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.

My daily practice

The mind spreads like a big blanket throughout the day
Covering all the areas of our life that require our attention
Once a day, morning or evening, I unroll my mat
My mat is my space where I can slowly fold the blanket
My mat is the place where I can get a taste of my inner strength
My mat is the place where I create the space to see
That everything I need is inside me
My mat is the place where I pray to God to give me the courage
To meet the world with the right attitude
Allow me to be brave
Allow me to be kind
Allow me to be curious
Remind me to be and let be

We all live in the practical world where quite a lot is expected from us, both by those around us and mostly by ourselves. We often feel we need to be better, stronger, improve is the mantra we all go around repeating in our heads.

The yoga practice – asana and/or meditation- can be a vacation from this. The yoga practice can be the time of the day where we are more curious than expecting. We observe our body, we observe our breath, and with care and patience, we move for our general well-being. We can strengthen, we can stretch, we can refine, but for the health of the body and mind.

We can learn to be kind to ourselves on the yoga mat, we can learn to see our weaknesses and our strengths. We can practice acceptance of the weaknesses, and patience to refine our strengths.

We can learn to calm our minds, and to connect with our inner love. We can touch the inner peace. With practice, with awareness, and with patience we will little by little take with us small pieces of these states of mind to our practical life. From the yoga mat can all good things grow inside ourselves, and like a tree spreading its branches to give shadow, shelter and its fruits, we will also be able to share in the practical world.

What does good and bad actually mean?

We all have our stories, our dreams and our deep inner landscapes from which our actions and reactions to life arise. By shining the light of conscious awareness onto the deep within, we can begin to evaluate whether our reactions to life are serving us skillfully and, if not, begin to adopt new strategies and cultivate new habitual patterns. It all begins with the stories within: Change the stories or understand them in a new light and we can change what happens on the surface of our personalities.” Bernie Clark in From Gita to the Grail

We all have our stories, dreams and deep inner landscapes that have been formed by experiences and the environment we live in. We all have our own convictions and perspectives that influence our choices, attitudes, and behaviors and thus allow us to function in the external world.

A keyword in this citation is “skillfully”. I think that in the Yoga context, this means that if our actions and reactions to life are skillful, they will bring us closer to who we really are and by that closer to an independent state of inner peace. When we cultivate this inner peace we are then naturally in harmony with the world around us.

I invite you to reflect on your convictions and perceptions and see which ones allow you to act skillfully in the world and which ones represent a challenge.

Perceptions can represent a challenge for our inner peace when we are so attached to them that we are unable to see what is happening around us, when we are unable to adapt, when we keep experiencing the same problems because of these perceptions, when they lead us towards separateness by believing that we are right and others are wrong, or when we try to convince others that our own perception is the correct one.

I was recently listening to one of my teacher’s lectures where he says: the whole distress in the world is just a collision of perceptions. He said this in the context of detachment to find evenness of mind as he was elaborating on the teachings from the Bhagavad Gita.

What does detachment have to do here? Well, the more we are attached to our perceptions, the more difficult it is to interact with the external world because we have a premade image of it in our minds either by expectations or by judgments. The more we are attached to our perceptions, the more we operate in the duality of right and wrong, and the more distress we create in our minds.

I must confess that while reflecting on this, I had to laugh about myself because I realized how sure I often am of my perceptions and how it gets on the way between me and people around me. I have been so sure about me having the right attitude, the right idea, the right perception as opposed to the others who were wrong. But who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong? And even more, who gives me the right to judge?

Certain things that I have done in my life are difficult to understand from where I stand today, but I can see that they are the product of my stories, my dreams, and my deep inner perspectives at that time. This must mean that I will experience the same in some years when I look back at some of my actions from today. This experience can only encourage me to be more tolerant and understanding towards people when they act in ways that I perceive as harmful, hurtful or “wrong”. They too have their own stories and needs that influence the way they perceive the world and they act accordingly.

Another important point when it comes to the topic of perceptions is the perception other people have about us. I know I have struggled with this one, especially because of my sometimes explosive character. I consider myself a kind person with good intentions, but if you push my buttons on a bad day, you will perceive something else. I believe in the importance of apologizing and working with myself so impatience and frustration don’t take over, but I now think that most of the time, the perception others have of me is somewhat independent of me, and I should not spend time and energy trying to change it. What I should be spending my time and energy on is to cultivate a clear and peaceful mind so when I act, I act from a space of harmony. This way I can be at peace with myself regardless of what happens on the outside.

So again, I believe there is nothing wrong with having convictions and perceptions, we need them to function in the world, but if we keep experiencing distress because of them, we might benefit from reflecting on them to see them on another light as Bernie Clark suggests and even change them to make adjustments in our actions and reactions.


Four reasons why we shouldn’t aim towards perfection.

In some traditions, it is believed that we all go around experiencing some sense of internal void. Some of us are aware of it, some of us aren’t. I remember having this feeling of emptiness, or some sort of nostalgia since I was a little girl, and I didn’t know where it came from or what to do with it. At times it was bigger, at times it was so silent that I barely noticed it. Years passed and I never gave this much of a thought.

Then, in 2014,  the inward journey started for me when I started studying Yoga in Mumbai. I maybe wasn’t even aware that I was embarking towards an inward journey, I just felt that a lot of what my Yoga teacher was saying made sense. I wanted to explore these teachings, apply them to my life and see what happens.

One of the things we learn in Yoga is that our mind is conditioned and limited by layers and layers of ideas and false perceptions ( I won’t explain here where it is believed they come from), and one of the purposes of Yoga is to help us discover these layers, so we can peel them off, one by one, and see who we really are. In the process, our interactions with the world become easier, because we no longer limit ourselves with these layers.

This was a bit difficult to grasp for me back then, but I liked the idea that all I need is already inside me, and that the solution to all my struggles is to be found inside me, so I decided to give all this a try.

Little by little, I have been discovering my patterns of thought and behavior, I have been discovering my limits, and as I go, I try to make some adjustments here, and some adjustments there to live more in harmony with what is.

Despite all this internal work, I have bad days, I make mistakes, I fall into old patterns of thought and behavior, and when it happens, I have to confess that I have felt devastated. I have tortured myself thinking that all the work I have done so far with myself has been for nothing. Last time this happened, I realized that the lesson to be learned in these situations is one of humility.

The path of inner awareness is not the path of perfection. Perfection is sneaky because I have never considered myself a perfectionist, but I think I am. Especially when it comes to myself.

Spirituality cannot be the path of perfection as we understand perfection, and here are some reasons why I believe this:

  1. It is exhausting: who gets to decide what is perfect? And since we live in the transient world, how long will this perfection last anyhow? And once I reach perfection in this, I will want to reach perfection in that, and it will never end distracting myself from what really matters.
  2. It is unrealistic because nothing is perfect. According to Yoga philosophy perfection cannot be found in the world as we experience it, but everything is unique. I think this is very valuable. We are not a “problem” to solve. We are unique just as everyone and everything else.
  3. It increases the gap between me and the rest of the world: the more perfection I seek in myself, the less tolerant I am of others. That is not spirituality. Spirituality is to be understanding and compassionate towards my limits so I can offer the same towards others. Spirituality is to see the beauty in me so I can see the beauty in others.
  4. It increases the gap between me and Me. The more I strive for the image I have of the perfect me, the less I allow myself to see who I really am. So in a way, I would be adding layers instead of removing them.

So what I have to remind myself as I go around in life being my usual imperfect but unique self is that my goal is to reach a state of independent internal peace and by putting pressure on myself about what I should or shouldn’t be, I won’t come even close.