What is Yoga?

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Yoga can be explored as Power, Self Reflection or Therapy

The word Yoga is by now well known outside India. In fact over the last five decades we have seen it quietly and steadily taking root within our Western culture and language. Yet if you ask any number of people what Yoga is, you are likely to get many different responses.

Furthermore these responses are often diverse, and sometimes contradictory. However, what is Yoga can generally be summarised into three possibilities or approaches:-

1. Yoga as a means for Power

Firstly Yoga can be explained as a means to attain a degree of power or control over our body and mind. Here Yoga links the body and the mind through intense physical and mental effort.

For instance through rigorous physical practices we develop and maintain a state of attention which is used to hold power over the body and the breath. Within this approach such control is often seen as a prerequisite to the body and mind becoming free of disturbances and                 distractions.

This power arises out of three areas of personal development:

  • Mastery of the body through physical postures.
  • Control of the breath through breathing techniques.
  • The ability to concentrate through mental techniques.

The consequences of this intense effort are energy and control that is available for whatever purpose suits our direction in life.

Many people could usefully enjoy more power over certain areas of their lives. The question is, are we prepared to put in some effort to reach this point.

This approach is known as the Yoga of Energy and Will. As such, this aspect of Yoga is an art and offers a fascinating field. It is appealing to many people searching for power in and over their lives.

However this approach is only a means towards a more important goal.

2. Yoga as a means for Self Reflection

Now the concern is more with the mystery of life than the mastery of life. Here Yoga is a means for meditation with self-inquiry as the primary focus.

“Who am I?” is the question that acts as a map for an inner journey into our mind. It is a quest to touch and be touched by the “soulfull” quality of being that resides within.

In this approach Yoga is a tool for a movement towards a deeper relationship with our sense of soul, by searching both into & beyond what we experience as the everyday self.

It is a journey of discovery exploring and ultimately going beyond attitudes that, for better or for worse, have shaped our lives, work and relationships.

Now Yoga is a skill by which we seek to sustain awareness and clarity in spite of the vagaries of everyday life. The quality of this awareness engenders a freshness within which actions are less affected by our usual attitudes and habits.

In other words we have more choice over how we respond or react. In those situations where our reaction would be automatic we now find we have different possibilities.

Here Yoga is a process by which we grow in our understanding of ourselves. From this we come to realise that we can change those aspects of ourselves that are unhelpful in our life.

This means firstly recognising the qualities that hinder our personal growth, an important, if not always comfortable stage in the journey.

Secondly, having reflected on how we are rather than who we are, we go on to discover that there exists within us a resource with the potential to transform these undesirable aspects. From this we can take steps towards living more creatively.

Here again the help of a teacher is important as a guide for advice and suggestions on practices to support the process of growth into an understanding of how we are and ultimately who we are.

This approach is known as the Yoga of Reflection and Discovery.

However, we all experience problems, poor health or illness from time to time.

3. Yoga as a means for Therapy

Now Yoga, as both a restorative and preventative, is applied as a therapy to help people with problems or poor health. Here the approach needs to be very different for each person.

One person’s potential to change their situation will be affected by their problem. Another person’s problem will be affected by their potential to change their situation.

According to Traditional Indian Medicine, becoming known in the West as Ayurveda, those diseases that are chronic and cannot be resolved by medicine alone can be helped by using Yoga practices. Old Yoga texts also talk about the benefits of certain postures & breathing      techniques in the treatment of disease.

Using these ideas it is possible, primarily within a one to one relationship, to introduce personalised Yoga practices. These practices can both respect the problems or disease in the individual and support our intention to influence the way we are affected in similar situations in the future.

However all of us experience the dominance of our old ways when confronted with familiar situations. We would like to change but the old patterns are powerful and resist alternatives.

It even seems that sometimes what we would really like to do is to carry on exactly as before only without the troublesome symptoms accompanying our lifestyle. To ignore or block these symptoms through continual suppression is ultimately a futile path.

The process of our inner intelligence is such that it will let us know what needs looking at with increasingly strident messages. This means that the steps to ignore these messages must also intensify. Better to co-operate with ourselves before we are forced to by a more serious consequence.

In this respect Yoga as a therapy also presumes that we are willing to accept some responsibility within our situation. Here, with the support of a teacher, we can introduce and work towards sustaining creative changes in our lifestyle. This may also include, as well as specific practices, a review of those relationships which exacerbate our problems.

This approach is known as the Yoga of Rejuvenation and Prevention.

These three aspects of:

  • Yoga as a means for Therapy
  • Yoga as a means Self-Reflection
  • Yoga as a means for Power

are mutually supportive in helping to maintain physical health, psychological vitality and spiritual purpose within the commitments of daily life, work and relationships.