Yoga…what’s in this word? Oct 2017
Yoga is commonly translated as ‘yoking’, referring to the process of yoking or joining things together. I’ve read that the term may have originated when the ancient Arya civilization advanced southward into the Indian continent and one advancement they had over the current people of the area they encountered was the horse and cart. They had learned how to yoke the horse to the wheeled vehicle. And the benefits of that are obvious. Fact or fantasy, it’s certainly metaphorical. The word Yoga derives from the Sanskrit root ‘yui’, whose definition is ‘to join’, ‘to unite’ but also ‘to subjugate, control, discipline'. And we know that our English 'yoke' derives from this Sanskrit base.
So what does this yoga, this yoking, mean to us today? What are we yoking together, uniting, subjugating, controlling? In my Buddhist practice we often begin sitting meditation session by inviting the bell and speaking a chant that begins, “Body, speech, and mind held in perfect oneness...”. This is yoga…a joining together of our still body on the cushion with silence and a stilling of our mental speaking, or at least an attempt at that. We focus awareness on the still body and we focus on our breath. And we see the seemingly constant parade of thoughts in the mind. But we practice just seeing those thoughts appear out of nowhere, seeing how they come into our head, and we continue to watch as they fade back into that void from which they came. We practice observing their transient nature. We stay in this present moment. And in this practice we hopefully train the mind to be obedient. We use our breath as a tool to focus the mind in this practice. When we discover that the mind has latched on to one of those thoughts and is carrying us away from this moment, we acknowledge that fact and purposely let the thought go on its way as we return the focus to the breath. We are purposely in control of our body and what we do with it. We are purposely in control of our speech and what we say and do not say. We strive to have that same control of our mind and how it functions. This is discipline. This is yoga. This is the practice.
Can you see the similarity of this to your personal yoga session? We come to the mat with an awareness…of the mat, the space, the others that may be present, the instructor (be it our self or another), our body, our thoughts. And we practice a focusing technique not unlike the sitting meditation practice. We are instructed to ‘leave our daily thoughts at the door’ as we focus on the asana practice. So we select what thoughts need to be in the mind, in the head, as we move the body into and out of certain trained moves and positions. We focus on the Ujjayi breath as well as these thoughts of how to purposely move the body through this vinyasa, this flow of body, speech, and mind held in perfect movement. We learn control. We practice discipline. And we often find we reach a point where the body and the mind rebel and challenge us and create doubt and confusion. But this is a practice, our practice, of yoking all those components –the body that may not want to, the mind that says ‘I can’t’, the speech in our head that may be saying ‘no’, the breath that now is labored. We practice yoking these components in this asana. And with practice we often find that when we get to that negative place, that point of resistance, of rebellion… we can find a tiny break through. A small discovery that allows us to be in that doubt, confusion, and negativity, and to learn what it has to teach us. And we find a way into the pose. We find that the mind and breath and the body can do it. We practice yoking all this together into a functioning system we call vinyasa….yoga. We find control of all three…the mind, the breath, and the body.
So what does all this mean for us? What are we doing these practices for? Why do we sit in meditation daily? Why do we practice vinyasa? The answer is in the word ‘practice’. The musician practices every day, often playing endless boring scales over and over. The dancer practices every day, often the same moves over and over, repetition, repetition. The purpose is to be the best musician possible, the best dancer possible. It takes practice, practice, practice. They are yoking the mind, the fingers, the legs and arms, the body, the breath with a goal of being the best they can be.
But we aren’t all musicians or dancers. We all have individual talents and purposes in life. But what we do have in common is that we are all human. And what better goal to have than to be the best human possible. Living in awareness…of our body and what we do with it wisely, our speech and how we use it skillfully, and the activity within our mind -the very core of who we are- is a practice of being the best human possible. The hour of sitting in meditation and the hour of asana vinyasa are periods of practice for the remaining 23 hours of our day. That’s why we go to retreats….to meditate 2, 4, or more hours at a time, to study and participate in yogic practices for a weekend or a week….to increase the practice time because ‘practice makes perfect’. Or if not perfect, at least better. We are practicing control…of our bodies, our speech, our thoughts. We are learning how to be the masters of ourselves as opposed to just stumbling through this life letting our unwholesome thoughts, our unwholesome actions, our unskillful habits control us. It takes practice to learn how to skillfully drive our life, to live our life in a wholesome, meaningful manner. It takes practice to be a perfect human.
The mastering, controlling, disciplinary aspect of all this is necessary. It is the path. It both leads to the goal and is the goal at the same time. The ancient texts say the goal of Yoga is Yoga, the ultimate goal being moksha…liberation. I see this as the true meaning of yoga. Yoking the attributes, the actions, the physical, the mental, the myriad components of life itself, into a practice of living in such a way as to be as perfect a human being as possible.