What is Yoga? We see a yoga studio in nearly every town in 21st century America. We hear a foreign tongue when we come into contact with techniques like “Vinyasa, Ashtanga, or Iyengar.” Perhaps we think of the now notorious Bikram, who put “Hot Yoga” on the map and sparked a major controversy surrounding the topic at the same time. Yoga has become this widely acknowledged practice popular with physical therapists, sports stars, and new-age spiritual seekers alike. However, the roots and origins of this ancient practice usually fall by the wayside in the Western hemisphere and it is worth a dive into the rich history surrounding this mysterious method of exercise regarding the alignment of body, mind and spirit.
I recently had to answer this loaded question to my Philosophy students. As with the beginning of every philosophical investigation, we must start with the etymology of the word yoga itself. Yoga is a Sanskrit word where the root “Yuj” means to “yoke” or unify and join with. Sanskrit is the ancient language of India, the birthplace of yoga, and therefore yogis can either be Hindu or Buddhist practitioners. But what are we yoking to or unifying with in yoga? There is no clear or easy answer to this question, but as I explained it to my students, we are yoking or unifying with and within ourselves. We are coming back to who we are, and unifying the scattered parts of our seemingly complex being. You can view it as a coming to wholeness and ceasing the conflict and cacophony of the various parts of our self which can include but are not limited to our mental/emotional being, physical being and spiritual being. There are various components to each of these parts of being as well that seek yoking or union within the self. This answer may sound too abstract to describe what many see as a purely physical practice, so allow me to explain how yoga entered my life and why I still practice it daily, every morning after I have awoken.
Finding the Path
As a college student in my second year of undergraduate studies, I was definitely a person with a fair amount of conflict between the various parts of my being. Poor sleeping and dietary habits along with lifestyle choices that disregarded physical exercise and mental well-being all added up into a chaotic whirlpool of an individual with a scattered mind and unrestrained emotions. This translated to excess amounts of physical stress and a lack of connection with a greater purpose/meaning in my life, or rather, my spiritual essence. I was in pain physically, full of mental anguish and emotionally distraught. As a young person just barely into their 20’s, I knew something serious was wrong since the physical pain and tension I was feeling in my body was undiagnosable by the various medical doctors I sought help from to alleviate my suffering. With a naturally inquisitive mind and good intuitive fortune, I became interested in Buddhism and began a meditation practice, but I was not finding the results I was looking for. I was still anxious and physically unwell, despite knowing that I did not want to feel this way and needed relief. I realized that a drastic lifestyle change was necessary, and a physical yoga practice was the first step.
I began my yoga journey by going to classes at a local studio called “Absolute Yoga.” I was extremely lucky to have caring and attentive “gurus” or teachers that sought to not only ease my physical pain and stress, but to discover the roots of my suffering. It became abundantly clear that much of my suffering was caused by a lack of awareness concerning the various parts of my being. Since my mind was always at hyper-speed, my breathing was quite shallow and this in turn led to poor posture and the mis-alignment of my musculo-skeletal structure. I was introduced to the “ujjayi” or ocean breath. I was encouraged to sit or stand in a pose long enough with my ujjayi breath as my anchor to achieve a stretch that would not only relieve tension in the short-term but increase my flexibility and resolve in the long-term to rebuild my young yet worn out body. I learnt many different “asanas” or poses and grew to really enjoy the “Vinyasa” style of yoga that emphasizes moving in and out of poses at a steady pace in order to encourage sweating and the strengthening of vital muscular groups. I was almost always the youngest person in the studio by far and usually one of if not the only male practitioner in the room, and I enjoyed the attention and praise I received for my progress by the female gurus and attendees. I always found this ironic considering that in ancient India, yoga was a practice that was off-limits to females, since it was said that men would become distracted by the curvaceous and flexible bodies of women. I personally found it encouraging to be surrounded by the supportive and nurturing care of female gurus at a time when I was rebuilding myself both physically and mentally. My self esteem rose and I gained a sense of community with like-minded individuals who sought to improve themselves as well. A trip to the yoga studio was as sacred as a pilgrimage to a holy temple.
As I began to make progress physically with my practice, I also began to study Indian Philosophy in college. I was blessed with a Professor whose passion for Hindu and Buddhist philosophy as well as yoga radiated off of him and sparked my own passion to explore this ancient practice and cultural tradition in more depth. It was at this stage that yoga became a mental pursuit as well as a spiritual exercise or “askesis” as the Greeks say. As I read and incorporated the teachings of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy into my being, I developed a new perspective on life, suffering, and healing. I began to understand how the physical pain and suffering I was working through with the corporeal practice of yoga was a springboard for my spiritual awakening. I felt a sense of purpose uniting the formerly discordant and misaligned parts of my being, and that my individual experiences and realizations were crucial to moulding the person I ultimately sought to become. I always wanted to be a teacher; a guru that guides others and shows them the way to truth and knowledge about themselves and about life. Now I was witnessing that with the guidance of genuine gurus and teachers I had begun the lifelong journey of genuine self-discovery and self-development, fulfilling my dharma.
Arete: Discipline and Diligence
The Greek word for virtue is “arete” which means “a consistent striving for excellence and improvement.” Although I began my yoga journey largely out of desperation seeking physical relief, it had now blossomed into a daily physical practice that aligned with and reinforced my mental/emotional and spiritual aspirations for myself and the world. Mentally, my anxiety and self-doubt (typical of a young person finding their place or role in society) was now manageable since I knew that no matter what hardships I faced in my life, I could take them with me to my yoga mat to process and overcome them. Practicing yoga every single day gives me the confidence that I am always improving myself physically, while monitoring my mental/emotional state and cultivating and maintaining a spiritual awareness of a greater purpose that ties all of the various parts of my life and being together. If there is a part of my life where I feel stagnation or a lack of progress, I can take refuge in my yoga routine and remember that every day is a new opportunity for growth and coming to greater awareness of myself and life as a whole.
Students and friends alike often ask me how I can commit so strictly to a regiment of daily morning yoga. I remind them that we are all morning yogis, since usually the first thing we do, consciously or unconsciously when we awaken, is breathe and stretch and gain a balanced footing before going about our day. I like to think of the breath as the “Anchor of the Self.” Breath is called “Pneuma” in Greek and is synonymous with “Spirit” similar to “Prana” in Sanskrit. We are lucky that we can live without having to constantly monitor our breathing, but because of autonomic breathing we too often take our breath for granted. It has become more common now for people to know about the importance of taking deep breaths to cope with stress and anxiety, but the way we consistently breathe over the course of the day also has a major impact on the overall health and well-being of our body in terms of circulation, organ function and muscle elasticity. This is a major reason why at the very least, I always start my day with yoga that involves shifting asanas flowing with a steady and sound ujjayi breath. Anchoring with the breath can be quite the ecstatic experience if completed with patience and persistent awareness!
Flexible Body = Adaptive Mind
Before the advent of unprecedented changes to my work routine starting in mid-March of 2020, I would normally awake before dawn to partake in what I called an “express” yoga session. I would shift from asanas that did not require too much exertion or standing up (more gently for when you are groggy and still fully awakening) and focused on balancing and and twisting my body to shake off the cobwebs of a rejuvenating revitalization of the body (aka sleep) to prepare it (the body aka the vessel) for another day of existence. This “express” practice was adequate (roughly a half-hour) but I realized that often I was inclined to rush through it or I would find myself thinking about a lesson I was to teach later that day which distracted me from my breath and moving from pose to pose unconsciously. A practice marred by issues like the ones mentioned above is not only unfulfilling, but can be dangerous in the sense that you can hurt your body since your mind is not entirely aligned with the movements you are making as you shift from various asanas. I found that with an “express” practice I was maintaining my physical health (a worthy success considering where I started my journey) but not necessarily committing to instilling a mental calmness/clarity and a meaningful connection with a purpose or the spiritual essence I had pursued so wholeheartedly in the formative years of my yoga journey.
A blessing born out of the all-too-barren landscape of a short-term future where humans communing with one another is to be sparse and limited in scope, is that I have had the opportunity to ditch my “express” practice and renew my commitment to a fully engaged, mindful yoga journey. With no typical limits or regulations regarding when I can work as a teacher and support the learning of my students, I am now able to devote at least an hour to my yoga routine. I have re-incorporated standing asanas like the “warrior, chair, and goddess” variations to bring a more vigorous strength-building (yang-energy) focus to my regiment. Not only am I ramping things up, but I have also successfully re-incorporated “child’s pose”, a restorative asana (yin-energy) into my practice after avoiding it due to a minor knee injury a few years earlier. I take more time to commit to my ujjayi breath at the beginning of my routine to ensure a more conscious and reverberating session. Even at the close of my yoga journey for the day, I pray for my loved ones and repeat a few mantras of Greek and Sanskrit origin to imprint and incorporate these timeless messages into the mindspace. Overall, my yoga practice is growing more vibrant by the day, aligning the various parts of my being which inspires my sense of purpose and spiritual connection in a historical time where feeling like things are moving in the right direction can be difficult and even unrealistic. We really don’t know how our day will go with so much outside of our control, but we do have the power to start our day off in a positive and assertive direction.
A Parting Message from the Bhagavad Gita of Eastern Wisdom
To conclude, I will reference the widely renowned and celebrated section of the Hindu epic poem, the Mahabharata, called the Bhagavad Gita. In the text, the main character Arjuna speaks with the god Krishna about countless topics concerning mortal life and the divine. Along the way, Krishna elaborates to Arjuna four types of yoga (Karma, Bhakti, Jnana, Raja.) Each type of yoga, Krisha explains, can lead to moksha or spiritual liberation (understanding atman is brahman/individual union with the divine.) Karma yoga relates to the adherent’s ability to fulfill one’s dharma, act properly and remain disciplined while averting attachment to the fruits of their actions (selflessness.) Bhakti yoga pertains to adherents who seek to lovingly devote themselves to the divine wholeheartedly, one who wishes to compassionately treat every human being as if they are also divine themselves. Jnana Yoga appeals to the philosophically minded people like myself, who seek to intimately know the truth of brahman or the ultimate reality of our world and the divine by reading philosophical and holy texts and having debates and dialectic. Lastly, Raja yoga (related to Hatha Yoga, and Patanjali’s 8-limbed Buddhist Yogachara school) is for the adherent who craves the physical practice of disciplining the body with asanas, good posture and working with the breath.
Although any one of these paths can lead to spiritual liberation, or a sense of meaning and purpose in life, I find that when you successfully practice all four, that is when yoga becomes a lifestyle. It is important to be an upstanding, honest person in your pursuits and interactions with others (Karma yoga) as well as seeking to be compassionate, empathetic and attentive to other people’s needs (Bhakti yoga.) You must also feed your mind with knowledge and be able to discern truth from illusion which enforces good behavior and promotes positive life decisions and progress (Jnana Yoga.) Finally, we cannot forget that our consciousness, which allows us to weave, thread and add glorious color to the costume of our identities in this finite existence, owes everything to the physical body, the time-tested sturdy yet preciously delicate vessel which is our window to this reality. Maintaining and exercising the physical body is the first and foremost task related to our survival (Raja Yoga.) The message from Krishna here is that we are all practitioners of yoga every day of our lives, and that by consciously engaging with this practice, we can create that sense of purpose which makes life meaningful and creates that sense of fulfillment we all long for in this temporal existence.
I leave you all here with a quote I scribbled on January 25, 2020. Perhaps take a moment to think about what you were doing at that time and where you were on your journey, whether or not you agree with me that you do indeed practice yoga every day of your life in one way, shape, or form. If you are truly pursuing arete and do always strive for improvement and excellence in thought and action, you are a successful practitioner of yoga. When we return to the etymology of yoga, we are reminded that yoga is rooted in the idea of unity or a coming together back to wholeness. By aligning ourselves physically in the body, we can rein in our mental and emotional foundation to form a determined, undeterred individual striving for mastery, which I consider, absolutely divine.
“People think prayer requires words or mantras. Yoga is kinaesthetic devotion of the body, for the body.”
Be kind to yourself.
Thanks for reading
Yoga: My Spiritual Askesis
By: Prof. Eric Anderson
Masters in Arts of Education
History & Philosophy Focus
Secondary School Social Studies
& Online at Sacred Sophia Academy
Astrology, Ancient History & Philosophy