So, what is yoga anyway?
At Svadhyaya Yoga Studio on Tahoe's South Shore, we like to ask new practitioners what they think yoga is. It's always interesting to hear what they have to say. In America, the answer is inevitably, "stretching, relaxing, breathing, meditating," or "headstands and pretzel poses." I thought the same thing when I first began practicing.
In my last blog I mentioned a variety of experiences that I called yoga. Let me clarify what this means. The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit language from ancient India, from the word "yuk" or "yoke." Having grown up on a farm, I know exactly what a yoke looks like and how it's used. When I first heard this word, the image of two large bulls forced together pulling a heavy sled came into mind. I think that a better translation is "union."
A farm yoke is not quite the same as the yoga we seek. My hometown farm in Oxford, CT
Most of us begin the practice of yoga with a purely physical approach. We show up for a class ready to follow the series of poses suggested by our instructor. And this series is just suggestion. Chances are, during your first class, there were many moments while you stood or sat or slumped and watched while everyone else easily followed the teacher and moved through the poses. And at some point the words "how the hell are they doing that?" might have come into your mind.
A good teacher gives suggestions and allows you to find your own practice.
The physical part of the practice is kind of like the appetizer. It gives you a taste of what's to come. The physical poses are challenging. It takes time to establish the balance and focus required to execute them well. The more you do the poses, the easier they get. Hmm, sounds a lot like anything you've tried to learn in life, huh? The physical portion (or asana) is not yoga. It's a step in the right direction, but even if you accomplish a no-handed headstand, you still won't have yoga. You'll have the ability to do a no-handed headstand.
When you finally gain control over your body by finding strength and balance as well as focus in the poses, then you are ready to move forward. At that point, you have learned you have control over your physical body. You learn to move with grace, to control your actions, and you begin to notice how your body works. This is the first step and it's svadhyaya or self-study. You have begun to learn about yourself.
Control of your body is not only about effort. It's also about being able to let go.
To bring union or to unite requires that you have more than one thing. If you've only been working on your body, there's only one thing on which to focus. If you've gained control over your body and now know it, you have to begin learning about another aspect of yourself. What comes next? The breath.
Jenay, E-RYT, is the director at Svadhyaya Yoga Studio and The Lake Tahoe Yoga School. She lives an active life-style and seeks Yoga in everything she does.