What is Yoga?
In which I take a shower of boiling antifreeze and keep my equanimity.
Last Friday I took my friends Lou (not that one) and Jean to the Honolulu airport around 4:00 PM in heavy rush-our traffic, stop and go, more stop than go, mostly stop and little go Jenny Wuebbe, daughter of Hollow Skai was also with us and the the two of us were going to a workshop at Yoga Hawaii on kindness and me presenting my new installation there. Now, my 91 VW Vanagon has a very slow leak in the cooling system, which I hadn’t topped off for a little while. These old vans don’t like stop and go in the Hawaii sun and after we had turned around and were on the H1 freeway, looking at some more heavy traffic at least for a few more miles the car started to overheat, just as I had made it to the far left lane. We made it back to the right and off the freeway at the next exit and quickly onto the sidewalk of Vineyard Blvd. There was a good boil going on in the back. After what I thought was hopefully enough time, I had to go to the bathroom really badly, I started to unscrew the cap of the cooling system to replace some water, when the cap just blew off and I tool a shower of boiling antifreeze. It was a full body shower including head, face, mouth shirt and pants. Fortunately I only received a light burn on my right forearm, but the taste in my mouth was far from pleasant.
So what is yoga? Most of us understand yoga as the physical exercise done in pastel colored tights on rubber mats were we aim for flexibility and the ability to touch our toes. In a recent article on yoga the German news magazine describes in more or less detail 18 styles of yoga from Acro Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Power Yoga, to Vinyasa Flow and Yin Yoga. The majority of the different styles deal primarily or exclusively with the physical aspect of yoga, which traditionally is called Asana = Posture.
In the introduction to the Bhhagavad Gita translated and introduced by Eknath Easwaran, Easwarran describes the Gita as brahmavidyam yogashastra, a textbook on the supreme science of yoga and suggests that there are as many meanings as there are paths to self-realization. The four main strands of yoga according to the Gita are jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, karma yoga, the yoga of self-less action and raja yoga, the yoga of meditation.
The word yoga, comes from the word yuij or yoke, to bind together, it is the unity of life experienced, pure consciousness or the sum of what one must do to realize the Self (Easwaran). Other definitions of yoga in the Gita are evenness of mind and skill in action, integration of the spirit. A yogi is a person who is accomplished in yoga.
A popular school of yoga is called Ashtanga Yoga, which is known for its flowing squences, spectacular jumps, and handstands in slow motion, but what does ashtanga really mean? The word astanga means eight limbs and Ashtanga yoga is the eight limbs of yoga as explained in the classical yoga sutras by Patanjali. According to Patanjali the eight limbs of yoga are:
- Yama – various forms of abstention from evildoing
- Niyama – various observances
- Asana – posture
- Pranayama – control of prana (life force energy), various breathing excercises and bandas (banda to bind or lock)
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the mind from sense objects
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – absorption in the Atman (the Self)
It goes beyond this writing to explain all the different limbs in detail, but I like to emphasize two things, one that the last three limbs of yoga deal with the practice and affect of meditation, since what is meditation really other than concentration, the ability being to focus on one thing for an extended period of time until we are able to unify with the Self, Atman, the divine core of personality, which ultimately is the same as Brahman, the Godhead or ultimate reality. The second point I like to make is that Asana (posture) means two things, the place on which the yogi sits and the manner in which he sits (Patanjali). Traditionally the most famous asana is the lotus pose, sitting cross- legged.
The modern yoga as we mostly encounter it then really is Asana, just one limb of yoga. There are complex reasons, why this single limb of yoga has become the predominant practice in the Western world and what we commonly understand as yoga. From my own experience after 30 plus years of meditation practice I know how difficult it is for us westerners, who are used to sit in chairs to sit quietly with crossed legs and try to focus our minds. Only recently have I made some new progress and it is thanks to diligent daily practice of pranayama, asanas and sitting meditation and some observance of the Yama’s and Niyama’s. I cannot claim to have practiced Pratyahara or that I have reached Samadhi. I like to put the idea forward that one of the reasons we need to practice Asanas, to be healthier of course, but that we in our bodies are actually able to sit in concentration for a while. Our Western lifestyles, especially sitting in chairs with backs, not moving enough, diet, etc has lead to a disconnect from our bodies, weak backs, stiff necks and stooping shoulders, weak core and total weakness of the connection, between lower and upper bodies. Most all of us know one or most of these maladies.
For five years I have practiced every day, missing less than a handful days per year, and know how the practice of yoga and an Ayurvedic inspired lifestyle has changed me. It is from experiencing the daily change that I can write this, and that I can experience a shower of boiling antifreeze without yelling and cursing.