Or can you do both? There’s no doubt that a yoga practice is great for the body. But yoga is so much more than a workout. Sure it feels good to stretch and sweat and relax your tense muscles, but you can do this with any exercise and stretching regime – what makes yoga any different?
Yoga is a Sanskrit word which means yoke or unite. It is the union of mind, body and spirit. For non-spiritual people it means when the mind is in the body and we are present in the moment. When we achieve this we have achieved yoga. You can have two people in a class. They do the same poses, they both have correct alignment, they’re both working to their edge, they’re both breathing, both sweating. They’re both exercising or working out. One is thinking about work and wondering what’s for dinner. The other is in their inner world. One person’s mind is outside the room, the other person’s mind is inside their body.They are both working out in a yoga class, one is doing yoga.
The thing with yoga is that all roads lead to the one destination, all poses lead to our self. Do you know what the ultimate yoga pose is? Can you do the ultimate pose? Did you even know it existed? It can be the hardest of all to master. Once advanced yogis have mastered this pose they see no need for other poses, their practice changes.
For years I was focused on ‘doing the poses’. I would think about the pose and wish that I was better at it, but rarely did I feel the pose. I’d often look around to see how others were doing the pose and secretly compare myself to them. I was using my body to get into the poses, stretching, twisting, straining. Nowadays I use the poses to get into my body. This might sound like semantics but it actually represents a big shift in perspective and a shift that I sincerely hope you make.
To reach the top in yoga, we must climb each step. Each step prepares and trains us for the next. Sure we can try to skip a few steps, but then we reach a point where we have to go back over those steps because we aren’t ready or prepared to go further. If there were eight steps, the yoga poses are just the third. There are five other steps beyond the poses. This helps me to keep things in perspective. When we think about the two people in class, the one who is doing yoga recognises that the physical poses are a means to an end. The latter five steps after the poses, are training the mind. You see the body is easy to train compared to the mind, which is why we deal with it first, to establish discipline in our practice.
While a lot of people can physically do the ultimate yoga pose, not many can do yoga in it. Achieving the ultimate pose requires self mastery, something that it well beyond the physical. It is being able to still the mind and descend into the stillness. Uniting mind and body.
So how do we do yoga? My advice is to forget about trying to perfect the pose. The pose is perfect when your mind is in your body. Use the pose to feel into your body. Use the breath, pranayama is all about using the breath to build concentration. Pratyahara is about training our senses, dharana is about focus and concentration. So rather than testing your physical abilities, why not give your mind a workout and practice concentration? Practice being in the moment. Pay attention to what you’re doing. Take the two people in our class: one can touch their toes with a perfectly aligned spine, the other must bend their knees to reach their shins. Which one is doing the pose perfectly? You will never know. Real yoga is inner work and something you will never see.