Sunday, March 21, 2010

What does it mean to "do yoga"?

You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state.
~ Sharon Gannon

In theory, practice and theory are the same. In practice they are not.
~Yogi Berra

Recently I was reading Lulu's post entitled "Can Anyone Really Say What Spirituality Is?" over at her Oceans and Avocados blog, and then I surfed over (as one tends to do these days) to the Eco Yogini post that inspired it. They got me to thinking about how my own view of yoga is similar and different to theirs, and also a little bit about both my practice and my research of late. Eco Yogini describes the point of yoga as being spirituality and discusses the differences she feels between her spirituality and what is traditionally taught in yoga. I guess I am coming to see the point as Sharon Gannon describes it in the quote at the beginning of this post. Yoga is a set of tools that we can use to reveal something about ourselves and how we relate to the world. That can be spiritual - it is for me - but it is also deeply personal, emotional, and it can be both a mental and physical journey too.

Lulu poses the questions: Who decides what spirituality/ zen/ yoga are? and What if the definitions don't work for you? These are important questions. There is a vast range of beliefs and practices that have sprung up out of every spiritual tradition, including yoga, and I think this is indicative of the fact that every set of tools does not lead every person to the same destination. What makes intuitive sense to one person, another person may be unable to connect to. When one person follows the practices of her teacher, she may discover an entirely new insight and there we have another school of practice. I am amused to be quoting Yogi Berra here but he makes an excellent point here in a way only he could: theory and practice are not the same thing, and one never replaces the other. The Buddha said this in another way: Doubt everything. Find your own light. He didn't want anyone to take his teachings as the Gospel, but rather for each to do his own practice and figure out what it is that he has inside.

Many people think of yoga as the practice of asana or postures, as a way to lose weight and stay in shape, or as a way to reduce stress. Patanjali said that Yoga is to still the patterns of consciousness [so that] pure awareness can abide in its very nature. The full system of yoga has eight limbs and is a fully formed way of living including both ethics and lifestyle practices that go far beyond asana. For my personal practice, this is very important. In the past two years, I have had periods of time where I've focused intensely on asana and this has had tremendous physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits. However, I have also had periods where I've focused more intensely on pranayama (controlling the breath) or meditation or various ethical principles. Each of these practices has also had intense physical, emotional, mental and spiritual outcomes for me. I very passionately would defend the idea that these are no less "doing yoga" than asana practice is, and in fact simply doing asana does not equal "doing yoga" for me.

However, right now I'm doing research and designing curriculum to bring some of these yogic practices - asana, pranayama, meditation - into educational programs to help international students manage stress related to studying in a foreign country. Through this work - and through reading about people's experiences in blogs such as those I've mentioned here - I am slowly becoming less of a purist. To me, the benefits of any one of these practices are so profound that to do it, even in isolation, can deeply transform a person's experience of a difficult situation. So who am I to look down on someone who doesn't follow the "whole system"? If a person won't do yoga because their religious beliefs prohibit it, who am I to withhold the secret of the three part breath from them? If someone goes to yoga class to work out and it makes them feel better, who am I to insist that they get spiritual? Meditation by any other name is still meditation. If I don't formally sit in meditation but I do take a moment on the bus to let my thoughts settle and follow my breath, who are you to judge my practice?

I know that not everyone will agree with me. There was a time when I might not have agreed. But these days, I'm thinking of ways to bring the benefits of yoga to more people. And if that involves teaching "stress management" or "deep breathing" or "quiet time" then so be it. The world will be a better place if more people connect with their breath.



ami(e) said...

What you say here makes a lot of sense to me. I always tell my students that what I think is so wonderful about yoga is that no matter what you come to the practice looking for, it can offer it to you......whether it is physical(flexiblity, strength etc)or relaxation and stress reduction, or spiritual (sense of calm and peacefulness/connection)or a better understanding of yourself. Often over years of practice the things we gain from it change as we change and grow. That is the real richness of yoga. And I agree, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

Kit said...

A friend of mind who teaches meditation told me recently that he was approached by a student who told him "I've been meditating for half and hour every day for a year and it's not working". He told her to stop trying so hard. He asked her "What do you do on a regular basis that brings you into the present moment?" She said, "walking my dog". He suggested to her that that might be her meditation practice. Having an insightful teacher who can lead you to see where yoga is in your life...even if it isn't always on a mat is a wonderful gift.

dragonfly said...

Thank you for sharing your perspectives on this. Kit, I love that story. That is the kind of teacher I would like to be some day. :) I really believe that yoga is everywhere. I find it in the most surprising places and I'm learning all the time about that richness.