Monday, February 18, 2013

What is Yoga, Anyway?

I walked into the bank to cash a check last week.  A seemingly mindless errand.  The bank teller explained that, according to new security guidelines, he needed me to state my occupation.  After doing so, the teller replied, "Cool.  They offer yoga at my school.  I've been thinking about taking it, but what is it, exactly?  Is it like Pilates?  And what is Pilates?"  Ohhhhhhh, no.  Not this question again.  All I could think was, " you have about an hour?"

Let's set aside the Pilates question, since I'm certainly no expert.  After a solid decade of teaching yoga full time, I still have a hard time answering the "what's yoga" question.  It's not because I don't have an answer.  It's because I have several.  Asking a yoga teacher what yoga is feels like asking a relationship therapist what love is.  It's challenging to pin down a quick definition.  Frankly, I don't remember my response to the teller.  I muttered something about breathing, and muscles, and reducing tension, and connecting mind and body, blah, blah, blah...the typical reply that elicits a cross between a deer in headlights and a God-I'm-so-bored expression from the listener.  Yep, way to sell it, Gen.

Returning home from this "mindless errand", I couldn't stop my mind from wondering, is it even possible to define what yoga is in a short, 1 or 2-sentence answer?  I mean, if I could only come up with something fabulous, it'd make dinner parties and weddings a lot easier.

You see, yoga is a very personal, experiential discipline.  To those who have never tried it, it might be about "stretching" or "chanting."  To those who have, it means something different to each.  There's that famous saying, "What you see depends on what you're looking for."  To me, that's yoga.  What yoga is depends on what you're looking for.

By literal definition, the word yoga is Sanskrit for "yolk, join, unite"(thus the mind-body-spirit connection we all refer to).  For some students, it is simply a great workout.  After all, it strengthens and tones the muscles, improves balance, flexibility, and stamina, and upper level classes can be sweaty and athletic enough to increase the heart rate.  For others, it reduces stress and anxiety.  For still others, it's a lifestyle, providing all of the above, plus a road map for how to discover and live according to one's life purpose.  Heck, some folks may even go to classes to meet new people or because the teacher looks cute in yoga pants.  There's the anatomy and physiology of each yoga pose, the eight limbs of yoga, and therapeutic yoga, not to mention a myriad of styles of yoga.  So, if the bank teller asks, "what is yoga?", you see the dilemma.

After all of these mental gymnastics, I needed a little yoga (whatever that is!).  At the end of my practice, while seated and quiet--I kid you not--it came to me.  It's not perfect.  It's not necessarily all-encompassing.  It's not the answer to end all answers.  It will probably be tweaked many times over.  However, it's a start.  It's a sentence that I feel comfortable rolling off my tongue when someone asks what I do and what it is.  Yoga, for me, is both a physical and spiritual practice that simply helps me to feel better and live my best life.

There.  Done.  I think I'll let someone else tackle the Pilates question...


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