When people in the West think of yoga, they invariably think of asana, ie physical posture practice. This is indeed how most of us start with yoga: we go to a class (either real or on line), we watch a teacher lead us through instruction and demonstration into and out of various poses, some of which are easier than others. We are—sometimes, not always—encouraged to pay attention to our breathing at the beginning of the class and we end the class by lying flat on the floor for a few minutes with our eyes closed. Depending on the style of yoga, the postures can either be in a set sequence, they can be varied from class to class; there can be fewer postures held for longer, there can be a string of postures that flow from one to another. Sometimes the class is in a hot room, sometimes the class is outside; sometimes there’s music, sometimes not. There so many varied possibilities for the physical practice of yoga that some say we should more accurately refer to different yogas rather than just simply yoga.
People come to yoga for a wide variety of reasons—it could be to get fit, to lose weight, to calm down, because their friends are doing it, or (as in my case) after injury, or many other reasons besides. And depending on your reason, you will—through trial and error—gravitate toward the type of yoga that suits you. And of course the type of yoga that suits you can vary by the day, depending on your mood, energy levels, physical ability, time constraints, etc.
However there is more to yoga than just the physical practice, much more. And given this wide array of asana practice options I do sometimes worry that not enough attention is being paid to the other, arguably more important, aspects of yoga. We enjoy the postures without understanding where they come from and why we’re doing them. So what kind of true enjoyment is that?
Students of yoga can of course read the Yoga Sutras, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Vasistha, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita, the Gheranda Samhita and many other texts to try to understand what lies behind yoga. I highly recommend doing this if you have time and interest as yoga is a deeply complex and beautiful subject. But students who are looking for a bit of a shortcut should consider reading two recent short books that provide a good summary of what yoga is actually about. Radically Simple Yoga. For Now (David Dodd, 2016) and Greed, Sex, Intention: Living like a Yogi in the 21st Century (Hannah Whittingham and Marcus Veda, 2018).
Radically Simple Yoga. For Now distils the philosophy found in the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita in such a way as to bring the radical ideas of this ancient tradition vividly into the present. Yoga is not just something that stays on a mat, it is as Dodd puts it ‘an experiential philosophy’ that practitioners take out into the world. His text is densely packed with ideas and even occasional diagrams that really help some of the more abstract ideas in the Yoga Sutras to come alive. Although the book is short, it can take some time to absorb the deep concepts that are explored in the text, namely how the practice of yoga fosters and develops our self awareness, curiosity, acceptance, focus, purpose, spirituality and creativity both on and perhaps more importantly off the mat. The book encourages and inspires its readers to adopt an internal approach to the practice of yoga that will change their lives.
Greed, Sex, Intention: Living Like a Yogi in the 21st Century explores the yamas and niyamas, the dos and don’ts of personal conduct found in the Yoga Sutras. Each of the yamas and niyamas–non harming (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non stealing (asteya), chastity or fidelity (brahmacharya), non possessiveness (aparigraha), cleanliness (saucha), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), surrender or acceptance (ishvara pranidhana)—is treated to an extended meditation by the authors who find various clever ways to show how each of these ancient ethical rules can inform our behaviours in the present day. The book is written in a very conversational and down-to-earth style even as it explores the moral dimension of yoga. At the end of each section, there is an example of how each principle is embodied (literally) through discussion of a single yoga posture. Ahimsa (non harming) in action is urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose). The embodiment of santosha (contentment) is paschimottansana (deep forward fold). Etc. This linking of yama or niyama to asana is smart: after discussing how these rules are to be applied in wider life, the authors make sure to bring these rules to the mat.
Although most students come to yoga through their bodies, there is much in the tradition to occupy their minds. And indeed, the point of the asanas is to get the body ready for extended mental activity, namely meditation. However, asana practice is itself already a kind of meditation through movement. It fosters a sense of inner awareness and concentration that grows out of the experience of being in the postures. This inner awareness is something that can shape our own behaviour and the way we interact with the world.
Although yoga is made up of many different types of physical practice, the purpose and possibility of yoga remains the same. Next time you are on your mat, don’t just go through the motions. Practice by paying full attention to your experience in each moment. Over time you will transform your mind, your self, your actions, your habits and finally your life. This, in a nutshell, is what yoga is all about.