I’m taking a yoga teacher training course. Every month I assemble with 16 other students and a teacher, Scott Anderson, who has studied yoga his entire adult life. I’m there to stitch together the pieces and patches of yoga I have learned over the years into a tapestry I can share with others.
It’s a commitment to get to the class. Lots of hours, a long drive, a significant financial investment, and time away from home.
With so many yogis around me and so much invested, you would think I know why I’m there.
And yet, the opposite is true.
I know longer know what yoga is.
When I started this training, I had unarticulated ideas about yoga. Of course, yoga is a series of poses, some more twisty than others. You put your body in different shapes and you can feel different effects—from superficial (your musculature stretching and strengthening) to subtle (your nervous system calming or exciting).
But for me, the physical effects were just the beginning.
The next benefit of yoga I would have described was to your energetic body. By assuming shapes, you open, tone, balance, and regulate your body’s energetic pathways. The Indians call these pathways nadis and the Chinese call them meridians. In either case, supporting this energetic health system supports organ health. In this way, yoga is a benefit to your organ system and the biochemistry of your body.
And the final benefit I would have named, the one most difficult to articulate and most intangible to identify–the final benefit was by far the most important to me.
I thought yoga was a spiritual practice.
I experienced yoga as a type of prayer, a way to entrain with the Universe. Like Native American sweats, Aboriginal walkabouts, or Christian fasts, yoga connected me to the Divine and taught me life lessons. It balanced and harmonized my body and mind. And by practicing yoga, I readied myself to receive enlightenment when it showed up—not Enlightenment with a capital “E” but a lower case “enlightenment”. I became receptive to mysteries of Life. Yoga helped me be open, compassionate, and insightful.
I thought that this experience was inherent to yoga, that it was built into its structure.
But now, I’m not so sure.
I suspect that my yoga-as-spiritual-practice mythology was, well, just a myth.
Could I have made it all up just to feel special?
What is the benefit of yoga?
Scott, my yoga teacher, is a practical man. He looks at poses scientifically to see what benefit they bring. He does a risk vs benefit analysis to discover the poses that bring the most benefit to the most people with the fewest risks.
He is even practical with the less tangible benefits of yoga. He participated in research at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds in Madison, WI. There they hooked him up to electrodes to measure how his brain wave patterns changed with different pranayama (breathing) techniques. His brain scans were a kaleidoscope as he moved from one to the next.
He rendered practical, scientific results. Nothing mystical.
His yoga appears, from the outside, to be a lot like exercise. He even breaks for anatomy lessons where we gather around “Mr. Bones” to see how our marvelous skeletal system works.
Is yoga just exercise?
In our last workshop, Scott suggested that yoga does not have the history that most of us assume. Based on the book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Scott recounted how yoga is a recent development dating back only about 200 years. Developed to cast off British colonialism, yoga is a calculated combination of Indian nationalism and need to grow a strong population, ready and prepared for war. (I will report on my own impressions of this book when I have read it.)
The combination of Scott’s practical viewpoint, his years of observing the effects of yoga, and his willingness to see yoga outside of its normal mythology means that his yoga is very different than I what I have practiced.
In class, we learn few twisty, complicated poses. The repertoire is small and simplified. The proses are less precise externally and more focused internally. There is a significant amount of non-yoga practice, influenced by Pilates, functional training, and Scott’s skillful imagination.
This simplified yoga, this non-sacred yoga, is irreverent. But I have to admit, it is… beautiful.
This shakes me.
If yoga can be so straightforward, what happens to my church-of-yoga ideals? Is trikonasana (triangle pose) just a goofy way to stand? Is it no longer my batphone to God?
And I have to admit, Scott’s yoga feels great. It is relaxing and easy. It is accessible to many people. And most of all, his yoga connects me to the Divine as much as any I have done.
The more I simplify my practice and strip away my assumptions, I deeper I go. And ironically, I end up where I wanted to be.
How does yoga become spiritual?
Yoga has very tangible physiological benefits. There is extensive research that yoga, specifically pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation, can decrease stress responses and increase relaxation. It slows you down. Your breathing softens and you really are, measurably, prone to less reactive thought. This relaxation also has a positive effect on your mood.
If spirituality means moving beyond survival instincts into more profound, more meaningful thought, yoga has that effect.
But as I consider my “What is Yoga?” question, inherent in my assumptions of yoga is my idea of spirituality. What is spirituality? What does it mean to search for Truth? To yearn for connection to the Divine?
I spent my life looking for a Higher Purpose. Excavating Truth. Connecting to the Universe. Living Consciously.
I have assumed that living in tune with the Divine was a high calling—a drum beat that led beyond this world. I have lived searching for capital letter ideals that are so elusive and so elite that I have sometimes been paralyzed about how to live them.
But when I consider how Scott’s simplified yoga brings me so much pleasure, I reexamine my perception of both yoga and spirituality. Simple or complicated, yoga makes me feel connected. If I trust my experience more than my ideas, then I come to a new conclusion.
Perhaps the meaning of life, like yoga, is simpler than I have imagined. Maybe, like Scott’s enjoyable yoga, we are here just to be happy. Perhaps our highest purpose is to love each other and relish the pleasures that life brings. To be content. To make things a little easier for everyone we touch.
If the meaning of life is to be happy, yoga fits this ideal perfectly.
This idea is so simple, it is revolutionary.
A new view of yoga
In my new view of yoga, yoga is both spiritual and ordinary. It is both more than exercise and not.
What better way to relieve the aches and pains of life? How better to relax enough to hug the ones you love? What a great way to practice presence, acceptance, and focus so you have tools to face the many hardships of life?
More and more I believe yoga is a spiritual practice–but not the way I had assumed. Yoga brings simple relief to people so they are equipped to cope with life’s challenges and enjoy life’s blessings.
As a future yoga teacher, I can teach this kind of yoga.
When I started my teacher training, I didn’t know how I would ever be able to teach yoga. I’m not Guru enough, not profound enough to teach Truth to someone who hasn’t yet found it. But if my job is to help someone be more comfortable in their body—this I can do. And whether this makes yoga nothing more than exercise, I no longer think it matters.
So what is yoga? Yoga is a series of postures that help your body feel better, calm your nervous system, and focus your mind. Yoga is a tool to live more comfortably so you can love and be happy.
I think this is enough.