For most of us, Yoga equals Asana – the contortion of the body into awkward shapes. But this is not all that Yoga is meant to be. The word yoga shares its roots with the word ‘yoke’ which has a common root in the Proto-Indo European family of languages. But what are we ‘yoking? What are we attaching or elevating?
It is important to understand that in ancient India, Yoga was never meant as a physical form of well-being. Yoga was purely a mental exercise or an attitude that one adopts to better one’s life. We can refer to three instances in ancient literature, which throw light on the definition of the word Yoga.
The first is from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Patanjali, in his characteristic aphoristic style defines Yoga as “the cessations of the oscillations in the mind”. Notice that there is no mention of any special posture of the body or any mention of Asanas.
The other two references are from the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna says, “yoga is equanimity of the mind” and “yoga is the skill in action”. Again no references to any postures.
In all three definitions, Yoga is seen as a means of quelling mental activity so as to move towards freedom or enlightenment. Therefore the mental attitude that one adopts to life in order to end suffering can be termed Yoga.
How does one go about doing this? The Bhagavad Gita holds some clues. The central teaching of the Gita is not to attach oneself to the outcomes of our actions, but to focus on the action itself. In simple terms, we must learn not to reduce our actions to something which is ‘a means to an end’. We must learn to stay fully present with the activity and learn to express ourselves fully and completely. Imagine reading a book for the joy of the plot versus studying for an examination. The first is relaxed and joyous. The second is tensed and arduous. When our actions become an expression of who we are, we attain Yoga.
Can we adopt this attitude to our Yoga Asana practice? Yes indeed! If we can learn to be fully with the posture, without worrying how long we dwell in any position, or how long we hold our breath, or worry about keeping sequence – then that is true Yoga. It is very important we don’t reduce Yoga to a workout. We need to feel our bodies and begin to enjoy the process of the movement for its own sake. We must never do Yoga to reduce weight or to trim the body or to get a spiritual glow. Yes, these may be the side effects of doing Yoga asana well, but they are never the primary purpose. The primary purpose of Yogasana is to merge the body completely with the mind. We achieve this by slowing down and bringing our focus and attention to each subtle movement, each subtle change in position.
The physical aspect of Yoga is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to integrate the mental aspect of Yoga throughout our day and life. How?
- Maintain equanimity by taking an even attitude to both pleasure and pain, to joy and sadness. This can be achieved by developing a witnessing attitude to whatever happens in life. Usually, we get over-excited by something good happening and we get pulled down by bad things. In both these extremities and the space in between, there is something present in us that is able to observe both. Dwelling in this observer is the beginning of Yoga.
- Act for the sake of the action. Yes, goals are important, but the primary purpose of each action must be joyous. We must learn to enjoy acting. It is very important here to remember that this teaching does not mean that we only do things that make us happy. If we do this, we would be like butterflies, moving from one flower to another – escaping when the going gets tough. No! We must learn to enjoy whatever action there is. Perhaps the word ‘enjoy’ is too much. But we can start by being fully present in the action without the mental chatter of why we hate this activity. Take a normal activity such as washing your clothes or doing the dishes. We may not like it. But we can certainly bring our best to this activity too. What matters is the attitude one adopts to the action. The action and its result is secondary. This is what is referred to in the Gita as ‘skill in action’.
- Realize that no external thing can bring you joy. Yes, there are pleasurable things and not-so-pleasurable things. But joy, peace and contentment are something entirely different. The state of deep sleep is devoid of pleasure or excitement or “oh my god” happiness. Yet, it is deeply restful and peaceful. Even after a day of great excitement, we crave a good night’s rest. This is when we withdraw to our deepest nature – which is peace, contentment and joy. Notice that this state does not give birth to more desires. In fact, it is the absence of desires. Coming back to our true nature brings us the joy we crave for. Make it a practice to come back again and again – either by sitting quietly with yourself or getting engaged in an activity for its own sake.
Yoga Asanas are great. But we need to transform it into a mental attitude. The question then no longer is ‘whether I do Yoga’ but rather ‘how I do Yoga’.