It wasn’t until I lost my yoga studio that I fully appreciated its value. It was a little locally owned place. It was the best studio I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting. It was one of a kind. Now a condo building stands on the ground it touched. Many of the classes I’ve tried since then have felt more like aerobics than yoga. Asanas recited in their english names and a room full of people following dutifully. But it lacks soul. It’s missing whatever magic it was that left me wiped clean of all tension. That loosened the tight places in my heart, if only for a few hours. Yoga unwound what was knotted and healed what was broken. It felt like a kind of magic.
Do you know the sort of yoga I’m talking about? It’s difficult to explain because I honestly have no idea how it works. Or at least I didn’t have any idea before. I went to classes but I had never really learned about what yoga actually was. So when my yoga studio closed down and I couldn’t find that level of relief in any of the studios I tried, I began to seek it on my own.
What I found was that yoga was far more than the exercise. We do the poses (called asanas), we coordinate the breathing, but I think sometimes the deep foundation that lies below is forgotten. I didn’t appreciate that I was practicing only one small branch of a vast tree of theory and knowledge.
Yoga grew from a series of ancient texts. Different scholars will say different things, but my impression is that most of modern yoga comes from the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, frequently just called the Yoga Sutras. But yoga is rooted all the way back in the Upanishads, and indeed all of the Vedas. The Vedas touch on philosophical topics so wide-ranging that I doubt it would be productive to try and list or summarize them. What grew from these texts is yoga. It’s a way of seeing. A way of thinking more clearly. A practice allowing one to bring the body and mind into focus. No distraction. All attention focuses on one thing. That thing might be meditating, or exercising, or writing a blog post. Sounds helpful, right?
That’s one interpretation of yoga anyway. When I started trying to write a post on yoga it became apparent that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Yoga is far too complicated to summarize in a few short paragraphs. The yoga I practiced at my old studio is called Vinyasa Yoga. Vinyasa yoga is a series of poses that flow one to the next, making it more aerobically challenging. It’s one of many schools of yoga that are practiced in the western world (also: Bikram, Iyengar, Yin). The physical practice is just a little slice of Ashtanga Yoga, which is a many limbed practice and philosophy. Even Ashtanga itself is a subset of yoga (there is also Hatha and Tantric Yoga). So the yoga I was doing is like one leaf on the tree of yoga. My leaf is part of a branch. That branch is just a small part of a larger branch. That branch is just a small part of an even larger branch.
You could spend a lifetime learning about yoga.
So I ended up focusing on the Ashtanga yoga taught by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. I read The Heart of Yoga, written by his son and student T. K. V. Desikachar, watched the Breath of the Gods, and read various articles on the subject (I would recommend this article by David Gordon White if you’re interested in the history).
According to Desikachar yoga is many things. First, it is a practice that clears the mind. I can personally attest to how well the physical asanas clear out my head. Doing yoga quiets the chatter in my mind. It stops me from leaping rapidly from one thought to the next. It calms me. Second, the word “yoga” is often translated as “union” (it has many meanings though). Accordingly, yoga is also a practices that brings the body, mind and breath into harmony. One uses the breath to focus the mind on the body and bring them together. Instead of being two separate entities they become one. Third, yoga is a practice that allows us to achieve what we previously could not. It’s about baby steps. You practice every day and each day you get a little better. This isn’t just about being stronger or more flexible. It’s about strengthening the mind. About clearing away unproductive thoughts. It’s about letting go of thought patterns that prevent us from seeing clearly.
That, to me, is the core of the yoga philosophy. There is all this stuff that prevents us from seeing clearly. Yoga is about getting rid of that so you see things as they are. The Yoga Sutras call this avidyā. Avidyā is incorrect understanding. Yoga aims to help us let go of our incorrect assumptions about the world so we can see things more clearly. In contrast, the Yoga Sutras also describe a deep part of us called purusa, which is able to see clearly. If you’ve read The Name of the Wind (this is my absolute favorite fantasy novel), you can understand purusa as being similar to the “sleeping mind” which is very eloquently described my Mr. Rothfuss. The goal is to clear out the avidyā so we can hear our purusa.
So, according to yoga theory, how do we get rid of this avidyā stuff so we can see clearly and stop getting so tangled up in things? According to Desikachar there are three ways to get rid of avidyā. First, is tapas. Tapas is about cleansing the body with heat and movement. This is the purpose of the breathing exercises (prāṇāyāma) and the physical poses (asanas). The second is svādhyāya. It means self-study. I’m not spelling it again because all these special characters are killing me. The third way is called (brace yourself) Īśvarapraṇidhāna. Don’t ask me to pronounce this one. It translates to “love of god,” but for me it is more about the quality of one’s actions. Doing good work, being kind, and in general being a good person make up the third way to gradually clear away avidyā so one can see clearly.
Clearing out avidyā allows us greater access to our inner wisdom. In yoga the concept of purusa is closely linked to the idea of the flow of energy within the body (this might be getting a little pseudo-sciency for you but you might as well just try the sari/dhoti on. If you don’t try it on you’ll never know if it fits). The energy is called prana. The practice of the asanas and breath also help to clear out knots and blockages, allowing us full access to all the energy we possess.
Let’s pause here for a moment of honesty. I don’t know what I believe here. I value thinking critically about any piece of information that might come under my nose. I’m not sure I believe in a magical life force flowing through our bodies. What I do believe is that our bodies are mechanisms of energy. We put energy in and expend energy on every function we perform: excercise, thoughts, everything. If I’m holding tension in my shoulders I am wasting energy contracting those muscles. If I let go of that tension it frees up energy to be used for something else.To me, the idea that the practice of yoga might free up energy for other pursuits makes good sense. I, at the very least, think that what yoga teaches is possible.
In fact, I believe that yoga has become so popular because people experience real positive change in their lives through the practice. The theory behind it has been developed for thousands of years. These practices have survived the test of time because, regardless of how, they are effective. So while I might not believe there is a snake spirit curled at the base of my spine, I do believe that visualizing that might improve my practice and therefore my life. That’s enough for me.
And maybe I don’t need to know exactly how it works. Maybe it’s enough just to know that it does. So get going on that natarajasana.