Sunday, 23 October 2011

Downward what? The Misinterpretation of Yoga

"No, I've never done yoga, I'm not very flexible." One of the most common answers I have received when enquiring as to whether someone has practised yoga before. The answer demonstrates how misunderstood and misinterpreted yoga is in the West, and also in the East outside the walls of ashrams. Yoga involves movement and is often held in gyms and sports halls across the land. People wear work out gear to practise and sometimes break out a sweat during class. It must therefore be exercise. Thus, the aim of it must be to be the most flexible, the most contorted and the strongest student in the group, right? Wrong. Yoga DVDs, yoga books adorned with models backward bending into statuesque positions and Bikram yoga have led the majority of people who have not experienced yoga - and definitely some who have - to believe that yoga can be interpreted and practised like a sport or exercise.

Sports are measured purely on a physical level. While there is no doubt that yoga encompasses a physical element, the practice goes so much further. Flexibility, playing with personal limits, breaking a sweat and advanced postures are no doubt an element of yoga… but these are "by-products" of the practice, and not the sole aim. Yoga is a process not a goal.

There does not exist a Western equivalent of yoga - now as essential and integral to my life as eating, drinking and breathing. Few of our physical activities encompass the mind, and much less the spirit, as well as the body. Yoga is holistic. It takes into account our whole being. Believe it or not we are not only our body. However, it is very hard to use words such as holistic, consciousness, meditation, and even yoga, without inspiring a negative knee jerk reaction in most people. They are immediately put off even before coming to a class.

In Western society we have been raised in an ego-centric and materialistic environment: the physical world is all there is. Competition is rife. It is all about pushing limits. Being the best, the strongest, the fastest, the richest. Limits are there to be pushed through and rest is only for the weak. Balance is not an option. We let our egos run the show. We act how we feel we should act, not how we really want to. We even feel how we think we should feel, suppressing what we really are feeling. We are not even aware of it.

A person's original reason for beginning yoga - whether to embark on a path of self-realisation or purely to get a perfect body - is irrelevant. The most important thing is that they are practising. It may take anything from months to years, but its subtle magic will work its way into the life of that person without them even trying. Yoga is a cure all. Mentally, physically, psychically.

Yoga means "union" - the joining and balancing of two things. What are these two things? The masculine and feminine energies in each of us. The left and right sides of the brain. The extroverted and introverted natures. The breath and movement. And on the more esoteric, spiritual level (N.B. spirituality does NOT equal religion), the supreme and individual consciousnesses. 

While one may study yoga for years and keep finding new ways of describing its essence, at its core it is very simple. Feel your body. Notice your breath. Relax. Each yoga practice - each posture, even - is a blank page. Enter it with no expectations.  You, and even the most experienced yogi, will never do the same position in the same way more than once. The important thing is to just OBSERVE what is happening in the body and in the breath. And then relax. That is all there is to it.

Contrast this with the majority of sports where the external is the measurement of success. How fast you can run, how high you can jump, how much iron you can pump. Success in yoga is how relaxed you can make yourself, how deep, slow and rhythmic you can make your breath (and mind) and how aware you are of what is happening in your body. The flexibility, strength, ripped abs and the rest will all come in due course.

In yoga we are constantly exploring and trying to go beyond our personal limits, and at the same time being respectful of how far over the limits we can go. It is completely inappropriate, unnecessary and unhelpful to compare the yoga practices of two people, regardless of whether they have been practising for the exact same number of yoga classes. Yoga is adapted to each person, and not the other way round. What is important is not how a posture looks from the outside but how it feels from the inside.

So why do yoga at all? According to yogic philosophy the body is the manifestation of the mind which is a manifestation of the spirit. The first aim of yoga is to relax. After relaxation comes health of the body. Thereafter, health of the mind and an ability to connect with our true nature: our soul, which connects us to everything and everyone else in the universe and which is always peaceful and happy. According to yoga, ALL disease - from colds to cancer - are psycho-somatic and caused by stress and inner conflict. Yoga dissolves mental conflict, allowing for a healthy body…. which is, after all, what the NHS spends billions each year on trying to achieve for the nation. 

Another question frequently asked of me is "what type of yoga do you do?" To satisfy anyone wondering about the type of yoga in which I am being trained to teach: Hatha yoga. It is a reflection of how entrenched marketing mentality is in our culture that now even yoga is branded. This makes the consumer - and potential practitioner - believe that these styles are very different. Not so. The subdivisions exist mainly as a way to get people coming back to a specific class. The fundamentals of all these yogas are the same. The postures are all the same. What may differ is the sequence the postures are practised in and the pace. The core principles are equivalent. Or should be. 

The mind is an ever-shifting, scattered place. Yoga encourages one-pointedness of the mind by honing concentration onto the body and the breath, inducing the relaxation we so badly need in our stress-riddled lives. If the breath and body are all we observe, there is no room for all the worrying, deliberating and wavering.

And by stress, we are not only talking about life quaking events and situations like bullying, break-ups or bereavement. Stress includes all the day to day activities like sitting in traffic, being irked by the d**k ahead of you in a queue or waiting for your turn to be served in a busy pub. That fist-around-the-stomach rush you feel when you see your crush is also a form of stress. 

Stress is required. But our modern lives are such that the stress response - a cocktail and rollercoaster ride of hormones - is on pretty much all the time. And we have no control over it. It is a completely involuntary physical response to events. Yoga helps turn this, and eventually ALL, involuntary physical and emotional responses into VOLUNTARY responses. We become the boss of our minds and not vice versa.

So, what you are all dying to know: can you lose weight with yoga? Hell yes. 3 weeks into my yoga teacher training course and I am slimmer, toned and feeling fantastic, even though yoga is currently my only form of exercise - bar some gentle walking on a daily(ish) basis. It is not just the calories you burn and the increased muscle tone you achieve through the postures. Through control of your mind you will be able to avoid over-eating. Being more aware of your body will help you realise whether you are actually full and when you are actually hungry. You will develop increased levels of energy so you won't need to fuel what might be a deficit in mental energy with food. And we all know decreasing the calories will bring bout weight loss.

Another aim of asana practise (i.e. practising a sequence of postures) is to put the body in a Sattvic (pure) state in preparation for meditation practice. We tend to fluctuate between either a Rajsic (restless) state or a Tamsic (lethargic) state. The idea is to reach a state of equanimity in which we can maintain a sitting meditative posture for an extended period of time.

Why bother meditating? Because it, too, brings about the health and calm which lead to happiness. And this is what we spend our whole existence trying to achieve through sensual pleasure, fast cars and iPads, isn't it? 


  1. following your heartsies? :)

    i wanna see you expand on the last line you wrote. creative challenge: what's wrong with the following things:
    the acceleration of technology
    the sensationalism of the mundane
    the death of underground culture
    social media obsession
    and, for the hell of it, running BBQ sauce over nachos

    if u can get that all in a post, i'll be damned.

  2. One cannot control birth and never can face the fear of death. All life is spent deluding around pleasure, happiness, valor, advancement and crap that doesn't matter.
    It's only yoga can show you the way to answer questions that matter. What you do with mundane well, will remain mundane.