You’ve heard me talk a lot about yoga on the Instagram platform. Heck, my name there even has the word yoga in it. Here’s my question for you:
What is yoga?
If you’re like me, this word can either
a) make your head spin or
b) make you think of one specific thing, for example, yoga means you go sit in a room
and stretch. (I could get on a whole side note on stretching- but we’ll leave that for
While it’s nearly impossible to tell you all that I know yoga IS in a single blog (unless you wanted a 30 minute read) I will attempt to give you my definition of yoga, based on 12 years of practice and 6 as a teacher.
First of all, let me just defy the biggest myth I see out there, and I will admit I am guilty of portraying:
Yoga is not just the physical asana.
Yoga is not just the crazy shapes you see on Instagram or even going to a physical, challenging class. Well, I shouldn't say it's not yoga... it's a part of yoga, of this greater lineage and history, and while it's beautiful and life changing... it's also, I believe, a misrepresentation when shown by itself and when not incorporating other pieces into it.
In yoga, there are 8 limbs. 8 things we practice with the idea of achieving the 8th, which is samadhi, or total bliss. They are as follows:
1) Yamas: restraints- think: not harming yourself, not stealing, telling the truth, etc).
2) Niyamas: observances- think: self reflection- and how you live- cleanliness, self-study, contentment, etc).
3) Asana: close to 90% of what we typically see. The actual physical postures.
4) Pranayama: breath.
5) Pratyahara: turning inward- withdrawal of the senses. Think- not attaching so much.
6) Dharana: concentration- think dhristi in a yoga class!
7) Dhyana: meditation
8) Samadhi: Oneness with all Living Things. The ultimate goal.
Now, you might find, if a teacher is REALLY good... they'll actually hit a lot of these in class... breath work is often used in conjunction with asana, meditation is often taught at the beginning or end of class, as is the practice of dhristi or one pointed focus. If you've been to a really good class, look at this list and think to yourself if all of these were touched on in some form or another.
I think the lean toward asana is not bad or wrong, in fact, it's very accessible. It's an access point, a way to draw people in. Many people, truth be told, are not drawn to meditate or to think about restraining themselves or to self reflect or to practice breathing. Many people are drawn toward moving their bodies... and so asana provides this way in. Now, I know this is not all people. I see meditation too as a big access point for many... and we could spend another blog post on that probably, too!
So anyway... Yoga. When I think about it really simply, to me:
Yoga is union.
Many of you have probably heard that before. Union of what though, exactly? That's the fun part... so many things! Union of your breath and movement together. Union of our western tendencies with this ancient practice from India. Union with the people around you (whether in person or on zoom). Union of your listening and your body. Union to your deepest self. Union of your living and your lifestyle. Union to possibility. To discovery. Yoga, in the most literal translation, means to yoke, to unite.
When I think about it this way, at least for me, it takes the pressure off the need to do anything except find synchronicity within myself. It takes the need to do poses a certain way in asana, or come to an asana class thinking I are going to stretch it out or sweat it out. It can be all those things. It doesn't have to be. It can look like (and some days does for me) lying on your back with the soles of your feet together and your knees wide; a hand on your belly and a hand on your heart. It can also look like 90 minutes of sweat and handstands and physical movement. It can look like practicing not harming yourself and taking a nap when you are tired. It can look like cutting out a food group if you know it harms your body. It can look like sitting and intentionally breathing for 20 minutes.
Now, I'm going to speak specifically to yoga asana, because it is so prevalent, and again, I believe an accessible way to step into this deep, rich world.
Yoga asana is something ALL of us can do.
If you have a body and you can breathe, you can do yoga. I know some of you might be thinking, "But I went to yoga, and it was too fast/hard/slow/boring for me. I went to yoga and I got lost. I sweat too much. I didn't know what was going on." Great. It can be all of those things. It's meant to be a little bit uncomfortable. If you go back and look at the list of 8 things up there, you'll see that. We don't always want to breath when we're stressed. It's easier to tighten up. We don't like to give things up that aren't good for us (in my case, sugar and gluten.) We, generally, as human beings, really dislike discomfort. AND. Yoga is meant to interrupt that. We can't be in union with ourselves if we're saying one thing and doing another. We can't be in union with ourselves if we are eating crappy and expecting to feel better. Creating union, being in union, takes interrupting the habitual things we always do. Yoga asana is a way in.
Now, let me be clear: discomfort in a yoga asana class is to be distinguished from pain or a bad teacher or a bad experience. To use the analogy from my mother (she uses it for therapists, I'm using it for yoga)