As a yoga teacher, I am often asked, “What kind of yoga do you teach?” This question always makes me chuckle because yoga is more about how you practice than a kind, a style, or a program defined by someone’s name. It’s not an Iyengar, Bikram, Ashtanga, Kundalini, Hatha, or Vinyasa class. It’s about exploring the process on your own terms and accepting where you are in that process rather than reaching a goal. Marketing and the media are at the root of many common misconceptions about what yoga really is. For example, you may have heard that the word itself means “union” or “to yoke together” but that definition does nothing to explain how yoga applies to you, the yoga practitioner. More than likely most of what you think you know about yoga has come from someone marketing their program through the media. Perhaps the best way to explain what yoga is then, is to first tell you what it is not.
Yoga is not a religion, although its practice can lead to a connection of the mind, body and spirit. Yoga is not an exercise routine; therefore most yoga taught in gyms is misnamed given that the classes are designed with that goal in mind. The point of yoga is not to bend your body in contorted ways in an attempt to mimic someone in a picture, video or classroom. In fact, one should dispense with all goal-oriented thinking in order to achieve true yoga. Yoga is not competitive, it does not involve grunting and it is not a means of weight-loss. However, it is physically intense at times and you may sweat, so losing weight could be an added benefit. Yoga is not just for women. In fact, until the early 20th century yoga was predominantly practiced by men because of strong sexist attitudes in India. Most importantly, yoga does not have any prerequisites such as flexibility, balance or strength. It is for everyone with a sincere interest and intention to try.
So then, what is YOGA? My personal definition of yoga is “stillness in motion.” It is a moving meditation which links the mind to the body through an internal exploration of self, brought forth by systematic external movements coordinated with breath. Yoga is created when one attains balance and finds freedom of movement through focused attention to breath and surrender of postural habits. It is about what you feel, not what you look like.
All human bodies are capable of moving in roughly the same way, barring any structural abnormalities. It’s true that some people are naturally more flexible than others, but that doesn’t mean that they are “better at yoga”. In fact, I have met plenty of people who are capable of reaching very difficult poses but struggle with what it feels like to actually experience yoga; the union of mind and body, the “yoking’ of the physical to the spiritual. They may be able to mimic challenging poses but they are not practicing yoga, rather, they are doing gymnastics. Without an intention of selfless surrender, there is no yoga.
In truth, there is no “yoga perfect”, only yoga practice. Just as there is no perfect life; only living. We are all in practice. The only difference is the individual experience, how you receive the yoga within yourself. While it is common to want to “push” yourself farther to reach a new or difficult pose, such an achievement-oriented focus often leads to injury. Yoga is not a physical pursuit to be mastered but an experience to be nurtured and savored. We are all students, separated only by our place along the road to self-awareness. So let it take time…breathe…relax. It’s not about the goal; it’s about the journey! I often give my students this analogy to ponder: “How many breaths does it take to melt an ice cube? That depends on the size of the cube and the intention of the breath. Whether your body feels like an ice cube or an iceberg, both melt at the same pace; one breath at a time.”
Matthew Corrigan, CMT, RYT
Oct. 30, 2013