As I study yoga, I find it more and more difficult to say to people, “I do yoga.” The reason for this is because yoga is, in and of itself, a state of mind, it is unity between the body, mind, and spirit. What I actually do is practice vinyasa flow in order to help bring my body, mind, and spirit into unity through breath, physical movement, attitudes and behaviors, and meditation, all with the goal in mind of enlightenment. And there are various ways of practicing each of these items in order to bring one to the deepest sense of her true self.
There are different disciplines of breathing, each technique used for different purposes. In Vinyasa Flow Yoga, the discipline of physical movement (asana practice) that I am learning in teacher training, we use the Ujjayi breath to move between each pose. This is an audible breath, inhaling and exhaling through your nose, using your whisper muscles, so that your breath sounds like ocean waves or wind. This breath is useful for heating the body, and giving the mind a clear point of focus so that one stays in the present moment. In my classes I like to mention that Ujjayi is Sanskrit for “victorious,” that as we move through our practice we can think about our breath bringing us to victory in each pose.
There are different disciplines of practicing physical movement in yoga. The one I am most familiar with is Vinyasa Flow, an exercise in which one moves, fluidly from one pose to the next with the breath. Other disciplines of yoga may have different focuses, longer holds in poses, chanting, unchanging sequencing, meditation, hot, restorative, and so on, all with the goal of coming to a higher state of consciousness. And because the benefits of yoga have been seen among medical professionals, there are other asana practices which focus on individualized ability: prenatal or chair yoga are a couple types of practices which tailor one’s practice of yoga specifically to a lack of mobility or function.
One area of yoga that does not concern breathing or moving through a sequence of poses is that of moral action, a set of ethical behaviors to help us live in harmony with one another and ourselves. These include kindness, honesty, moderation (one that has since changed to accommodate our modern way of life; this used to be celibacy) or energy efficiency, generosity, cleanliness, contentment, dedication, self-study (self-awareness), surrender (letting go of those things we no longer need). Much like the ten commandments, these are actions we follow in order to live right and good lives. Because the top rule is love (kindness), whether we’re talking about the ten commandments or the afore listed yogic code of ethics, though we do our best to adhere to these behaviors and ways of living, should we fall short in any area, we can remind ourselves to continue to be kind to ourselves, just as we continue to be kind to others who make mistakes. There may be consequences, but love that is true is never diminished. Whatever your belief system might be, most of us can agree that we want to live in peace with the life around us.
I watched a YouTube interview where fellow yogi, Brian Kest, talks about meditation. Broadly known as the creator of “Power Yoga,” Kest answers the question, “Where does yoga go from here?” That is to say, now that yoga has gone west, has been picked up by the athletic and even some medical communities, what’s next? His response was, “meditation.” And thinking about this answer in connection with yoga’s roots (a Hindu practice used to find ways of remaining seated for long periods of time in order to meditate) it makes sense. Now that yoga has made its way around the world, the spirit of the practice follows. I meditate most mornings for at least 10 minutes. I’ve returned to this practice since teacher training after a long hiatus, and find it instrumental in preparing my mind for the day. We know that rest is good for us, and meditation is simply a form of active rest. We cease movement, let our thoughts go, and sometimes in this state of perfect openness and rest, we awaken to a knew way of thinking. This also, quite often, happens to me when I journal. As I begin to write down my thoughts, I separate from them even as I am thinking, so that I give room for a new perspective on what I am writing, on the thoughts I am thinking, making writing a very meditative experience for me.
Yoga, as a practice, is not something that can be done, like jumping jacks or push-ups, it is a way of living and being in the world. We can study it, learn about its history and the many facets into the practice of it, and we can offer our own gifts and insights into deepening that practice for ourselves and others. I’ve already had one person tell me that they don’t believe in yoga, and as both a Christian and a yogi, or better put as a student and practitioner of life and love, their protest made me think a bit more about what exactly yoga is and what exactly one is saying when they make that pronouncement. It can be unclear to people what yoga is because it can be so many things to so many people. I think many people are also uncomfortable with its Hindu roots. If you equate yoga with Hinduism and don’t believe in Hinduism, then it makes sense that you wouldn’t believe in yoga. Yoga, as I practice it, is just another connection to a higher way of living. As a result of maintaining my own belief in God through this practice, the connection between mind, body, and spirit becomes more clear. I don’t do yoga, and I don’t believe or not believe in it, but I do believe in the benefits it brings to people, to communities across the globe, and to me. And that’s not something you can believe in without experience.