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.

We’re getting there

This year, I teach yoga as an elective at the school where I work. This isn’t the first time, and it is taking me many years to create a program that I feel is both meaningful and appropriate for the age of the students.

Last year, during the Spring semester, I was teaching to only tenth graders, which are around 16 year old. With inspiration from a research program I was invited to participate in called Hippocampus, I tried to create a program for those girls for that semester. It worked quite well. I introduced asana very slowly throughout the weeks. First, with mainly just some joint mobilisations and relaxing poses on the mat, and gradually, I started introducing standing poses.

During one hour, we would only do about 20 minutes of asana, around 15 of reflection on a topic I thought was relevant for them (self-esteem, stress management, emotions, relationships, etc), and the rest of the time they lied down on their mats for a body scan and simple breathing exercises.

I felt that the girls enjoyed it and that they got something out of it, so this year, I decided to ‘repeat the success’. What I didn’t count with is the fact that these electives are open for all students between 11 and 16. I ended up with a group of 11 girls (boys rarely sign up for yoga, unfortunately) between 11 and 12 years old.

Very soon, I understood that the program I had made for yr10 wasn’t going to work. These girls are much more active, they aren’t used to be still, and they are constantly looking for each other’s attention (this is very age appropriate). It is very interesting to see, and it has been a fun journey to teach them since September.

I still feel that it is my duty to introduce them to Yoga beyond asana, so I tried to structure each lesson with a bit of asana, a reflection and some relaxation. The asana I teach is very simple because I want to move away the focus from doing ‘fancy’ poses to get to know their bodies better. Many of them don’t exercise much, and they benefit from moving their bodies and strengthening them through simple asana.

I gave them a notebook too, where they can write or draw during the lesson, and I sometimes ask them to write something in particular.

I am trying to find the balance between giving these girls the space to be who they are and how they are, and trying to guide them towards the idea of relaxing the mind and the body, and towards the habit of getting to know themselves better. It sometimes feels like my lessons are filled with chaos, especially when we do asana. There is not much breathing going on, not much focus going on, they just want to do the pose and then it turns into dancing, jumping, and running around. But when I ask them to lie down for relaxation, I do insist in silence, and I am noticing that they are managing it better and better for each lesson.

I found a book called Stories from India by Anna Milbourne at the public library, with short cute stories that invite for reflection. I am now reading them one story in the beginning of each lesson while they lie down on their mats, and we then discuss what they think is the message. This is working very well, and we like the stories in the book.

One of the girls, a seventh grader (around 11 or 12 years old), has been slightly annoyed with the fact that we don’t do more ‘fancy’ poses. During the past weeks, she keeps asking me what yoga is, but she doesn’t really wait for the answer. She is trying to figure it out herself.

This week, I did a more fun session that I found in a Yoga for kids book called Yoga games for children by Danielle Bersma. I took one of the chapters about poses and modified it slightly and we were mainly rolling up and down on the mats working with the abs. I also read a story and we discussed the message, and they did some relaxation.

At the end of the lesson, when I was tidying up my things, the same seventh grader came to me and said, “Yoga is not physical activity, is it?” Before I even tried to answer, she said “Yoga is mental training, isn’t it?” and she left. I guess it is a good definition, isn’t it?

I am grateful for this class. It teaches me so much. I am thankful for these girls and all the kids at our school that sign up. I realise that being a Yoga teacher is not different from being a school teacher. We cannot have a fixed program that fits every class. We have an idea of where we want to lead our students, but we have to adapt the how to who and where they are in life/development, and we sometimes even have to adapt our idea of what they need.