“Why is this so hard? I’m hot. I can’t breathe. I didn’t know yoga could be this hard, I thought I was supposed to feel relaxed. How is that old guy keeping up? Oh dear lord not another chaturanga.” These were likely some of the thoughts running through my mind when I took my first intermediate yoga class. When I began my yoga journey in the early 2000s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the options were fairly limited. My introduction to yoga was a gentle class offered as an extension course through LSU. All I remember is falling asleep in savasana every time. Something about it made me want to try more, so I sought out a studio, one of only a couple in the city at the time. They offered both kinds of yoga: beginner and intermediate. The beginner class was fairly gentle and mellow, so I formed an assumption based on my limited experience that yoga was a practice of easy stretches and slow movements with deep breaths. Then I attended the intermediate class. In my memory it’s a blur of sweat and humidity and arms and legs and up and down. Since then I’ve had a love/hate relationship with “hard yoga.” For a while I turned my nose up at this exercise based style of practice because it was not traditional enough. But after learning more about the origins and purpose of yoga, I now believe that anything can be a form of yoga. It’s not what it looks like on the outside, but the intention and shift that happens on the inside.
In the West when we say we’re doing yoga, we usually mean a class in which a teacher leads a group of students through a series of poses, or asanas. And there are plenty of different varieties to choose from. Iyengar yoga is vastly different than restorative, which are both worlds apart from Ashtanga. Yet these practices, which are very different physically, must share something in common. In the 2000 year old collection of aphorisms known as the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines yoga as the restraint of the fluctuations that disturb our peace of mind. He explains that when the mind is calm, we dwell in our own true nature, or higher self. The word yoga means union, and refers to this merging of the individual self with the higher Self, or the soul with its source. The process of union is also known as enlightenment or awakening, meaning we wake up and shine light on the truth that we are spiritual beings inhabiting material bodies, and we’re all in this together. One of the main obstacles to enlightenment is an out-of-control ego, which causes us to feel separation and fear instead of connection and love. The practice of yoga then is anything that reduces ego and leads to spiritual awakening, peace and equanimity. There are various paths of yoga that focus on different techniques for attaining enlightenment. Yogis on some of these paths may not necessarily perform postures, or if they do they may be secondary to their main practice of service, chanting, or meditation. Raja yoga is known as the path of introspection, and while it too leads to meditation it includes hatha yoga, which is made up of the physical aspects of yoga like postures and breathing that are most familiar to us today. In the sutras, Patanjali gives very little detail on how to perform asana. He says only that it is steady and comfortable and the practitioner is able to release tension and meditate in the pose. The word asana originally simply meant seat, and here Patanjali is probably referring to a seated meditation posture. The other hatha yoga techniques and postures are meant to maintain the health of the physical body, the vessel for the soul, as well as cleanse the energetic body so we can more easily connect to the Self in meditation. The irony that I had judged certain styles of yoga practice as “not traditional” was not lost on me when I learned that almost all the poses we do today are relatively modern compared to this original meaning of asana. As usual, karma likes to give a little humor with her lessons.
If you’ve ever sat for meditation, you know it can be challenging. Feelings of anger or sadness can arise, seemingly out of nowhere. I often feel bored or frustrated, especially if my mind is very active. But I always remind myself that there’s no such thing as a bad meditation. Every time I sit I get a little more clear, a little more focused. It doesn’t always feel peaceful and calm doing it, but it has lead to an overall increase of peace in my life. Literally sitting in the mental discomfort helps me to increase my equanimity, almost like strengthening a muscle. I think the physical component of yoga can be the same way. If our asana practice is always relaxed and happy and easy, we never get the opportunity to practice staying centered when faced with a challenge. Life isn’t always calm, and we have to learn to deal with the uncomfortable feelings, the challenging people, the difficult moments. A challenging yoga practice can be a safe space where you observe your reaction to things. Challenging of course means different things to different people, and the various paths of yoga show us that this is not only acceptable, but necessary. Sometimes I need to push myself in a physically active way to get to my mental edge. And sometimes the challenge is to lie still in a restorative class or keep my mind present during savasana. Since the original meaning of asana was just a seat, and the other physical expressions of yoga were born out of necessity to cleanse and challenge the physical body, then I believe anything can be yoga when done mindfully. Walking, skating, kickboxing, cycling, running, jazzercise, swimming, dancing—all these can work with the body to get to the mind, and eventually beyond both.
I like to remind my students that we don’t do yoga to get better at yoga, we do yoga to get better at life. Our yoga practice can certainly be our refuge at times, but if we only use yoga to feel good then it can become just another escape. I believe that our practice has to challenge us in some way in order for us to grow. Ultimately we must face our physical, mental, and spiritual limits in order to transcend them.