What is Yoga? – my own understanding.

I asked this question to a group of fourteen year old students this week assuming that their definition would be in the lines of ‘stretching exercises’. Some of them didn’t know, some of them defined yoga as stretching, relaxation, and breathing exercises. None of these definitions is wrong, but they are incomplete. But then, one girl said ‘It is a way to relax the mind so we can deal with life better’. This is very close to what I understand as yoga after studying and practicing for some years, and it really surprised me how matter-of-factly she said it. She has never practiced yoga before nor does any of her family members.

If you have been study and practicing, you might know that there are many different definitions of yoga “Yoga is union”, “Yoga is skilfulness in action”, “Yoga is the cessation of the waves of the mind”, just to mention some. These definitions stem from different traditions in which the means to yoga vary but the goal is the same: self-knowledge for self-transformation.

The supreme goal of Yoga is to realise that we are more than what we perceive and think, but in my view, there are sub-goals that can bring immense benefits to our life and the lives of others if the goal of self-realisation feels too lofty or far to reach.

Traditionally, Yoga is seen as a science and the object of study is the self. Each path has its own definition and set of theories and techniques to lead the practitioner towards better self-understanding, thus guiding her gradually towards a state of lasting inner peace and clarity. One could simply say that Yoga is not the goal, it is the means, and more than a specific technique or practice, it is a mindset.

Stretching can be part of the yoga practice if one chooses to start the inner journey through the physical body by practicing asana (yoga postures). However, the physical practice is not limited to stretching. It is an invitation to self-exploration and self-understanding to make appropriate choices for our mental and physical health. Ideally, we practice yoga asana to keep the body healthy, agile and strong. A healthy body allows us to cultivate a calm mind. So, the asana practice does not need to be complicated or strenuous. In order for it to be Yoga, it needs to be practiced with clarity of intention. If the intention is self-knowledge, you are practicing yoga. If your practice leaves you invigorated but with a calm state of mind, you are practicing yoga. If your practice brings you injury, stress and the pursuit of the perfect pose, you are not practicing yoga. You are practicing physical activity. There is nothing wrong with it, as long as you are clear about it.

What many don’t know, is that Yoga can be practiced without the physical practice. There is Dhyana Yoga, or Yoga Meditation where one works systematically towards slowing down the mind in order to let go of misperceptions and misconceptions of who we are and the what world around us is. The main goal is to achieve a state of stable concentration that will lead to what is called samadhi. Samadhi for me is still too difficult to grasp, so my meditation practice is still focused on slowing down the mind for a more peaceful and centered attitude towards life.

There is also Karma Yoga where we live our practical life with full awareness and an attitude of sacrifice. Through action, we also get to know ourselves better, and we gradually change our attitude acting with clarity, pure intentions and for the benefit of the whole. Karma Yoga is a prefect path in our times since we all have to live a practical life, and through the change of attitude in our actions, we cultivate a calmer state of mind, allowing us to live a more meaningful life.

The list of different Yoga paths continues, and most of the time, these paths intertwine. This means that one can practice both yoga asana and meditation and be active in the world following the principles of Karma Yoga. What is required from us is to be clear about the main goal of Yoga and to be willing to do the internal work of self-study and reflection with the guidance of scriptures and a teacher.

Whatever your goal of practicing yoga is, and whatever path you choose, be clear about what your intentions are. If you go to a yoga class with the intention to get a workout, that is good. If you go to a yoga class with the intention to relax, that is good too. If you however want to make deeper changes in your life through the practice of Yoga, you need to know that it requires perseverance, self-responsibility, study, and lots of practice. Preferably through the guidance of a teacher who will be able to point you towards the right direction.

In all humbleness, as a yoga teacher, I aim to help my students explore the different aspects of Yoga. Hopefully this will lead them towards the wish to find a way to self-understanding so they can choose the right practice for them. However, the search and the responsibility lies in the student. I have my own teacher that guides me but I am encouraged to practice, observe and reflect and never take anything as dogma.

The magic of self-work!

As a Yoga practitioner, I am a strong believer in the power of meditation as a wholistic approach to life. Through the practice of meditation, I have learned the power of my mind. It is through my mind that I live my life, and it is through the practice of meditation that I can gradually train myself to calm my mind, create space between my thoughts and my actions, and change my perspectives or at least accept that they are just one way of seeing things.

I am learning the power of living life ‘inside out’ as my teacher calls it. I have learned to observe myself in all situations, especially in those that bring stress and distress and ask myself, ‘what can I change in my mind to better deal with this?’ So, every once in a while, reflecting about situations in which I experience stress, I set myself a goal on how I can change the situation by changing my perspective, my attitude or my behaviour.

For a while I have been thinking that if we all were willing to work with ourselves, it would be easier to interact with each other, we would take better care of each other, our environment and all living beings.

This week, during one of my meditation sessions, one of my students shared that she had set herself the goal of being less judgemental of her boss at work. In the past, she had experienced ending up in conflict with her boss, often because she had a negative opinion on certain things her boss did or said. She decided to put her effort in her work and not waste her energy in things out of her control. I asked her how this strategy is working so far, and she said that she had noticed a change of attitude in her boss too, and that they have had some good conversations. Once, her boss answered back in a harsh way and apologised shortly after without it escalating into a conflict.

I couldn’t help but wonder if my student’s boss also had the purpose of changing some attitudes and behaviours towards my student (and maybe all the employees). I really liked this idea. Imagine if we all were constantly reflecting about how we interact with the world around us, and when we notice room for improvement, instead of pointing our fingers at others, we decide to start with our own attitudes.

Less judgement, more magic

My yoga teacher recently advised me to to take the process of preparing for and running my yoga classes as an opportunity to learn and develop. This, with the purpose of detaching from ‘ego’. He also advised not to be fixated with the idea that ‘I want to teach’.

This resonated with me, also when it comes to reducing stress. The process would then go like this: I get an idea, I plan a layout, I advertise, and I run my classes with a clear intention. The rest is out of my hands, and therefore, I don’t need to worry about it. If the idea works, if people sign up and get something out of my classes, I feel humbly happy, if not, I’ll try something different next time, or try again. I don’t know how this idea transferred into my ‘other job’ in a slightly different manner, but it is still helping me a lot this first days of the Fall semester.

Usually, the start of the school year is quite stressing for me (and for many other teachers, I guess). I have tried in the past to take it easy, but it has been as if my nervous system has a life of its own.

So, this year, I decided to take a different mental approach: 1) Prepare as well as I can in the circumstances I have (time, resources, space, etc) with the intention of receiving my students with awareness and respect. 2) Refrain from having a personal opinion on everything that happens in a school day. Unpredictable things happen, changes happen, mistakes happen, and they sometimes feel like obstacles in the course I had in mind when I planned my lessons, but the less time and energy I spend rejecting these obstacles and getting all emotional about them, the more present I can be to grasp the situation and turn it into a learning experience for my students and myself.

This is, in a way, one of the main principles of Karma Yoga. Do your thing without attaching to the action or the fruits of the action.

I saw the magic of this attitude happen today. Since we started with our new schedules today, one of my colleagues made a mistake, and sent her students into my classroom before our lesson was over. When she realised this, we agreed that it would take too much time for her students to move back to her classroom, so they could stay and continue working silently on a task she had prepared but had thought they didn’t have time to do before she sent them up to my classroom.

Instead of getting caught up in the frustration of having to deal with an unforeseen change, and feeding into the emotion with the whys and the hows of this mistake, I first tried to see if I could tweak my lesson plan. I was attaching to ‘my plan’. I gave my students ten minutes to revise some vocabulary, and while they did this, I realised how great the idea of my colleague was.

After my students were done revising, I decided to let them do the same reading activity their peers were doing, with some adjustments. The last 20 minutes of the lesson went smoothly. I walked around to see what my students were reading, ask and answer questions. Thanks to this little mistake, I have a new idea in my lesson repertoire. No stress. No attitude from me towards my colleague. I just allowed myself to go with the flow.

I don’t know what this school year will bring. Every year brings its challenges, and we also have the pandemic adding uncertainty to the whole equation. I only hope, I will remember the advise from my teacher. I hope I’ll remember to be present, be humble, learn, and continue flowing. When I let go of judgement, stress, and worry, magic happens.

The only way out is through

Over the years, I have come to realise that I dislike emotional pain so much that I try to avoid it as much as I can, often in very stupid ways.

I sometimes ‘predict’ how a situation is going to make me feel so I either go around dreading the moment it is going to happen (which like with most predictions, never happens), or I do something impulsive to avoid the pain making an unnecessary mess.

The source of my distress is in some cases insecurity and fear of being judged or rejected. It comes from my attachment to an image of myself I want so badly to keep and people to have of me. I know what I stand for, I believe it comes from a good space, but I’m afraid of the conflict different opinions can create.

In other cases, the source is the unwillingness to face things as they are because I wish they were different. So I avoid the situation or go ahead and blame. It is funny how we believe blaming helps, but it really doesn’t make us feel better.

Expectations are also a problem. The mind game of expectations is quite refined in my case. I don’t like the gap between what I expect and how things turn out, so I either avoid or expect the worse (haha). So I show up already with a bad attitude, when in reality I don’t know what is going on I happen.

Some weeks ago, I decided to be courageous and:

  1. Stop predicting (duh!)
  2. When in a situation that I perceive as emotionally painful, take a deep breath and just observe the pain. Not run away, not act impulsively.
  3. Understand that the so-called pain comes from the gap between what I expect and what is really happening.

So far, I can say that it is helping. I believe that, the less resistance I make to myself and what is happening around me, the less I struggle.

It sometimes feels liberating, it sometimes sucks big time because I have to face what I don’t want to face.

This said, I believe that I gain a bit more understanding of how my mind works, and it allows me to move a bit up and further…

Mi almohada

Hay noches en las que
mi almohada se vuelve un campo de batalla
entre los fantasmas que mi mente ha creado
y la consciencia más allá de mi mente
Eventos de mi vida cotidiana
Se vuelven armas de fuego 
cargadas con balas de duda, desmerecimiento y frustración
Al pasar la sorpresa de tal ataque
Mi japa se vuelve mi escudo 
Y la batalla comienza
Repito mi japa y mi cuerpo encuentra paz
Pero mi mente encuentra la manera de atacar de nuevo
Es el cansancio quien tiene la última palabra
Y en mis sueños apareces para recordarme
'Suelta el miedo'
Un abrazo
La mañana tiene un sabor a victoria
Gracias