Most people view Yoga as a gentle-ish type of workout. It's increased popularity has many people thinking about it in terms of asanas (the various postures), 'hot studios', Lululemon and other trendy yoga wear, etc. And, let's face it, here in Canada it is practiced predominantly for the physical benefits. Just about anyone can begin a yoga practice and get tremendous positive advantages - at any age, with any physical level of ability or level of experience. It is truly accessible to all. Sometimes the real challenge is in finding the "right" fit for a teacher or studio that suits you best and is most in line with what you'd like to experience as a result of your yoga practice.
But the true meaning of the word yoga, the actual definition, is: Union.
With that in mind, it is traditionally a philosophy, a practice and a way of living that encourages Unity - within the individual (body, mind, breath, essence), within one's community (living compassionately and without violence or aggression directed to other living things) and within the Universe as a whole. At the central core practice of Yoga is the notion and the teaching that - All Is One. Everything is connected. Absolutely everyone and everything is linked and part of a great intricate mysterious web, designed to attract and reflect back to us our internal state and internal beliefs at all times.
With that being said, Yogic teachings encourage us to take greater responsibility for our thoughts, words and deeds. 'Ahimsa' is one of the foundational moral observances on which the Yogic philosophy is built. It means, literally, non-violence. And until one really gets Ahimsa, none of the other teachings will be successful. You see, this practice of non-violence - first within oneself, then in one's relationships, one's business dealings/work, one's lifestyle - is absolutely the core of what "Yoga" truly is. Knowing that everything is connected it becomes irresponsible to act or live with harmful attitudes/emotions like anger, judgement, hatred, revenge or aversion. Because what we do to one, we to do all.
Interestingly, asanas - the postures that have made Yoga popular - are just a tiny part of the actual philosophy itself. However, the practice of asana gives us a rich and immeasurably fascinating tool to work with the most important and influential person in our lives - us. We use the breathwork, poses, sequences and challenges on the yoga mat to train us for life. We work first with ourselves - mastering our fear of being turned upside down, embracing our rigidity in the form of our tight hamstrings and clenched jaws and cultivating an attitude of inner observation, inner listening, so that we may show up in all other areas of our lives - open, patient, watchful. We try to be ready, in all ways, for the twists and turns and ups and downs that will inevitably keep coming at us.
Let's face it...Life is messy. If you've ever been to the birth of a child you know exactly what I mean. It. Is. Messy. Right from Day#1! And the nature of the human condition is that we are all floundering; blundering through life searching for love and comfort and trying to make sense of it all while we attempt to create something meaningful for ourselves. When I first started delving deeper into Yoga and eventually took my first teacher training I somehow had the naive notion that doing so would make my life "easier". That somehow I would be less affected by the messiness of it all. That I'd somehow be immune to it. Bbbfff! What a joke! If anything - it has made my life more difficult. Fascinating, incredibly magical and very very interesting, but certainly not easier. Why?! Because Yoga teaches us that we are ultimately responsible for everything, absolutely everything, that comes into our lives. What is going on within us is always reflected back in the world around us.
Postclassical Yoga (aka Tantra) taught that the body was not in fact separate from the spirit and that we could experience ultimate bliss in the body, and in our lives. The duality of the earlier teachings started to dissolve. It taught that the ultimate practice of Yoga was to totally accept reality, as it is, and live in the present moment embracing everything.
Modern Yoga arrived in the US in the late 1800's with the well known Swami Vivekananda who came at the request of his teacher to spread the word about this thing we call Yoga. By the 1930's it was being studied as a movement advocating health and vegetarianism. By the 60's there were tons of teachers expanding the teachings into the western world and bringing such things as Transcendental Meditation and the highly summarized and beautifully simplified Five Principles of Yoga (from Swami Sivananda) which are:
1. Savasana (proper / right relaxation)
2. Asana (proper / right exercise)
3. Pranayama (proper / right breathing)
4. Proper / right diet
5. Dyana or positive / right thinking and meditation
So we don't need to "escape" our human existence. There's nothing to get out of or away from. This is it. And it is my belief that our ultimate destiny is Joy. My wish is that eventually we will all recognize that we are free. That we are powerful beyond measure. That we can create our lives as we desire them to be. That being said, we are also not meant (in my opinion) to be other people's doormat or punching bag. There is a time and a place to stand up for oneself. Being "spiritual" or "yogic" certainly doesn't mean you allow yourself to be walked all over. Far from it.
In the wise words of one American Yoga Teacher, John Friend:
"We see the world not "as it is" but as we would like to see it, and want to see it.
This doesn't mean we can do anything we want. We must pay respect and align ourselves with Nature; or pay the consequences when we go against Nature. There is always an invitation to come back to Nature; an unconditional welcome mat that Grace leaves out for us to step onto, and return to our true home."
Be Happy. Do Yoga.