As a 5,000 year old tradition, what does it really mean to practice yoga?
Practising yoga often starts for most people (as it did for me) as a physical pursuit to increase strength, while balancing it with flexibility. But doing the same postures for 10 years, day after day and seeing very slow progress, surely would drive someone mad if there wasn’t something else at play, right?
The word ‘yoga’ actually means union. Union of the body with the mind. When I tell my yoga students that they have ‘practised well’, it is because I can see the laser-like focus and full attention they have on the posture they are doing at that moment. It’s not defined by how perfect you can make a posture look. But rather the process of learning the mental control to move away from a distracted mind and more towards a directed one. It is the process of disconnecting from all that is ‘out there’ and redirecting the attention inward.
The corrections I give in a yoga class can be so slight and minute, and at the beginning, some students think it doesn’t really matter if one foot is slightly behind the other in a downward dog (for the record; it does!). But what I am doing in the corrections is bringing a students attention and awareness to the positioning of their body in space. When your mind becomes so aware and in tune to making the smallest micro-movements in a posture, you begin to become more connected and present to what is happening internally; like your breath, your thoughts and your emotions.
As the great master Patanjali puts it, "Practising yoga refers to the attainment of mastery over the dynamic forces of the mind". A jumpy monkey mind has no chance to accomplish anything or even to figure out what is right and what is wrong. But a tranquil and one-pointed mind is purposefully creative. A calm and concentrated mind can see things for what they are, and can have a better understanding of others and of themselves.
So the next time you practice yoga, forget about ‘perfecting’ a pose or reaching and endpoint in a posture. The benefits of yoga extend so far beyond just the physical aspects. But rather shift your focus to the meditation the can be found within the movement. Learning how to master the mind, and keep it focused, disciplined and still, is an art that can sustain you for a lifetime!