What is Yoga?

With a rich and diverse history that can be plausibly traced back 5000 years, it is perhaps no wonder the practice of Yoga is so challenging to define. There is often a moment of realisation for Yoga practitioners in the West, arrive how it may, that there is more to this practice than meets the eye, and that it is unequivocally more than just stretching. As seamless as a well cued transition, stretching our hamstrings becomes a deep contemplation of selfhood that begins to stretch our beliefs about what we thought we knew, and what is possible as a human being.

The word ‘Yoga’ itself can be loosely defined as ‘union’, and this is often the entry point for attempted definitions of what it all means. Union of what? Heart and mind? Our mind-made self and our essential nature? Form and formlessness? The individual with the collective? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, and each practitioner will likely have their own feeling surrounding what this union refers to. Perhaps it changes from day to day, or even moment to moment. How then can we ‘unify’ these interpretations of unity?

Across the myriad styles, adaptations and interpretations of the practice, the unifying factor is that the path of Yoga is a journey inwards. We are blessed as human beings with outward opening sense organs that allow us to rejoice in the many wonders of the world (spoiler alert; there are more than 7). We can enjoy the flavour of, as well as being nourished by, the food we eat. We can be transported to the ethereal domain of splendour by the smell of a flower. We can be lovingly contacted by the warmth of the sun on our face. However, this constant proximity with our unique sensory experience has the potential to bind us and often entangle us in the external world. What happens when the warmth of the sun on our face becomes the biting cold of winter sleet? Or when the aroma of a flower becomes a provocative smell from our past? When absorbed in the external sensory experience, the ever changing and unpredictable nature of life keeps us oscillating between states of pleasure and suffering. If we depend on the external world to keep us feeling happy, whilst it might manage it sometimes, its unavoidable polarities make it impossible to last. Whether we like it or not, what once lived will eventually return from whence it came—what we thought we once ‘had’ is destined to be ‘lost’. If liberation and lasting happiness cannot be found outside of ourselves, where then is there to look? The only way is inwards.

Many moons ago, the sages of Ancient India created an ancient technique for transcending the shackles of the material world, for understanding that our essential nature is unaffected by the fluctuations of the world around us, and for finding peace from the mind. Yoga implores us to turn the gaze inwards, to feel and come to know the unmoving and unchanging consciousness that we are whilst the external world moves and changes around us. Yoga teaches us that we are not separate individuals in a hostile world, we are unique and diverse expressions of the same One Life, and in this state of Union/Yoga our potential for love is limitless. Then, suffering becomes acceptance, death becomes rebirth, and life becomes beautiful. It is an ineffable realisation that can only be understood experientially, and across the myriad styles, adaptations and interpretations of the practice, above all, Yoga is a well trodden path for this inward journey. The Yoga mat is a vehicle for the journey inwards to yourself, so wherever you find yourself, whatever style you are practicing, and whoever with, remember who you are and enjoy the ride.

Jamie Rowland Yoga