Take a moment to visualize ‘yoga’. What comes to mind? Maybe a yoga mat or yoga pants (we all love yoga pants). Maybe you think of a warrior pose or headstand. For most of us, the image is likely visual. It’s important to recognize that our ideas about yoga impact how we approach the practice.
The word ‘Yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Yuj’, meaning ‘to join’ or ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’. Yuj is a physical tool used to join cattle. Long ago the yuj was used on war horses. It was both the device and technique to calm the horses so they could be focused for the work of war. What an incredible symbol these horses serve as frenetic beings “chomping at the bit.” Uncontrolled horses equaled un-useful horses.
In the time the Upanishads (sacred Hindu texts), we are introduced to the warrior caste and thus war metaphors. In one text, the Katha Upanishad, these high energy horses are compared with our minds. One passage encourages folks to seek understanding because without it, the mind runs uncontrolled, “like wild horses.” We can now understand the external act of yoking aggressive, out of control horses with the internal work of calming the mind. They recognized just how stubborn our minds can be and that the key is to calm it. In both cases, of the horses and our minds, equanimity serves a greater purpose: for the horses, it is preparation for war, for us, it is the ability to move through the world with skill.
The Yogic scriptures tell us the practice of Yoga leads to the union of individual consciousness with that of the Universal Consciousness, indicating a perfect harmony between the mind and body, humanity and Nature.
Yoga is a verb, an action, something we do. It’s a dynamic activity that encompasses much more than rolling out our mats and doing some poses. Yoga is a process, a way in which we engage the world. As we engage and pay attention, we make choices, learn from those choices and then start the process of engagement again. In the Indian mind, actions are the way we think, move and speak. By training our attention on something, we are engaging with it. We are connecting through yoga. The connection is not just physical, but emotional, mental and spiritual as well.
Once we understand yoga as something we do to connect and engage with the world; that it takes our entire mind, body and full attention, we begin to notice changes in our “doing yoga.” Some of us practice yoga through asana (physical poses). Others practice yoga through meditation, breath work, chanting, etc. This is all yoga. All are tools to help us pay attention. Kate Saal of One Flow Yoga says, “Yoga is the process we can engage in to understand our body, the way it moves and the way we use it. We can engage with our mind and understand it, where it habitually goes and how to focus it. And we can work with our emotions and notice how we tend to react. Then we can build upon that and bring space so that we are not just responding to stimuli all of the time.”
Lastly, we do all of this wearing attire that helps us in the process of relating to the world…yoga pants. And who doesn’t love yoga pants?