Off The Mat

What is Yoga?

Jan 3, 2017 Michelle Dorer
Michelle Dorer / What is Yoga

Contrary to the images you are bombarded with in pop culture and social media, yoga is not a fashionable exercise fad.  It also, however, is not a religion.  These are the two extremes and possible confusions about what Yoga actually is.

Yoga is a vast subject that I could address from so many different angles.  To each person that practices it, there is a unique and personal meaning.  I will do my best to share my understanding in a cohesive way....

Yoga is an ancient wisdom tradition extending thousands of years back into human history.  The fact that it was written in a language called Sanskrit, that from my understanding, is no longer spoken conversationally, gives credence to its age.  The word Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means "to yoke" which insinuates connection.  Connection to what you might ask?  Connection to yourself, to your own body, the breath and the movement, the body, mind, and spirit, your individual self with the collective Self, with Nature, your community, and environment, connection to God or the Divine presence of the Universe in whatever way you view this, etc. These are among some of the most popular and agreed upon possible responses.  Perhaps there are many expressions of this Divine connection.

Whatever this connection is, it is big.  It is also deep and powerful medicine. Medicine that has the potential to heal human suffering.  In fact, it is my belief that the great Seers who discovered Yoga did so as a quest to help heal themselves and those around them. In this quest, they discovered Universal truths and understandings that would outlive the test of time.  What our ancestors realized thousands of years ago is still profound wisdom and very pertinent to us today.

There are many paths of Yoga that lead to the same truth or unification.  Each path is designed or created to facilitate this union for people of different personality types and inclinations.  I would like to preface this by explaining that I am coming from the experience and perspective of a practitioner of Raja Yoga.

The word Raja means "King" and it was Parahamansa Yoganada who said "because it is the King of all Yogas."  I am not sure if this is true or not, but it definitely works best for me!  To practice Raja Yoga indicates there is an actual scientific method one experiences to gain knowledge and deeper understanding.  It is a path that works well for the introverted, contemplative person.

One of the most popular guides for a person practicing Raja Yoga is the Yoga Sutras written by Patanjali which is definitely my deepest guide and at the heart and center of the Ashtanga Yoga Lineage.  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (affectionately known as Guruji) is known for saying, "Ashtanga Yoga is Patanjali Yoga."  My Yoga teacher Tim Miller interprets this to mean, and has instilled in me from the beginning of taking practice, that the traditional practice of Ashtanga Yoga is a physical manifestation of Patanjali's teachings in the Yoga Sutras. Therefore, I spend a lot of time reading and re-reading these amazing wisdom packed aphorisms.

It is in the second chapter of this text, which is on practical means, that Patanjali lays out the eight limbed path to achieve the deepest state of absorption or meditation known as "Samadhi."  This is known as Ashtanga Yoga.

The eight limbed path offers basic instructions for yogis of many Lineages and pathways. However, Guruji was very specific about the method he taught in aligning with these ancient teachings, therefore, in modern day language Ashtanga Yoga has two references to its meaning; one is the eight limbed path of Patanjali and two is the Lineage of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  I refer to this word in both ways within my teachings.

According to Gregor Miehle, a Senior teacher in our Lineage,  the Yoga Sutras and the practices derived from the Yoga Korunta have been handed down starting with Krishnamacharya's teachings from Sri Mohan Bramachari in the cave in Tibet.  Here lies the Lore of the Ashtanga Yoga Lineage.

I feel very fortunate to have met Tim Miller early on in my development.  It was truly one of my greatest blessings.  I was a gymnast as a child into my teens and my body was very mobile.  I could have done physical postures for years without being pointed to the deeper internal practices of yoga if I had not met Tim.  The Stars were aligned for me to receive deeper wisdom at a tender age.

From the start I learned from Tim to look to Patanjali's definition of Yoga for guidance.  In the second Sutra of the first chapter, Patanjali lays out a simple and clear definition of yoga, "Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah."  This means, "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind."

I often joke with my students and say, "the translation needs a translation!"  In down to earth terms I interpret this as, "Yoga is the science of getting out of your head."  Quite simply, yoga is offering a scientific method to help calm the vacillations of thought. It is a way of learning to quiet the mind.

If you continue to the next Sutra, it reads, "Tadah drastuh sva-rupe vasthanam."  This means "then the True Self is revealed."

So, what is Yoga?  Yoga is a scientific process to help us learn to quiet our minds.  When this happens, we realize our True Nature.  When the mind is at rest or out of the way, the Soul is freed.  Freedom is the goal. The fourth chapter of this text is on "Kaivalya" which means "Absolute Freedom!"

Is Yoga spiritual?  Absolutely!  Is it a religion?  I would say No!  Osho calls yoga the "Science of the Soul."  I see Yoga as a way to help us experience and release our Souls from the enslavement of our own thought. Once the mind is quiet the Soul is free to take whichever form or expression vibrates most.

When my Christian students ask me if it is contrary to Christianity, I typically reply "I think it will enhance your understanding and experience of your religion because it will help you get quiet and real with yourself.  Your religion might take on a new life."

The teachings of Patanjali have no slant to any religion or specific belief.  It is a clear and concise text that points to the psychology of the mind. It lays out the functions of mental activity along with the obstacles to being present and the causes of suffering, which is usually rooted in incorrect thinking and perception, and offers ways to help alleviate them. This text is not concerned with your religious or spiritual beliefs.  It is a guide to help develop your conscious awareness so you might discover your personal relationship with God or Universal Spirit.  It hits on the Universality of the human consciousness and time.

However, on the other side of the spectrum, notice there is not much talk of asanas or hamstrings either!  It is important to keep in mind that all the work we do with the postures is a tool; a tool for us to achieve what Patanjali is speaking of.  It is not the end game.  At some point the only place to go is inside.

I often ask my students: "Does progress in asanas equate to progress in Yoga?"  I think not!  I have noticed in my own journey that times I needed to step back, go backwards in a series, or scale down my physical practice, were often some of the biggest growth times in my spiritual journey and development. This is something I am very grateful for.

As Patanjali also points out in numerous places, do not be attached!  You will also get older and there will come a time when you will not be getting new poses.  In fact, Tim often jokes that there comes a time you begin to have postures taken away!  Where is your yoga practice happening?  How will you adapt and sustain when that time comes?  These are the deeper questions at hand....

This is a really big subject and I intend to expand upon it in future blogs.  Consider it a springboard towards the future.  With this, I am going to conclude for now.  If you would like to hear me give this live talk, join me at my studio on Monday nights at 5:45pm or at one of my workshops on the road.  www.ashtangayogaobx.com.

It is with great honor that I thank you for taking the time to read my humble viewpoint on this most noble and valuable subject.  Namaste.

With Love,

Michelle Dorer
Owner, Director, Teacher – Ashtanga Yoga Center, Outer Banks, NC

Categories: Off the Mat