Yoga Beyond Bending
Yoga at first glance seems only like a really cool way to bend and twist your body while washing and folding your joints. Sometimes the hot bodies of yoga teachers and longterm students entice many to practice in the hopes of getting that almost famous toned, slim yoga body. Yet even though some students find their way into yoga because of the external form of the postures, the heart of yoga is a sincere spiritual investigation of the inner self. The highest potential of yoga practice is a constant connection with the highest source of divinity we can know and experience. If practiced with diligence over many years yoga connects us with an imperturbable, eternally calm place within. But yoga done without the intention of true inner peace uses the body’s outward appearance as a goal in itself and has more in common with sports and fitness than traditional yoga.
While I love sports and fitness and feel that most highly accomplished athletes are deeply spiritual and connected people, I am careful to distinguish yoga from sport. Yoga is not athletics though it asks the body to perform very athletic feats. It is tempting to create an exercise routine based on the techniques of yoga to stretch and strength the body. But the deeper benefits of yoga cannot be distilled and separated from the true intention behind it–the goal of inner peace. The body or the level of physical performance in yoga is never an end in and of itself. In fact yoga actually teaches you how to release attachment and identification with the body, the mind and the emotions. Instead yoga teaches practitioners learn how to identify with the seat of the soul within themselves. It is by challenging and moving past the known limits of the body that practitioners ultimately learn that they are not bound by their physical form. Through facing and transcending mental and emotional boundaries yoga students get first hand experience of their limitless potential for greatness. Yoga is a path of liberation from the material world of mind and matter. It is a door into the inner world and a life devoted to inner peace.
Physical form and posture, although extremely useful along the way, are not the end goal of yoga. It simply does not matter whether your hamstrings are long or your body is toned if you are not able to be a nice person. Alternatively a person practicing the most basic and beginner level of yoga while maintaining a heartfelt devotion to living a more peaceful life is perhaps a very accomplished yogi. Yoga without a foundation in the philosophy of liberation is just stretching. Whenever excited students would bring in photos of contortionists and other extremely bendy people for my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, to see in Mysore, he would take time to look deeply at the image. Then after a moment of reflection his furrowed brow would raise and Guruji would say, “That not yoga. That only bending. Yoga means self-knowledge”.
When students are enamored with the appearance of a posture it is often actually a deeper inner longing that is expressed. Whereas certain cultural systems deem it unacceptable to pursue spiritual studies under an alternative religious system, it is often acceptable under these same systems to try to exercise, get healthy and feel better. Yoga is a non-denominational, non-religious study of the inner self through daily direct experience. The stated goal for all dedicated practitioners is to know the divinity within on a daily basis. The physical postures and daily practices aim an establishing a basic level of health in the body, peace in the mind and equanimity in the emotions. The body itself is not the stated goal. Instead the body and the mind are two sides of the embodiment of each human spirit on Earth. Yoga practitioners maintain a healthy body in the same way monks sweep the temple grounds–to provide a clean, clear space for spirit to live. It is a mistake to think that the goal of yoga is only to get strong and flexible. Yes, you will get a strong, flexible body if you practice yoga. But if focus exclusively on the lithe form you will miss the real gift of yoga, that is, inner peace. The physical transformation in yoga is not the result of targeted toning techniques but instead occurs when deep psychological and emotional patterns are surpassed. Your body changes as your mind evolves. The yoga body is actually just a by-product of the exponential growth that happens when searching for your true, authentic self. The body only changes when you literally stretch your mind.