The practice of yoga is one that is endlessly debated amongst practitioners, teachers and even scholars. The more I read and observe about the practice, the more I realise the often complicated and varied reasons for practicing yoga. Take the late BKS Iyengar, one of the world’s most famous teachers, who helped bring yoga to the West and developed his own brand of yoga, aptly named: ‘Iyengar Yoga’. He is quoted in a documentary as saying that:
‘yoga brings the body and the intellect together and the intellect controls the mind’.
Such a philosophical statement is eminently true when spoken from the lips of the great yoga master, but to the average student or participant, this may be difficult to comprehend.
In the same documentary, Faeq Biria, head of the Iyengar school of Yoga in Paris, states that the principle of yoga is “through the body we reach the mind”. He notes that much of the popularity of Yoga in the West today stops at the body. Yoga becomes a fashion statement, with all the accessories and brands to go with it. In his view, this is not the practice of yoga.
If we observe the 8 limbs of yoga, we shall see that asana (postures) is merely one limb, with others comprising yamas and niyamas (moral principles regarding the relationship with yourself and others), withdrawing from the senses, right concentration and, ultimately, liberation. The practice of asana becomes one step towards the ultimate goal of achieving union of mind, body and soul.
However, if we step back from the philosophy for one moment, we shall observe that the practice of yoga means many things to many different people, perhaps without even a direct knowledge of the philosophy of yoga at all. At many classes I have been to, the teacher often surveys his or her students, asking what brings them to class that day. Each response is different – often emotional, sometimes physical. Sometimes a bit of both. Whatever the story, each one can be fascinating and deeply personal as to what brings them to the mat that day.
OHMME, in their publication ‘Guys of Yoga’ describes the men of yoga and their stories. Many of the chosen guys are ashtangis and have come to yoga through difficult personal circumstances. Yoga has given to them the space to work through their ‘shit’ and provide a new path full of self-love, dedication and ultimately a sense of renewal in life.
For David Fredriksson, an ashtanga yoga teacher with Yogayama, in Stockholm, his yoga practice has “given him the ability to access the nature of his own suffering, along with a safe arena to work through it”. The practice itself has provided a safe haven from the world of drug and alcohol addiction and most of it all, a sacred space for himself to hold for his own practice. In addition, it has facilitated the development of other students in the transformation of their yoga practice.
For others, yoga is a means by which they can surrender themselves totally, carving a life for themselves through the freedom that the practice of yoga brings. To Ajay Tokas, “yoga is like an ocean, the deeper you go, the better able you are to see the treasure and peaceful nature of it”.
Meanwhile, Niraj Shah, co-founder of The Present of Yoga, discovered yoga as a means of recovery from a stroke, suffered at the age of 30. For him, it was “do yoga or nothing else”. The answer then was a simple one, especially faced with the prospect of never riding his beloved snowboard again.
Yet Yoga can also be about personal achievement – a challenge, a goal to work towards. Nico Luce, an internationally renowned yoga teacher, describes intimately how he felt when he took on the challenge of mastering a handstand variation involving a deep back bend. In Nico’s words:
“Along the way I had to face fears of falling and hurting myself, I had to challenge beliefs about my physical abilities and mental control, but more than anything, I had to trust that with dedication and perseverance one can accomplish anything.”
The eloquence of Nico’s words perfectly describes the freedom that yoga brings; the mere observation of a difficult yoga pose may initially result in fear and doubt, however when one eventually performs the posture, the feeling of elation and liberation is incredible – it’s as if the planets have realigned and the door to the next dimension has just opened, enabling one to take their practice even deeper.. and further.
For me, this evolution in my yoga mindset came when I finally “cracked” headstand. After years of observing others doing this somewhat difficult-looking pose, a rare window of opportunity opened up for me to practice, and practice every day, until I finally managed to hold it – I could not believe it after so many years of self-doubt. I distinctly remember the feeling of joy I felt at that time – I was so overcome, that I immediately had to share the news with my partner. Next came handstand, and suddenly the sky became the limit for my yoga practice…
In the end, as Faeq Biria notes – no matter how we come to yoga, it really is all about the mind. However, the various ways we look at our practice and our motivations may differ – the source of fascination and dedication for our yoga practice is something deeply personal, special and sacred. I would encourage anyone with even the remotest sense of curiosity or fascination to find a great teacher and give it a go. You just never know where that practice may lead you, or what issues it may help you resolve.