Updated: Nov 8, 2019
**I originally wrote this article as a guest blogger for another website, www.lifepsych.org. That site belongs to an amazing psychologist, photographer (she took the above photo), and world traveler (She has been to Antarctica! Twice!!), who also happens to be my aunt. Check out her site.**
When you think of yoga, what comes to mind? A good workout? Simple stretching? Most Americans today probably think of yoga poses and tight pants. What if I were to say that, traditionally, the physical postures are just a tiny part of the practice – and perhaps a very insignificant part?
Yoga, as it was originally developed, is meant to be a complete system for spiritual growth and healing. Much more than just a series of physical postures, it is a way to dissolve our limited sense of self and recognize the infinite possibilities that lie within each of us. Yoga provides guidance for living a life that is in line with our own personal truth, and its purpose is to help us realize our connection to the Divine. In fact, that is what yoga means: union. Often described as a way of unifying body, mind, and spirit, the true meaning of union in the context of yoga is actually the recognition that we are all One. Our identification with social roles and with the thoughts in our mind and the emotions in our heart begins to slip away, and we catch a glimpse of something much bigger and brighter than we ever imagined. We come to know the truth of our being and purpose of our existence. Sometimes this awakening is only fleeting, but it nevertheless changes us forever.
This is not the way that yoga is usually presented here in the West. Today the practice is often reduced to yoga-based exercise, which has completely narrowed our idea of the true meaning and purpose of yoga. Traditionally, the asana (yoga postures) were not meant to be the focus of practice but instead a way to prepare for meditation. It is only in deep meditation that we can connect to source and experience complete peace and union. No amount of downward-facing dog or tree pose will get us there. However, meditation doesn’t come easily for most of us. It is very difficult to plop down in a seated posture on the floor and sit still for any amount of time without feeling physically uncomfortable and mentally preoccupied with the day’s drama. Asana is a means of gently opening up the body, releasing tension, focusing on the breath, and quieting the mind. Only then will meditation become more accessible.
Meditation (even after asana practice) is often quite challenging. When we sit down to meditate, we often encounter one of two obstacles: an extremely busy mind, or an inability to stay awake. Yoga offers solutions for both of these issues.
In the event that our mind seem uncontrollable and our thoughts seem never-ending, yoga prescribes the use of mantra. Considered the classic tool of yoga, mantras are energetically charged words or phrases in Sanskrit designed to give the mind something to focus on that has a higher vibration than our thoughts. The very fact that the mantras are in a language that our mind doesn’t understand is useful; it prevents our mind from limiting its meaning and instead allows it to be an experience to feel rather than to intellectualize. With mantra, our mind has something to pay attention to other than the constant stream of thoughts that distract us, which is certainly helpful when our mind seems so incredibly busy!
In the event that we are fighting to stay awake during meditation, the answer is pranayama, or yogic breathing exercises. When our energy is low, blocked, stagnant, or even frenetic, specific breath work can easily bring us to a state of relaxed alertness. There are many different kinds of breathing exercises found in yoga, and they can make profound changes to both our body and mind. Once we understand how and when to use the tools of mantra and yogic breathing (and they are best learned from a qualified yoga instructor), we can begin our meditation session with them. After a few minutes of mantra recitation or breath work we can then fall into silent stillness and the true process of meditation can begin. We can go beyond the body and mind to a place of pure being and heightened consciousness.
Not every meditation session will result in a state of pure bliss. In fact, we are lucky if it ever happens. Mostly, meditation is practice – a continual recognition that our thoughts have wandered, followed by an attempt to bring our awareness back to a single point. It happens over and over again in every sitting. In fact, it is said that this is either our biggest obstacle or our greatest breakthrough. Either those never-ending thoughts trip us up and leave us feeling frustrated, or we realize that the very fact that we can observe our thoughts is proof that we are not our thoughts! We are the pure consciousness that is aware of it all happening! We can then rest in that state of the witness, just watching the thoughts go by without attaching to any of them.
Yoga is accessible to everyone at any level, no matter what the initial intention is for practice. Whether coming for a workout, relaxation, meditation, or spirituality, every person can have their needs met. Sometimes what brings us in the door is what maintains our practice, and sometimes our practice evolves. For example, I began yoga practice simply because I was pregnant and physically uncomfortable, and I just wanted to get the physical benefits. In fact, at the beginning I was quite turned off by the chanting and meditation. Slowly, however, I began to feel that although my body was getting stronger and more flexible and my mind a bit quieter and easier to manage, something seemed to be missing. I decided to try mantra and meditation, and it changed everything for me. I began healing in tremendous ways and experienced amazing states of profound peace and total clarity; states in which I was able to see the beauty and perfection of everything and know precisely why I am here and what I am meant to do with my life. Now mantra and meditation are the foundation of my yoga practice while the physical aspect is secondary.
No matter what ails us – a weak core, inflexibility, limited range of motion, tension, low energy, an inability to concentrate, anxiety, insomnia, stress, restlessness, insecurity – yoga and all its practices can make a huge difference in bringing us to a state of well-being. Regardless of what you ask from your yoga experience, you will certainly receive much more than you ever expected. Come with an open mind and a willingness to embrace whatever the practice has to offer. You never know what you might walk away with!