are of people in mad poses - this is not the only form of practicing yoga! There are actually 4 different ways, or paths can take to say you 'practice yoga'. As this topic is obviously extremely vast- please do forgive my vagueness on some points, if the blog works out I will touch on points in detail in further posts.
What are these 4 paths of yoga?
1. Bhakti yoga / devotion or love. There are 9 elements to this practice, the most common being Kirtan - or chanting.
2. Karma yoga / action and self-less service, commonly practiced alongside Bhakti.
3. Raja yoga /hatha yoga - a path towards enlightenment* that focuses on building physical and mental strength. Using the 8 limbs outlines by Patanjali**
4. Jnana yoga / knowledge—not knowledge in the intellectual sense—but the knowledge of the Bhraman (the ultimate reality/supreme spirit) and the Atman (the true self, or some like the word soul) and the realisation of their unity. This may involve progressive study of the scriptures, training and meditation.
*What "enlightenment" means depends on tradition/religion etc. So for example, some Hindus and Buddhists believe this concept of enlightenment is liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. For someone like myself who does not follow a particular faith - enlightenment might mean to achieve 'stillness' of the mind, to understand the true nature of the self, the world and our place in it.
**8 Limbs will be discussed in further blogs... phew there is SO MUCH to know about yoga huh?!
The English Dictionary defines yoga as:
"Hindu spiritual & ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practised for health and relaxation.'
'Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline'
Yoga and Hinduism share some practices, Yoga came first and Hinduism aligned with some of its practices. However for me, yoga hasn't got anything to do with religion in terms of worshiping a deity or attending a religious building for prayer. The only thing that is 'religious' about yoga in my life is the discipline of practice 'with consistent and conscientious regularity.' Those who do have a religious faith may dedicate their physical yoga practices to their said deity(s), or maybe use their meditation practice to honour/pray/worship but it should be recognised that the science of yoga does not require any particular faith to be practiced.
Ascetic is characterised by severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence. This invites me to discuss the subject yoga and how it is seen in the west. I have travelled to the east on various occasions to practice and train in yoga vigorously with Indian teachers. I can say first hand that life is vastly different it is hard to compare lifestyles. The traditional yogis in India live a lifestyle that is strictly inline with ancient scriptures and texts. For example some do not accept any gifts, they do not drink alcohol, do not have sex out of wedlock (even then they may wish to abstain), do not own anything, they eat plain food, do not earn money and 'live off the land', they meditate from 4-12 hours a day dedicating their lives to the higher purpose and as for the physical practice of asanas - is low on their list of priorities day to day and some don't even practice any (except Sukasana /seated pose!)
My life here in the UK is quite different, I am not a big drinker but I like a gin now and then, I celebrate birthdays and christmases, intimacy is important within a relationship, I do indulge in many fun and delicious foods daily, I have clothing and furniture that I have brought myself, I meditate when I can (perhaps 5-10 mins a day) and I try to do a physical practice daily. Honestly, I live a relatively humble life & am doing the best I can to be the best person I can be and that's all we can do right?
'part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practised for health and relaxation.'
I guess the final part of the definition is pretty vague but touches on all the points regarding the westernised version of yoga. The yoga you may already have an idea about - in studios with a teacher guiding you through poses. This is in line with the third path mentioned above - RAJA YOGA. This is the focus of bringing strength mental and physically and also known under the umbrella of Hatha Yoga. You may have heard of a ton of different yogas - Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Yin, Power, Flow, Dharma, Rocket, Jivamukti, Restorative.. the list goes on. All are on a mat or in a space, moving and breathing, to put it simply.
The most important aspect of any yoag practice. Why? Just have a think about those times when you get angry, anxious, upset, happy, excited or any other emotion you can be sure that your breathing changes without any awareness. Now imagine having that awareness, the ability to help lessen the negative affects of these emotions with the simple use of your own breath! It's staggering what this awareness can do and how it changes the way you react/respond to life. This tool we all have within us at our disposal is invaluable! Yoga teaches us to find this awareness as its in constant use in any yoga class and meditation practice. The breath has huge for calming effects of the body, gives stability and focus in practices, helps us find the present moment (where by the way we hardly ever acknowledge) so we can live more happy and fulfilling lives! All this is learned through Yoga - just amazing!
Meditation is commonly misunderstood, but since Andy Puddicombe of Headspace emerged with this amazing and accessible system, it has become much more mainstream and old views have been irradiated - YAY! Meditation is a simple point of focus, you can sit, lie down, do it during actions like washing up, its about a focus or an awareness. It may sometimes be simple but it may not mean easy .In fact I would go as far to say that meditation in whatever form you choose is never easy or simple but never impossible. The key is remembering it isn't about clearing the mind but becoming a witness of the patterns and fluctuations of thought. We can start to identify with our thoughts - recognising the fact from fiction and essentially clean up our negative thinking and engage more with the positive mental patterns. It is never to say we won't feel down or get angry, but once we learn to recognise and be more mindful of these things we can start to handle or react to life in a more effective and nurturing way.
Yoga is what you want it to be. Some people firstly come to yoga for the physical well being, some find yoga with mental well being at the forefront , some come for those and plus to find or experience spiritual awakening. It is very uncommon that people stay with just the physical aspects of yoga because the benefits are so clear after a regular practice is found, that the mind and soul starts to feel and appreciate the benefits too. And this is what yoga is. It is not the physical alone. Yoga is a lifestyle not just a mat practice!
For me personally the goal of my lifestyle and practice of yoga is union. This is a process of awakening to my truest self. Getting to know the version of myself that lies beneath the layers of materialism, judgement, nurtured beliefs, facts, opinions, whatever has been imposed upon me that may not be truthfully in alignment with my true self. The mere fact that I might do a few stretches with the physical body does not in itself mean that doing this alone means I am headed towards that high union of this state.
Yoga is experiential... so go to a local yoga class, find a Kirtan group, download a meditation app - I can recommend Headspace (guided and unguided) Insight Timer (unguided), do some simple breathing exercises with a guide via Youtube. You see, it is out of your comfort zone where the magic happened and you never know until you try! What have you got to lose?