Nowadays almost everyone is familiar with the term yoga in the Western world. But barely anyone knows what it really means. Most people are aware that it’s not just sports and that has deep spiritual value. But what is the link between the two exactly? Unfortunately, misconceptions about this ancient tradition can lead to wrong practices and even injuries. Therefore, it’s important to understand what yoga really is before practicing it.
I am currently in Nepal and I just concluded my yoga teacher training. And I have to admit that even I am learning a lot of new things about yoga, after having practiced it for seven years. Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to end up in yoga ashram where yoga teacher trainees are introduced into the spiritual side of yoga. There are many schools out there, even in India and Nepal, where the emphasis is increasingly on the physical part of the practice. The spiritual aspects get lost or are translated into: “stay in this pose longer than you can bear, so you can burn through your ego and attain spiritual enlightenment.”
The yoga tradition is very powerful and healing, but therefore you have to understand its purpose correctly. I cannot give an overview of the entire tradition in just one post. But I would like to discuss some common misconceptions, so others can benefit more from their practice and also enjoy it more. I will limit myself to mainly discussing Hatha yoga, since this is the form of yoga which includes the well known asanas (poses).
Yoga is more than just asanas
Let’s start with one of the biggest misconceptions: what yoga actually is. It’s neither a sport nor a religion. It’s a lifestyle which includes postures. In fact, the yogic lifestyle encompasses activities which enhance the unification of body, mind and soul by purifying our physical, mental & emotional and energetic body. Therefore, different techniques are used, such as the asanas. Yogic practices are generally started with the asanas. Most of the other actions should not be attempted before having removed gross blockages through the asanas. The practices are powerful and might do more harm than good, if not done in the right way and with proper instructions.
I will explain detailed in the next section what the goal of the asanas are, but first I will introduce you to some of the other yogic activities. Let’s start with the physical cleansing and purification known as shatkarma. These activities include nasal cleansing, abdominal cleansing and activation and cleansing of the frontal brain. The shatkarmas balance and purify the body and mind.
Another important aspect of yoga is pranayama. Pranayama is often translated as breathing exercises, but in fact is an inaccurate translation. Prana is more than mere breath, it is our life force. Pranayama literally means the expansion of life force. And the breath is the means through which we gain control over this vital life force. The different breathing techniques will not only provide our body with more energy, but also with the release of physical, emotional and mental blocks.
Mudras are generally known as hand gestures, but can also be expressed with the head, posture or internally (such as the locking of the anus). They alter the mood, perception and attitude of the yogi and enhance awareness and concentration. It’s the goal to energetically link the individual with the universal force.
There are various other aspects within the yogic tradition which all help the practitioner to attain moksha (liberation). According to yoga, a person is liberated if he or she has total inner peace and is not attached to anything, not even life itself. Whenever you reach this stage of physical, mental and energetic purity and you have no duties to fulfill on this world anymore, you are ready to stop the cycle of reincarnation and you can enter nirvana. In the next section I will describe which role the asanas play in attaining this stage.
Goal of the asana’s
I will start with the definition of yogasanas: “Shtiram sukham aasanam”. This can be translated as a pose that is comfortable and easy. I can almost see the question mark on your face, wondering where the stereotype of the snakelike yogi that folds himself into an uncomfortable position for hours comes from. And this is exactly one of the common misconceptions that I would like to put aside.
Traditionally a yogi holds an asana up to a point where he feels comfortable. Due to his devotion and his body awareness, his body will be subtler and more flexible over time. This will allow him to stay longer in a pose and still be comfortable.
Reaching flexibility requires purification and preparation of the body. Therefore, it’s important to start every yoga class with the pawanmuktasana series. These are series of subtle exercises which warm up and prepare the muscles and the joints for the upcoming asanas. Not only do they removes blockages in the body, they also prevent the practitioner of injuries. These are very important practices for the flexibility and safety of the yogi, but are rarely performed in modern yoga schools. However, stiff and injured yogis who stretch their boundaries, probably won’t reach a state in which they can sit comfortably in meditation. Eventually this is the end goal of the asanas. Not to impress others with fancy poses, but to have a body that’s supple enough to stay in meditation for long hours without being bothered by pain or discomfort.
It is important to note that the asanas do not only prepare the body physically but also mentally. Therefore, awareness of body and breath are important. This awareness not only improves concentration, it also helps releasing blocks. With a clear mind and prana flowing freely through the body, it’s easy to meditate. Once the yogi has reached a point in which he can sit comfortably in meditation, he gives up the asanas and devotes his time only to meditation.
I would love to write more about meditation and moksha (liberation) in this post, since these concepts are also often misunderstood. But unfortunately, I still need to learn more about this myself. I might consider writing about this in another post, once I have deepened my knowledge and understanding of the beautiful ancient tradition of yoga. Please, feel free to comment if you have questions, something to add or you disagree on one point. Namaste!