The Real Purpose of Yoga
I first started practicing Yoga about 16 years ago when I was in university. Yoga was such a buzz word back then. The name was mysterious, it had people spellbound. It was seen as a cool exercise, where people could perform soothing postures to feel relaxed. I started Yoga purely because of the physical benefit - I wanted to use it to lose weight and get fit. Yoga to me, was simply a type of physical exercise, which goes at a slower pace compared to other aerobic exercises where you sweat constantly (well, how narrow-minded was I back then! Yoga makes you sweat too, try Hot Yoga or Power Yoga). Yeah, it sounds silly, but I didn’t like sweat much back then. Fortunately people change, so did I.
I then practiced Yoga on and off throughout my 20s, never consistently, but never stopped completely either. Then I started my philosophy classes with School of Philosophy in London back in October 2018 (stay with me, it’s still relevant to Yoga). In one of the classes, the teacher mentioned about ‘The eight limbs of Yoga’. Ok, I didn’t get what ‘the eight limbs’ were, but it certainly had the keyword of Yoga which immediately caught my attention.
I was intrigued, I never knew enough the true purpose of Yoga. My understanding was only the physical postures I would practise in the Yoga studio. I attended various Yoga classes with different studios, but they didn't teach me the ‘other limbs’ of Yoga as much as I yearned for. I would realise later that the understanding of ‘other limbs’ brought a whole new meaning to my Yoga practice.
I then decided to join a 200 hour Yoga teacher training course with Yoga London, to discover the philosophical and spiritual side of Yoga. Now, 7 months in, it has opened a door to the Yoga world for me and made me realise how much I didn’t know about Yoga and how Yoga is not what I thought it was.
Now that I’m starting to teach Yoga, I want to share some of my learnings and discuss some of the bias people have with their Yoga practice. And here is the first one:
Yoga only consists of static postures.
This is probably the biggest misunderstanding of Yoga, at the end of the day, that’s what you see in Instagram posts and what you expect when you attend a Yoga class, isn’t it? But there is so much more in Yoga than just the beautiful postures.
Before we get to that, let me ask you a question. Have you ever noticed the inner chatter in your head? The noise that never stops? Which always has an opinion about everything and anything you come across? Which always worries about the future, imagines the worst possible outcome, or indulges in the anticipation of a future event and drags you out of the present moment? Which makes you feel guilty and regretful about the past? Which always feels the need to defend ‘me’ or the ego, and at the same time, deeply thinks that the ‘me’ it defends is never good enough? Those are the thoughts we tend to attach to and call them ‘my’ thoughts and build an identity ‘me’ out of the thoughts. But, if the thoughts were you, then who was that witness that is noticing all these thoughts?
If you feel puzzled, try this experiment. Put everything down right now, come to a comfortable seated position, sit tall and straight, then gently close your eyes. Try to notice the next thought that comes to your mind. Don’t stop until you catch your first thought.
How was it? Did you experience the short period where you had no thoughts whatsoever? Did you feel the sense of peace, no matter how short it lasted? Did you see the first thought AND the witness who was seeing it? That’s a really helpful step to understand Yoga, that you are not your thoughts, but you are the witness within.
Yoga’s definition by Patanjali is ‘citta-vrtti-nirodhah’, citta means mind, vrtti means movement or waves, nirodhah means control or quiet. So 'citta-vrtti-nirodhah' means the restriction of the movements of the mind. In other words, the purpose of Yoga is to achieve the stillness in mind, for one to connect with his/her true identity, the witness or the inner being. Otherwise, the witness assumes the identity dictated by the movement of the mind, the never-ending thoughts (source: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali).
There are eight limbs of Yoga, they are listed in the progressive order as below:
Yama: ethical considerations, such as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation and non-possessiveness.
Niyama: self-observations, including cleanliness (both inner and outer, both in thoughts and in actions), contentment, discipline, self-study and devotion to the universal truth, where one believes that there is something greater than oneself and sees it in all things.
Asana: physical postures, probably what we experienced the most about Yoga practice in modern days. It is in fact designed to help the flow of prana (life force, energy or 'Chi' in Chinese)
Pranayama: breath control, which is considered the bridge between the body and the mind.
Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses, where the attention is fixed and the rest of the world falls away. By withdrawing the mind from the senses, one detaches himself/herself from that worldly conditioning.
Dharana: concentration of the mind.
Samadhi: freedom and peace
The path begins by looking at how you interact with society through the yamas (ethical considerations), and how you discipline yourself with niyamas (self observations) and asana (physical postures). Pranayama (breath control) is the bridge from dealing with the body to the mind. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) and dharana (concentration of the mind) then work on disciplining the mind. With the body and mind under control, dhyana (meditation) is the final bridge to the true understanding of ‘Self’, samadhi (freedom and peace) (Yoga London, 2009). Yoga is a lifestyle, a continuous practice and a spiritual pursuit.
Next time in a Yoga class, I encourage you to focus more on the breath, the quality of the breath, how the inner body feels as you move into different postures, which part of the body you could breath into, fixate your dristi (gaze) at a fixed point, or to try to close your eyes to withdraw the sense of seeing. Experience Yoga by drawing attention within. And let me know how it goes.
Love and light,