Yesterday someone asked me, with genuine confusion, “What is so special about Yoga”? It was a good question, but despite all my passion for yoga I stuttered over my answer: “It’s a spiritual practice more than a physical one...but it has also made me physical strong…and mentally strong…and I breathe better...” I rambled on leaving the woman wishing she had never asked.
There certainly is a lot of confusion surrounding the practice of Yoga and much of it stems from the gap between the modern interpretation and the ancient, holistic practice. The confusion seems to boil down to two questions — is yoga a form of exercise? Or a spiritual practice? The answer is that yoga is both.
Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “yug” and means to “join” or to “yoke”. But what is it that we are joining or yoking together? According to the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali, (the first written documentation of the philosophy of yoga), the goal of Yoga is simply to join the individual spirit (prakriti) with the supreme spirit or the divinity in each of us (purusha).
Mind-body connection: Okay you are right, that is not so simple. So, let’s leave the spiritual philosophy of yoga for now and look at this on a basic level. Yoga is a great form of physical exercise, leading to a strong body and allowing for the effective elimination of toxins mainly through the practice of asanas and pranayama.
Yoga is not only a physical work out but also a mental work out. The practice of yoga helps to “join” the mind with the body. In fact the physical exertion of the body is used as a tool to focus the mind. Let’s take a simple Padmasana (Lotus pose) for example. On first attempting Padmasana the posture feels more like a form of Chinese torture – your hips will burn from pain, your knees will feel like they are about to pop out of their sockets and ever few seconds your back will collapse into its habitual (and oh, so comfortable) rounded shape. Slowly, with the help of your teacher, you learn that by rotating the thighs outwards, you can reduce the strain on your knees. You learn to bring awareness to the hip-flexors and to relax them outwards so that they descended to the ground. You will discover that by pulling the muscles of the back downwards instead of lifting the shoulders upwards, you can access the strength you need to hold the back straight and thus will allowing yourself to breath deeper and feel more relaxed.
Miracles: While you are focused on the different parts of the body, a small miracle happens – you forget the world around you. You forget that your maid didn’t turn up this morning. You forget that the interesting guy you met last week didn’t answer your late night SMS. You forget that the girl on the mat next to you has firmer thighs than you and you begin to focus solely on your (perhaps not so firm) thighs. Now your mind has only one thought and that is a great achievement.
As we practice more, a greater miracle happens. By controlling the mind we are able to move from the outside world, inwards. In yogic philosophy we believe that God (universal spirit, divinity, universal consciousness, purusha or whatever you wish to call it) resides in us and not outside us. Through the simple process of forgetting the girl on the other mat, by focusing on the body, breath and mind we are taking a small, tiny step inwards. We are taking a small tiny step towards finding God. And that little step is what makes yoga so special.
The writer has been practicing yoga for over 10 years and teaching for the past 3 years. She still considers herself a student.