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What Is Yoga?

What’s the difference between a yoga class and an exercise/stretch class?

Many people go to a yoga class for the physical challenge of poses and to release muscle tension and a yoga class, or any exercise class, will invariably give them that. Similarly, any exercise has been proven to be beneficial to our mental state; it can reduce stress and anxiety in the short term. However, if you've been to a few yoga classes you might have started to notice that you get more than the physical benefits, more than the short-term mental health benefits of a bit of exercise. What is that?

In my yoga practice and the classes I teach I aim to foster a connection between the three bodies; the physical body (aka gross body – ‘gross’ as in ‘obvious’, not a commentary 😉), the subtle body (aka energy body) and the causal body (the part of us that is connected to the universal energy). I use asana (poses), mudras (seals), chanting (mantra), breath (pranayama) and mindfulness or meditation (dharana and dhyana) to bring the focus within so that we can feel and get to know those connections. This skill is then able to be used off the yoga mat and used in our areas of our lives.

Patanjali, the author/s of the Yoga Sutras, says that yoga is the practice of bringing the mind to stillness so that we are able to know the truth within ourselves. His '8 limbs of yoga' are considered to be the holistic path to this enlightenment, where...

  1. the 5 Yamas are regarding our self-care,

  2. the 5 Niyamas are the key to social success,

  3. Asana is our physical yoga postures,

  4. Pranayama is our breath practice,

  5. Pratyahara is practicing discernment or what we pay attention to,

  6. Dharana is being able to focus the attention,

  7. Dhyana is meditation and, the 8th limb,

  8. Samadhi is experiencing our connection and oneness with the universal energy.

"Be fearless and pure; never waver in your determination or your dedication to the spiritual life. Give freely. Be self-controlled, sincere, truthful, loving, and full of the desire to serve. Realize the truth of the scriptures; learn to be detached and take joy in renunciation. Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle; show good will to all. Cultivate vigor, patience, will, purity; avoid malice and pride. Then, Arjuna, you will achieve your divine destiny. Other qualities, Arjuna, make a person more and more inhuman: hypocrisy, arrogance, conceit, anger, cruelty, ignorance." (Easwaran, The Bhagavad Gita, 16:1-4, p. 238. in Vaughn 2016)

I'm reading the book Phosphorescence at the moment and in it Julia Baird asks "Is it possible to experience ....‘that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens’?" and in my experience that is what practicing yoga gives me. Yoga gives me the knowledge that both happiness and unhappiness are temporary, everything passes. What gives me 'that kind of happiness that doesn't depend on what happens' is knowing that I am, at my essence, eternally and permanently connected to everything in the universe, that I am one with the universal energy. As Baird points out earlier in the book....

"I LEARNED RECENTLY THAT humans glow faintly, even during the day. All living creatures do, apparently.....‘The human body literally glimmers. The intensity of the light emitted by the body is 1000 times lower than the sensitivity of our naked eyes.’ Maybe it’s just that we’re all made of stardust." p13

Our yoga practice gives us so much more than a release of stress or a transient feeling of wellbeing. It gives us an holistic way of living, guiding and empowering us to be able to adapt our practice to the stage of life that we find ourselves in. We learn about our bodies, our minds and the part of our Selves that is eternal and universal. The good thing about that is, once you have become aware of this happening on your mat it starts to seep into every part of your life, with opportunities to practice anywhere, while you’re doing anything, bringing connection and focus to all facets of life. Then you’re practicing yoga all the time! Not just in a class once in a while 😊

Books referenced in this blog:

Baird, Julia. 2020. Phosphorescence. 4th Estate. Kindle Edition.

Vaughn, Amy. 2016. From the Vedas to Vinyasa: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga . Opening Lotus. Kindle Edition.

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