Saturday, April 21, 2012

What Is Yoga?

Up until now, yoga was a series of poses I did once or twice per week in a studio with a teacher. Sometimes it involved energetic music or hard-determined focus or bouts of misbalance or crescendoing violins moving me to tears in savasana. It was a mix of physical challenge and physical heaven. But no matter how my practice went, I always left feeling a level of emotional fulfillment I can rarely drum up during a mountain bike ride or a grueling run.

Photo by d. norwood

We've only been studying the philosophy behind yoga for a week now, but it's already changed my understanding of the term immensely. It's no longer just a fitness class at a gym. It's a lifestyle. A lifestyle rooted deeply in ancient texts, words, routines, and beliefs. Yoga, or "yoking," is the act of aligning oneself with the ideals that make up this ancient tradition. Those ideals include not only physical practice, but mindfulness of others, ourselves, and the planet; honesty, compassion, peacefulness, and acceptance of equality among living beings; quieting the mind during meditation; breathing prana, the vital life force that moves on the breath, into the body; finding the contentment in times of challenge; and becoming attuned to the natural world in a way that roots us, as humans, deeply in it in the same way that are ancestors were, regardless of modern society outside the door. The beautiful thing is that all of the above does live within each of us, we just have to call it forth.

The goal is to yoke, like an ox, to the above ideals until one is so centered within them that he or she is aligned with the eternal, or the greater power of the universe. I envision that enlightenment as returning to our natural state—a state that we, as mostly misaligned human beings, have trouble tapping into because it's buried so deeply in our subconscious. Living within the yogic tradition gives us the ability to reach within ourselves and unspool the threads of eternal bliss until, perhaps one day, we reach the actual spool.

"Yoking," while referring to the harness that keeps two working animals in line, also reminds me of the golden center of an egg. If the goal is to get back to the most natural state through alignment, than wouldn't an egg yolk be synonymous? It's pure, perfect as nature intended it to be, unable to get sidetracked as humans can be, nourishes, ignites growth, and is a natural center for life.

In class, a good yoga teacher has the ability to make his or her students recognize the eternal light that lives within each of us. And that's why we often leave feeling a little bit lighter, purer, more joyful. Yoga, for me, will continue to be a physical practice. I'll still waver in balance,  go deeper, bounce a little when Jay-Z's Empire State comes on and tear up after camel pose, but now I understand why. Because yoga is grounded in spirituality. Now I have the knowledge to embrace that side of it too. And, while a full yogic practice may not be for everyone, I'm grateful that it can continue to touch the hearts of students with pangs of fulfillment like crescendoing violins.

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