For centuries, people have been using yoga to find relief from health conditions. This was certainly the case for me as I sought to overcome depression, and perhaps rings true for why you first found yourself on the mat.
But then the universal “a-ha” happened after each of us attended our first asana class. Something deep within recognized that more than flexibility had occurred.
We keep unrolling the mat to gain a deeper understanding of this realization. At some point, a teacher guides us toward the non-physical practice. A guided meditation. A lecture about positive thinking. An encouragement to practice pranayama separately.
If yoga didn’t manifest physical change in our bodies, I doubt any of us would be keen on maneuvering into foreign postures for hours. But if yoga stopped at the physical, I doubt we’d stick with it for more than a couple years.
Patience and dedication to physical fitness can wax and wane, and so it is with yoga asana. What a relief to know that even if you don’t unroll the mat, you can still practice yoga.
And more important, that our worth as yogis and yoginis is not measured by the flexibility of our spines.
Yoga is not asana
I’ve always liked to play by the rules, preserve history (hence my career as a journalist) and shy away from challenging authority. So it makes sense that my yoga path as a teacher and student has been led by curiosity and reverence for yoga’s ancient roots.
I often feel like I’m in the Western minority when it comes to my interest in yoga for spirituality rather than mastery of asana… made all the more ironic by being a slender white girl with a fluffy little dog.
While there are many poses I cannot embody safely yet, there is one thing I can completely do, and that’s come to stillness every day so that I can commune with God.
The common misconception today is that yoga equals asana, or postures. However, practicing asana is one facet of yoga and not the totality of yoga. While there is no inherent “goal” in the yoga postures themselves — perhaps the process of embodying the pose with ease and prepping the body for meditation — there is a goal in yoga.
The goal of yoga is yoga itself.
Union of the person you think you are with the soul that resides underneath those thoughts. It is, in no superficial terms, living in the conclusive realization of your divinity. When you grow curious about yoga as a spiritual path and recognize that practicing asana is one piece of the puzzle, it’s okay if occasionally that puzzle piece gets lost under the couch. That doesn’t mean you can’t continue to place the other 1000 pieces that remain in front of you.
Taking your path to the goal
When I ask, “What does your yoga practice look like?” I don’t want to know how many arm balances you can perform. I want to know what God looks like through your eyes. I want to know what lies deep in your heart — your dharma and unique process of becoming who you were meant to be.
Traditionally, there are four schools of yoga. All yogic paths lead to the same goal — union — but you might choose to cherry-pick techniques from each school that serve your individual path.
As they were taught to me, I offer them here for you as a refresher or completely new way of looking at the yoga tradition.
- Karma Yoga – Found in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, Karma Yoga is the yoga of action and service, fulfilling your dharma in this world without selfish expectation while surrendering the outcomes of your actions to God.
- Bhakti Yoga – The path of devotion or divine love, Bhakti Yoga includes chanting, prayer, ritual and worship, and can accompany and complement one’s own religion. Bhakti yogis see God as the source of love. If you’re religious, you may find many themes that ring true for you in both Karma and Bhakti Yoga.
- Raja Yoga – Outlined as the Eight Limb Path by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, Raja Yoga is the science of controlling and transforming our physical and mental energy into spiritual energy. It’s the type of yoga most commonly practiced in the West, and the one I was taught and currently practice. In this school of yoga, meditation is key to union with God.
- Jnana Yoga – As the yoga of knowledge or self-enquiry, Jnana Yoga is a rigorous path of knowing oneself at all levels through contemplation and introspection. It is to question and know the absolute truth about life, beginning with, “Who am I?”
The next time you become injured on the mat or really don’t want to go to class, you can remind yourself that yoga is not simply asana. It is not beautifully Instagramed asana photos with super cute leggings you totally want to wear (no shame!). Your union is intangible and unseen but absolutely felt and honored in your heart.
It is the moment when you recognize who you are meant to be and are present in the process of becoming.
Yoga is the practice and it is the goal. Enjoy your journey.
Asana Practice: Side Plank Pose with Tree Pose, Vasisthasana with Vrksasana
Vasistha translates to mean “most excellent, best, richest” — which is how I feel about my most sublime yoga asana experiences, in that they truly do promote a connection to divinity. Side Plank Pose is one such pose of balance, strength and concentration, especially when the top leg is raised into Tree Pose.
Try this pose today and see passed its obvious physical implications into the feeling you get deep in your heart.
- From Downward Facing Dog, shift your weight into the outside edge of your right foot and right palm. Stack your left leg and ankle on top of right, bringing left hand to hip. Ensure the right palm is positioned slightly in front of the right shoulder. Press the index finger of the right hand into the mat, fingers spread wide.
- Firm your thighs, reach through your heels and encourage the navel in toward spine to lengthen the tailbone. Create one long line of energy from crown of head to feet.
- With the help of your left hand or not, inhale the left leg to Tree Pose. Take the foot to the inner right thigh above the knee. Press the foot gently into thigh and thigh gently into foot. Lift the hips up, engaging through the lower torso to keep the low back safe. Take the left arm up when you’re ready, palm facing forward.
- If you like, take the gaze up toward the left hand, or gaze straight ahead. Resist dipping the hips down as you breathe smoothly for four to six even and slow breaths. On an exhale, release the left leg back down onto the right, send the left palm to the ground and find Downward Facing Dog.
- Drop the knees and relax in Child’s Pose for a few breaths before practicing the other side.