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What is Yoga, Anyway?

Posted: February 22, 2012

Yoga is not just about being able to put your foot behind your ear, although the physical aspect of flexibility is important-just recently I fell off the kitchen counter onto the tile floor, and my flexibility, strength and quick reaction probably saved me from a broken hip. But there is so much more to yoga than just the poses that we all know and see.
The most important part of yoga is to learn the ability to stay centered and focused-no matter what-to allow our minds to remain calm and at peace in the midst of tumult, chaos and challenges. Being connected to our body and mind through the breath is one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves.

Yoga is a lifestyle; not just an exercise. Yoga is to be practiced on and off the mat during our daily lives. Through yoga we can learn to act as the observer, to stay detached from the situation, or challenge such as our negative thoughts or energy, therefore achieving emotional healing, an opening of the heart and calming of the mind.

'Making peace with our bodies through the practice of yoga' is one of the key concepts that Christina Sell conveys to us.... She further states that, '...asana practice could transform our relationship with our bodies, helping us to create peace and assisting our soul in its breathe when things get intense, to soften where we are hard and to strengthen where we are weak'. Sell reminds us that hatha yoga, at its roots, is a spiritual practice, not to be confused with a competition, fashion show or a popularity contest. Well said, Christina!

Many of my students confirm that after their yoga class they realize they had not spent a moment thinking about any problems or issues that seemed so important when they first walked into the room. How is this possible? It's actually simple; we give our minds something else to do, such as focusing on breathing and the correct facilitation of the according yoga movements. As much as our minds like to stay busy and jump from subject to subject, when we take control and give it something to do we can rest assured the mind will obey.

There is an ancient saying that 'the mind is like a raging elephant,' and slowly through some helpful tools (such as meditation, mantras, mudras) we can learn how to put reins on what is also called the restless monkey mind.

We will experience a deep sense of peace and relaxation by fusing together three things: staying mentally focused, paying attention to the correct alignment, and being fully present in our body while practicing yoga postures that are initiated by breath. We then can apply those same qualities to everything we do and encounter in our lives. Being fully aware in the present moment is the key. Most of us are so used to constant multi-tasking; we watch TV while we eat dinner, while talking on the phone and reading a book.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, 'When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.' Another saying is, 'When you wash the dishes, wash the dishes; when you drink tea, drink tea; when you watch the sun rise, watch the sun rise.' What does that mean? At the tender age of 11 my daughter once said to me, 'Mom, to you everything is a meditation.' It was the best compliment someone could have ever given to me. This is the way I try to live my life: Living in the present moment. It is all that we will ever have. The past is gone and the future has not yet arrived, but this very moment is there for us to make it into anything we want. We have the option to laugh, to appreciate, allow, enjoy or - to ignore it, worry about what may be, being angry over what has been. We cannot change the past nor the future, so why not fully embrace the here and now?

Richard Faulds (Kripalu Yoga) states, '...the essence of meditation is a state of deep inner absorption that can occur in either the flow of yoga postures or in moments of physical stillness.' And Yogi Amrit Desai once said, 'Yesterday is dead. Tomorrow isn't been born. We can only live in the present.'

When I was being taught Vipassana meditation, I was guided to experience the stillness that naturally arises in the moments between the in and out breaths. Eckhart Tolle recommends becoming aware of the spaces between words. He says that stillness brings awareness of silence, and it's in the silence that we can experience being fully awake. Consciousness is beyond thought activity. There's more power in the gaps between the words than in the words themselves.

'In the sweet territory of silence we touch the mystery. It's the place of reflection and contemplation, and it's the place where we can connect with the deep knowing, to the deep wisdom way.' -- Angeles Arrien

When I look back at my life I can clearly see how yoga - just like the spine in my body - is the central channel (or shushumna in yogic terms). It is the constant, the straight line that always keeps me focused and aligned with what matters in life. As I keep my spine straight I keep my alignment, if I slump, all I have to do is notice and make a small correction. It is the same with all that happens during our lifetime. Awareness is key. The shushumna, or central channel, is also related to our breath, so by keeping the spine straight, the breath (or prana, life force) can flow freely. Remember when we were little and Mom said when we were upset to 'just take a deep breath?' Well she was right; taking deep slow breaths has an immediate effect on our nervous system. Our main chakras (energy centers) are aligned along the spine as well, and if they spin freely and openly we have a better chance of a healthy life, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Of course, keeping everything nicely aligned would be something in a perfect world. For most of us there are dips, valleys, highs, wavering. Life would be boring if it was otherwise, but sometimes we feel overwhelmed, losing focus, feeling alone, abandoned, hurt. Keeping that straight line in our minds, allowing it to reel us back into alignment and to focus is the ultimate goal.

The spiritual journey is not about becoming perfect but to live every moment with awareness, mindfulness and integrity. SSP

One of the physical goals of yoga of course is alignment in every pose. Through proper alignment we achieve flexibility without hurting ourselves. The same applies to the mental/emotional goals: If we align with a higher source - whatever that may be for each one of us, for some it may be Jesus, for others -Allah, Muhammad, Great Spirit, Buddha, Krishna - we will always have something to turn to or return to. Aligning, allowing, focus.

Once again, perceiving yoga as a safe space in its entirety, where we accept ourselves and others with all our differences, worldviews, capabilities, bodies and beliefs, creates a sanctuary that we might not find elsewhere....

(Excerpt from 'It's not about putting your foot behind your ear, an inspiring journey of transformation through yoga', chapter 1)

If you enjoyed your free chapter and would like to purchase the book please go to

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All rights reserved, copyright Sophia S Paul

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