What is Yoga?
'WHEN THE STUDENT IS READY, THE TEACHER WILL APPEAR" GAUTAMA BUDDHA
There are many ways to define, express and interpret what yoga is, not because of there being a confusion, but rather due to the multiple benefits and layers to this beautiful practice.
Yoga in Sanskrit means to "yoke", to unite our own body, mind and spirit internally in harmony and then to unite our whole harmonious self with our Higher Self, which some know and name as God, the Universe, Allah, Creator, Mother Nature, the macrocosm, etc... whatever you call it is irrelevant, as many of us are aware of agnostic of the belief that there is something bigger high above over us and that awareness is that of the Higher Self.
With this union, one achieves a healthy balance that results in a higher level understanding of life, of one's true nature, inner self, life purpose and one's surroundings such that life becomes easier to navigate through. One becomes more aware of the purpose of one's life on this earth and is able to live a more purposeful and meaningful existence. The process of attaining this union is thus synonymous to the term "self actualisation", which is the realisation of one's most inner self that then allows one to maximise his/her potential in life.
We discover the truth, beauty and joy of living through yoga. The many philosophies of how we approach practising yoga, even at the most basic level of physical poses (Asanas), can often be applied to life and how to live it in general. Practising balance, patience, non-competition with others, letting go of perfectionism, practising self-awareness, inner reflections, discarding of egotistical pursuits, making more sound judgments and decisions, so on and so forth... are philosophies that are often applicable to both our practice of yoga on and off the mat.
We translate the philosophies and practice of yoga into your life, so that you can achieve your 'dream life'. How yoga helps us to achieve this dream life is through learning to control our minds by first raising our awareness that our consciousness is separate from our body, mind and spirit and then to establish that we can control the body, mind and spirit such that we have control over what we do, how we think and how we feel. When we are able to fully control ourselves, we can maximise our life potential.
"To become harmoniously balanced in love, work, wisdom and concentration...
To the worker, it is union between human and the whole of humanity;
to the mystic, between one's lower and higher self;
to the lover, union between oneself and the God of love;
and to the philosopher, it is the union of all existence.
Yoga means "union" in Sanskrit and the person who sees to these 4 types of union is called a yogi"
1893 at The Parliament of World Religions
When we have control over our body, mind and emotions and realise that we are separate from whatever the mind, body and emotions are feeling, we will then be able to re-program ourselves such that we can direct our actions, thoughts, intentions and communication towards things that we would like to focus on. This is what we call mindfulness. With mindfulness, we conduct our lives purposefully with the underlying premise "What you think and what you feel is what you create".
Yoga is a practice that promotes love, peace and harmony for a yogi internally within him/herself and also in the interaction between the yogi and his/her environment and the Higher Self (God).
Through yoga, we also learn to let go of attachment to the outcomes of life and our labour and we begin to just focus on doing what we believe we should do (according to the Yamas and Niyamas) and surrendering the fruit of our actions to God, recognising that we are not in complete control of the outcomes of our actions and yet it does not really matter what the outcomes are, since our happiness and satisfaction is derived fully from the knowing that we have practised and done things to the best of our ability according to the application of the principles we stick to. This concept is best explained in this verse from the Bhagavad Gita. "Thy business is with the action only, never with its fruits, so let not the fruit of action be thy motive, nor be thou to inaction attached" Bhagavad Gita, 2.47
Through yoga, we learn to not be as affected by the ups and downs of life as we stay in a neutral meditative state of mind, thus we are being able to calmly go through life, accepting the dualities (ups and downs) of life without being too fazed. When life is going great, we are not too caught up and excited by it and when life is not going so great, we are not down in despair either. This is simply because each moment is not permanent and all circumstances of our physical environment, surroundings and circumstances do not last forever. We are in greater control of our emotions and thus are able to live life with more ease, peace and bliss.
Another principle instilled by yoga is that every being is equal. This principle "equanimity", promotes humility, compassion, loving kindness and non-judgment of others. This principle links back to the fact that yoga means union of ourselves with the greater universe, and that when we realise that ultimately all of us are one, coming from the same source, feeling the same things, experiencing the same plights and pleasures in life, then we are able to feel utmost compassion for all others even when they are inflicting pain towards us. When we begin to see a part of ourselves in others, and vice versa, we then are able to feel more sympathy, empathy, compassion, kindness and forgiveness towards them despite their weaknesses, misdeeds and flaws.
Achieving enlightenment through yoga is the ultimate goal and this state is called Samadhi. There are 8 limbs of yoga (Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga) and practising all or parts of the 8 limbs to achieve the state of Samadhi (interchangeably termed as nirvana bliss/enlightenment in other texts and schools of thought) is the goal of a yogi.
Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga:
1) Yama - moral principles which are simple universal principles to live by, the main ones include:
i) Ahimsa - non-violence towards all living beings
ii) Satya - truth; to speak truth with kindness
iii) Asteya - non-stealing, non-using of others' things and time and energy without consideration
iv) Brahmacharya - celibacy, or conscious control and direction of energy to positive and productive outcomes
v) Aparigraha - without greed, possessiveness and desire
2) Niyama - observance of life, how we live when no one is looking
i) Sauca - cleanliness
ii) Santosha - contentment
iii) Tapas - austerity
iv) Svadhyaya - self study
v) Ishvara Pranidhana - total surrender to God/Creator/Higher Being/The Universe
The Yamas and Niyamas come first in the order of Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga because they serve as pre-requisites before one embarks on his/her journey to practising yoga. In the wise words of an experienced yogi, "Yoga without these Yamas and Niyamas is an impossibility"
3) Asana (Physical postures) - the physical practice with numerous challenging, fun postures which are practised with consciousness, mindfulness and in synchrony with the breath. While practising the physical postures can be meditative and result in the state of Samadhi at the same time, for most of the time for most people, practising Asanas is preparatory for one to be able to meditate after (either through sitting or lying down) Nonetheless, many today practise yoga Asanas primarily without the other 7 limbs and the physical, mentally and spiritual benefits, albeit not in its fullest, is not be to undermined as well.
4) Pranayama (Breath Control/Extension) - 'prana' means life force/vital energy in Sanskrit; practice of breath control; pranayama is not to really control the breath but to expand its feel, lengthening of breath, slowing down of heart beat, conscious breathing cleanses the mind
5) Pratyahara (Withdrawal of Senses) - we begin to withdraw our senses from the external surrounding and turn ourselves inwards, thus we stop losing energy to objects that are not relevant or real in our lives, turning ourselves inward and paying attention/tuning in to what matters and killing the external "noise"
6) Dharana (Concentration) - once we withdraw our senses and draw our attention and energy within, we direct this energy into something we concentrate on; often we direct ourselves to our own personal mantras, our own personal petitions and words of affirmation to help our conscious and subconscious mind imprint them firmly within ourselves, thus beginning the transformative work of changing how we think, live and behave
7) Dhyana - meditation, practising one point of awareness, and receiving a light that we have not experienced
8) Samadhi - the only true object of yoga - self transcendence, the ultimate decoupling of pure consciousness from body and mind... the union of the body, mind and spirit with the divine Creator of earth (God)
A Brief History of Yoga
Yoga originates from India and has been in existence for around 5,000 years, thus being one of the longest standing tradition/ritual/practice in modern day. It was created during the Indus Valley Civilisation during the Vedic Period (around 2500 BC) by the Aryans. The Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the first civilisations on earth according to recorded history on earth. The creators of yoga were prosperous not only spiritually but in the material world too. Sanskrit was the language of the Aryans and became the original language of instruction for yoga, thus yoga terminology is in Sanskrit, although there has been wide translation of many terms into English and other languages.
Some Observed Controversial Issues with Yoga
As opposed to popular belief among many who practise yoga, especially in the commercial centres, yoga is not just a physical practice. In my own experience as a yoga practitioner, I have encountered many who have this misguided aim and focus in their practice of yoga as they fully focus themselves on working on the "Asanas" with emphasis on perfecting the poses and purifying their diet and nutrition with vegetarianism, cutting out alcohol and smoking from their lives while placing a far less emphasis, forgetting or even not being aware of the main goal of practising yoga, which is to attain harmonic union of the body, mind and spirit within and with the divine Creator and all beings in the universe.
With that said, the great emphasis on an Asana-focused yoga practice in modern culture is not to be undermined in its benefits for society and the promotion of yoga as a whole. As many people are more naturally drawn to introducing a physical practice in their lives for the sake of keeping fit, healthy and looking good, the Asana limb of yoga does play a huge part in drawing wide interest among the masses towards learning yoga. Further, even if one practises yoga that is predominately focussed on Asanas, their mindset and lifestyle are very likely to transform positively towards the ways of a yogi as I have previously experienced in my own personal practice of yoga where I found practising Asanas made me a calmer and more mindful person, helping me tremendously with coping with a highly stressful job and life whilst having clinical depression and anxiety.
Also, I have observed many yoga practitioners and yoga teachers placing a lot of emphasis on glorifying their yoga gurus and themselves as teachers, which is contradictory to the precept of equanimity whereby everyone is supposed to be equal. Many yoga practitioners and teachers end up encouraging idolatry of the teachers as a result of the overt projection and glorification of the yoga masters/gurus/teachers to the extent of creating new lineages of yoga under the name of the particular guru/master/teacher, which is quite unnecessary in my humble opinion, and the placing of the photographs of these gurus/masters/teachers as a worshipping item at their altar.
Yoga also instils in us a mindset and lifestyle of being thankful and grateful towards everything in life, including being thankful for our body, our breath and all the beautiful people and things that we are being blessed with in this life. Taking time during our yoga practice to give gratitude everyday in our Sadhana practice
Yoga to me is not a religion but rather a healthy and balanced way of life that is based on a systematic school on psychology, physiology and spirituality. Therefore, yoga can be practised hand in hand with any other religious beliefs as religion is a set of beliefs while spirituality is a way of life or system that enhances one's efforts to work towards a change within.
To get the full benefits of yoga, just like for anything else in life, we need to keep up with our regular practice.
How yoga and religions can co-exist? Can I practise yoga if I am of another religion?
As a religious Catholic, I remember first attending my yoga teacher training with serious fears and doubts of whether yoga would be conflicting my religious beliefs. Through time and the kind explanation of the bible versus yoga philosophies, I have learned that yoga is a process that actually enhances my religious practice as it enables me to go deeper within myself through deep meditation, thus aiding me in gaining a closer connection with God.
The beauty of yoga is that anyone with any religious faith can use this process to help them to connect more deeply with their own faith and beliefs, be it Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, etc. For example, the wife of one of the Rabbis (Jewish faith priest) in Hong Kong practises yoga with me as a regular faithful student.
How yoga has changed my life?
Yoga is by far the most powerful tool to achieve a holistic health solution that I have experienced in my life. On a personal level, I have gained better control over my emotions, better handle of stress from work and life, a stronger physique, a more mindful way of living, make sounder decisions, have greater patience of others and life to unfold in its own time, higher energy levels, positivity and a strengthening of my can-do attitude, calmness, less flaring of my temper, strengthening of my joints and bones for preparation for other physical work, lower occurrence of illnesses and many more in my practice over 15 years as a devoted student and teacher.
I have become more conscious of my actions, thoughts and communication. Eating excessively has been a problem I have been dealing with almost all my life and I used to eat out of suppressing emotions. This emotional eating would involve eating big bags of chips, lots of sugary snacks and just a large amount of food in general to make myself feel good whenever I was feeling upset, emotional, disappointed, stressed, anxious... With learning and gaining a deeper consciousness of my actions, I now eat more mindfully, meaning I eat more slowly and mindfully think of each bite of food that I take into my body. Eating is
I am a highly emotional person since young and was always having large upswings and downswings in life through the dualities. It was highly disruptive. My family, friends and people close to me in a professional or personal setting had to endure this often highly disruptive behaviour. With the active and regular practice of yoga, I aim to achieve a more healthy and balanced relationship with my family and loved ones.