What is yoga?

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Nearly 20 years ago, I taught creative movement at an arts focused magnet school within a public school district. While I was amazed and delighted at the creativity and openness of staff, families, and students, the place I felt resistance was when I used the dread word—- yoga.

One afternoon, after the buses left, the principal walked into my room and said, ”So, I am wondering about how you use yoga in your classes.”

”Well,” I said, wondering what was coming next, “it is part of what I do as mindfulness training. For focus, centered-ness, compassion for self and others.”

Feeling defensive, as I often did when approaching the topic of yoga with non practicing folks, I could feel the heat rising around my ears as I busied myself with organizing supplies.

“I had a parent call today, and she said her daughter told her that everyone laid down in your class, and you said to empty your mind, and she feels that is cult behavior.” She folded her arms, and my heart sank to my feet. I never told anyone to empty their minds, and I resist any teaching that sounds ’cult-like,’ so more than anything, my feelings were hurt.

“Oh, wow. We sometimes do a floor meditation, so they can watch their bellies rise and fall with the breath. I never told anyone to empty their minds. She thinks I am brainwashing her kid? For what end?”

Now a little edge crept into my Principal’s voice, a little defensiveness of her own. “I know you are doing your best, and you know that, but parents can be triggered by anything that sounds religious. We just need to be careful, can you not use the word meditation or yoga? Can we call it stretch and breathe time?”

I nodded, and she left, relieved I am sure to have that conversation over with. Mind you, this was 20 years ago, and I am happy to hear the word meditation and mindfulness as regular vocabulary in many classrooms, and in fact throughout our culture now.

And yet, I talk to so many people who say, ”Oh, I should do yoga”, or ”really, you teach yoga?” (with a glance down my body- clearly not a dancer body and probably considered too old to be a yoga teacher), or “I just can’t do that contortion stuff.”

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And yet, this woman above, is in a yogic posture. But, you say, she’s just standing there!

Exactly! The word ’yoga’ is an ancient Indian sanskrit word with multiple meanings. The definition we hear the most in the west is union- of breath, movement, intention. On the same continent, nearly 5,000 years ago, the esteemed Yellow Emperor of China recorded the use of qi gong— a union of breath, purposeful movement and focused intention to create healing in the internal systems. So many ancient peoples recorded, shared and used similar methods to align body, mind and heart, and many were recorded meticulously — we have the benefit of those records, and use many of those methods today. While yoga, Ayurveda, qi gong, wu-shu and others have a rich and varied history, things got watered down for the average American.

In the West, we love ’a brand’, and teachers and studios want to create a living doing something they love, so a simple way of teaching/learning yoga movement is shared, eager yoginis do a month of learning this fairly simple ’routine’, then start teaching ‘yoga’. That was me 20 years ago, training in gym yoga briefly, then teaching at a local gym. No one asked to see my credentials, (I didn’t have any) no one asked if I had training in anatomy, physiology, safe movement for ligaments and tendons— it was yoga, yoga is good for everything, and the active Vinyasa flow yoga I shared was all I knew.

All the people who came to my class had injured shoulders, tight necks, low back pain— and all I knew was the circular up and down movement of Sun Salutations, which we did over and over. Then a few floor asanas, and lay down for Savasana rest.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Some in my class complained of more pain. Some came a few times and didn’t return. I never talked about mindfulness, of deep body awareness, of tuning in to what is floating around in your head or heart. We never just stood. And felt our feet on the earth.

Now I know there are plenty of wonderful yoga teachers who teach Vinyasa style flow yoga or ’yang’ yoga, with mindful intention, but I have a sneaking feeling based on classes I have taken or others have described, that mindless yoga, or— ‘general yoga’ I saw in a class schedule, whatever that is— are still happening, even with the cultural focus of presence, mindful awareness.

Yoga isn’t exercise. Yoga is meditation in action. My question during a practice might be; how can I connect more deeply with my own body sensation? Can I rest and breathe, really feel without thinking or judging? How can I connect more deeply and listen to my own heart? Can I notice where fear resides in my body, what it feels like?Can I watch thoughts, feelings, opinions, judgements float across the sky of my mind and not get snagged by them? Stay in the movement of the breath as I come to the edge of resistance? Can I ask my sweet body what is wants? What is needed for more connection, health, wellbeing?

You may notice that all of that compassionate curiosity can happen on a neighborhood walk, while cooking dinner, drinking water, rocking a child. You are right. We can all do yoga everyday in small ways throughout our days, or we can go to a gym or studio, but whatever our choice, please, let’s not make this a ’oh, I need to do that,” or ”I know my chiropractor said I should do yoga’, can we agree to drop the judgement, the guilt, the self blame?

Instead, let’s find a union of focused breath— breathing in, I know I am breathing in— breathing out, I am grateful for my breath. Mindful intention, encouraging our spinning minds to rest on the sensation of the body, and slow easy movements that we bring all our focused attention, and intention. And love. First to ourselves, so we have enough for others.

Can we hold space for ourselves? And when ego mind churns things up, as it will, can we question those judgements, opinions, reactions with a little light heartedness?

It takes a mindful teacher to create a mindful class. A teacher who tunes in themselves with honesty, grace, stillness. Find those teachers that inspire you, that help open your awareness to our interconnectedness.

Thich Nhat Hanh, beloved Buddhist teacher wrote, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

May we all be the teachers and students we wish the world was full of; those who tune in, over and over and over to the beat of our hearts, the flow in our brains, the stillness in our bodies. May our classes and our lives be places of gratitude and connection, to ourselves, to each other, to the world.

Published by TerraLea

I lead mindful movement, qi gong, yoga and breath work to bring flow, space and vitality to everybody. I love to write, hike and play with Emma, our labradoodle. I am passionate about growing peace and calm in the midst of chaos.

2 thoughts on “What is yoga?

  1. It is rare to find someone who can speak unbiased on an ancient practice such as Yoga with love and devotion without connecting it with any religion or treating it as an exotic Eastern import. Thank you for loving this art of living and spreading it as a gift to humanity.

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