When asked ‘what is yoga’ most might define it as a type of physical activity or even a form of exercise that strengthens or relaxes the body. More advanced practitioners might speak about the kind of regular commitment and discipline yoga entails, and the emphasis on breath, yet still equate the mastery of challenging poses to a successful practice. These interpretations, however, disproportionately emphasize the physical aspects of yoga and falsely portray an ideology that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yoga is in fact about the mastery of the mind – not of the physical body. As I came to learn during my yoga training, it is only through the mastery of the mind that we can master our bodies, and beyond that even more importantly release ourselves from pain and suffering. So can yoga actually alter our minds and liberate us from hurtful experiences? Pantanjali, the original yogi master and author of the revered ancient texts comprising the Yoga Sutra, outlines in great detail all the rituals and steps involved in the pursuit of self-transformation, the ultimate goal being: to liberate ourselves from the shackles of a meaningless existence and the trappings of samsara. Yoga derives from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to bind or join, and its very mastery enables one to bind with or attain communion with Brahman, or the Supreme Being – or God.
Yoga teaches us how to contain our mind, and outlines the methods by which we can begin to purify our thoughts and actions by escaping the trappings of delusion, attachment, and diversion – and in that process purify and strengthen our bodies. It has little to do with exercise and nothing to do with athletic prowess. The emphasis is the total commitment towards the study and practice of the higher moral principles outlined in detail in the Eight Limbs of Yoga, through the application of which one can work towards purifying his mind and his spirit. One of the branches, which comprise the Eight Limbs, is Yama(s), translated as Ethical Principles or Restraint(s) from: violence, stealing, lying, sexual irresponsibility, and hoarding. This is just the tip of the iceberg. One could spend an entire lifetime just focusing on mastering just one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, like cultivating santosa or contentment. There are millions of people daily who practice yoga but who never look deeper or even have an understanding of the sacred and profound wisdom behind this ancient practice. That is because yoga has become diluted and manipulated in Western society to fit our fixated competitive ideas of ‘how to achieve perfection’ – and that ideal is grounded on the physical rather than the spiritual realm. Inasmuch as it has been preserved in its original content, Yoga has taken on the guise of an evolving trend, promoting inventive derivatives and namesake variants, and that evolution has placed a primary emphasis on physical results, forcing one into the trappings of ego and competitiveness. As long as we keep believing that beauty and worldly satisfaction is something we can achieve by altering our bodies and other external factors, rather than altering or rather, awakening our inner state of consciousness, we will never get to anywhere close to what true reality is. Yoga is not a competitive sport – although in time we might see it become that. But there will always be those of us who will strive to peer deeper, and who will remain true to the source in its pure and original form.
The ultimate goal is to attain enlightenment and free ourselves from the chains that bind us to the physical world – our uncontrolled inner world that deludes our senses and keeps us stuck in a state of unresolved conflicts, and painful attachments. Buddhism and Yoga have the same scope. It is all about the training of the mind to overcome samsara, or cyclical suffering. Whereas Buddhism is more focused on the practice of deep meditation in its own sacred rituals, yogis use meditation in conjunction with breath control or pranayama and also engage the body to fully express and translate into physical practice the Yoga Sutra principles. According to theBhagavad Gita, the most important text on yoga philosophy, “When the restlessness of the mind, intellect and self is stilled through the practice of Yoga, the yogi by the grace of the Spirit within himself finds fulfillment. Then he knows the joy eternal, which is beyond the pale of the senses which his reason cannot grasp. This is the real meaning of Yoga: a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow.” Yoga teaches us how to transcend the trappings of a self-induced false reality, and pursue the one true path that will liberate us from this unawakened state, which keeps us in a perpetual state of neurosis and dissatisfaction. The ultimate goal of yoga has little to do with how long one can hold an impeccably composed asana or pose. It is about freeing our minds to attain the ultimate goal: the union with our divine source, and that ever-present teacher within. In the words of Iyengar: “The yogi does not look heavenward to find God. He knows that He is within, being known as the Antaratma (The Inner Self)…By profound meditation the knower, the knowledge and the known become one. The seer, the sight, and the seen have no separate existence from each other. It is like a great musician becoming one with his instrument. Then, the yogi stands in his own nature and realizes his self (Atman), the part of the Supreme Soul within himself.”
What is Yoga? Yoga is ultimately the art of mastering going within. It is the sacred knowledge by which we can discover the deepest of truths, attain the liberation of our mind, and spirit, and dissolve into perfect communion with our Divine Self.