What is Yoga ? A reminder on International Yoga Day

As the world goes about celebrating ‘The International Yoga Day’ primarily via postural demonstrations it’s time to review what Yoga truly is. On this Yoga Day, let us resolve to look at Yoga not as a pose but as a process, not as a class but as a commitment. Below is a simplified elaboration on the complex body of understanding that Yoga is – if you feel it is beneficial, please share. I wish you all a very Happy International Yoga Day.

Q: What is Yoga?
A: Yoga is a wisdom tradition of philosophies and practices spanning over thousands of years, emerging from South Asian region, primarily India, aimed at generating lasting inner peace and Self-understanding (Atmajnana).

Q: Is Yoga as set of physical exercises?
A: No, Yoga is not a set of physical exercises. The aspect of physical exercise falls under the category of Asana and Pranayama practices that emerge predominantly from the Tantra-Hatha orientation of Yoga. Asana per se constitutes a minor aspect of ancient Yogic tradition and was not insisted upon or mandatory for Yogic pursuit.

Q: What are Yoga styles?
A: In modern usage, the term ‘Yoga style’ has come to mean the way in which one practices physical postures – Asana. So, the term ‘Yoga style’ actually means ‘Asana style’, if you will, because Yoga is much more than physical posturing. As far as ‘styles’ of Yoga or ‘types’ of Yoga are concerned, they can be spoken of as various philosophical and practical orientations that brings about clarity of Self-understanding. They are called ‘Marga’ – path. Some of these Yogic orientations are Karma Marga (path of Karma), Bhakti Marga (path of Bhakti) and so on.

Q: Do I have to be physically flexible to practice Yoga?
A: This question comes from wrongly interpreting Asana (physical posture practice) as the whole of Yoga. You don’t have to be flexible to practice either Yoga or even Asana. Yoga and Asana, both are a process of self-development and one can steadily experience the benefits with regular practice.

Q: So do I need to do physical postures to be a Yogi?
A: Your need of doing physical postures depend on your sense of well-being and self-connection – it is personal. As I have mentioned earlier, physical posture practice was a minor part of one of the many orientations of Yoga (i.e Tantric-Hatha orientation). Yogic tradition per se does not insist on physical posture practice. But, I deeply believe that modern humans can truly benefit from a right physical posture practice (Asana) and correct breathing techniques (Pranayama). A steady, patient and sincere practice of Asana and Pranayama will only bring about an improved sense of well-being and a calmer mind to the stressed, busy and chair bound contemporary Yoga practitioner.

Q: Then what do I need to practice Yoga?
A: You need a general sense of wellbeing (Svasthya), faith in Yoga (Shraddha), sincerity towards your practice (Sadhana), dedication towards the spiritual guide (Samarpan) and a keen sense of discerned detachment (Vairagya).

Q: What is the goal of Yoga?
A: The goal of Yogic practices is to first bring about a steady state of regulated, peaceful mind which then leads to realisation of the True-Self within (Atmajnana). The end goal of Yoga is Atmajnana, realizational understanding of the True-Self within.

Give up the cocoon and know you are a butterfly

We all, knowingly or unknowingly, are searching for lasting peace and happiness in our lives. The instinct of finding peace and happiness is inherent in all sentient beings, we humans are no different. I mean, who doesn’t want to be happy and peaceful, right?

Just as this search for lasting happiness is inherent to us all, the actual state of lasting happiness is also inherent to all of us. That happiness that we are looking for is at the core of our existence, the core that is understood as the ‘spirit’ (atma). The atma is the base, the ‘Being’ within the human form. It is as fundamental to our existence as an apple is to an apple pie. If this happiness weren’t so fundamental to our existence, we all wouldn’t be looking for it. Instead, we would be willingly looking for other things like sorrow and suffering. But we don’t do that because sorrow, suffering, dejection, depression and limitation are not core to our fundamental nature.

If this search for happiness is so basic to our existence where does one go looking for it?

Well, it is not difficult to find happiness these days, especially when sensory stimulation and excitement is viewed as happiness. Eating a sumptuous meal, watching a favorite movie with loved ones or even getting more than expected ‘likes’ on your Facebook post can give happiness. In all fairness, such experiences of happiness are valid but it is seen that they do not last, prompting an urge to repeat or duplicate those experiences. Life then becomes a constant pursuit of seeking excitement and even a moment’s pause generates a wave of anxiety of missing out on happiness that is somewhere out there.

The search for happiness can venture in two directions, finding happiness outwardly, known as Bhoga and/or finding happiness inwardly, known as Yoga. When one stops looking for happiness and peace that is derived from external sources and focuses the search inward, it is then that one truly starts practicing Yoga and becomes a Yogi.

The modern discourse on Yoga is fractured into two. Yoga is either seen as a practice of becoming physically fit by doing some physical movements or Yoga is considered as a practice of breath work and relaxation leading to meditation. Though both these views are correct in themselves, yet they do not individually convey the entirety of what Yoga truly is. Especially, keeping in mind the overemphasis that modern Yoga lays on physical practice it has become more than important to set the discourse straight in relation to what Yoga truly is in its traditional, broader sense.

Yoga is not entirely a physical or relaxation practice but an extensive philosophy and methodology of orienting life to become the best that one can be. This “best” as understood in traditional Yogic understanding is not a stage (out there) of being highest-strongest-fastest-longest but  a state (in here) of undisturbed peace and happiness which is reached through dedicated self-work and letting go off all that opposes inner peace. The nature of this state is undisturbed inner calm, self-empowerment and a broader perception of the self and the world.

The positive assurance of Yoga is that the state of inner happiness is not something that we gain from outside but is the very core of our Being that one discovers by practicing Yoga. We are all, in the heart of our hearts, Love, Freedom and Peace, this being the promise of Yoga.

The journey of Yoga is our voyage through stormy seas of life to discover an inner island of peace and calm. This voyage is guided by the light house of steady practice and faith only to come home to the island of True Self that thrives as a sanctuary of lasting peace and happiness.

As the Bhagavad Gita says, Yoga is a journey of the self into the self by the self. It’s the process of discovering the best that you are. The product of this process is starkly different to what goes into the process at the start. Like the larva that becomes a butterfly is the same individual, yet is completely different in its shape, size, color and capability, the journey of Yoga too metamorphosizes a new you out of you.

This metamorphosis requires hard work, focused attention, faith and divine grace. Like the hungry larva that eats many times its body weight, the practicing Yogi too has to consume spiritual nutrition from the right sources. Like the larva that becomes still to allow the process to work internally, the practicing Yogi too has to cut down on external distractions and become still within. Like the transformed larva that uses its own inner strength to tear down the bondage that it had spun around itself, the practicing Yogi too has to be strong and knock down all the tendencies that keep her limited.

Such is the process of Yogic metamorphosis. Are you ready to be centered and still? Are you ready to tear away what you are not? Are you ready to open your wings and fly? Are you ready to give up your cocoon and know you are a butterfly?

Don’t let your ideas stop your journey. 
Don’t let your fears stop your discovery. 
Don’t let your mistakes deter you because the only way out is through.
Your limitations are not the end, 
they are the challenges you have to transcend. 
With wings of Faith prepare to Fly. 
Give up the cocoon and know you are a Butterfly...