What is Yoga?
A human being has a vertical axis, running from head to pelvis. One end (pelvis) symbolises earth, our ancestry as animals, our history and our roots; the other (head) symbolises the heavens and our potential. Between heaven and earth lie significant points on the journey (genitals, navel, heart, throat, brow). As well as this vertical axis, we can also stretch out our arms to create a horizontal axis. This axis symbolises relationship with others – not hierarchical but horizontal. Our hands and our arms are used to engage, embrace and change the world. Significantly, these two axes intersect at the heart, our very centre. The symbol of the cross has great power.
Yoga is an invitation to explore what it is to be human. It helps us both to acknowledge our limitations and to bring to fruition our highest potential. A human being is Life taking a particular form; that form defines us, limits us and also sets us free. Life can manifest as a tree, as a whale or as an insect; when it manifests as a human it adopts certain unique qualities.
We have senses to experience the world. Our nostrils enable us to smell, our most basic sense which is profoundly linked to survival, memory and the unconscious. Our tongue allows to taste the flavours of the world. Our two eyes give us not just sight, but the ability to perceive depth and therefore form. With our skin we feel the world and its movements and finally our two ears give us the ability to perceive sound – and also direction and thus space.
We take in ‘food’ in many forms – physical, energetic, mental, emotional. It can nourish and build us, it can poison us, or it can be like medicine. We retain some, we excrete some. At one level, we are like processing factories! We excrete, we reproduce, we walk on the earth, we use our arms and hands to manipulate, and our voices to express and communicate. How can we align our consumption and our actions in a way which most skilfully supports and sustains us and also those around us?
Our minds coordinate how our senses interact with the environment. The quality and clarity of the mind will help to define how we relate to our environment. We have identities, self-images which will give us a way of being in the world. Are we arrogant? Self-deprecating? Confused? Confident? Our contexts (both current and historic) help to define our self-image and thus our being in the world and our seeing of the world.
And finally, we possess innate wisdom. When we are clear, we choose well, we acknowledge the consequences of our actions and we are at peace. But often, this innate wisdom is hidden – like a full moon obscured by the movement of dense clouds.
The form of a human being is simply that – form. But there is a difference between a living person and a corpse; this is the being, the Life. Life animates the form and the evidence of this Life is the breath. The breath is intimate with all the functions of the form: ingestion, digestion, elimination, movement, circulation and even mental activity all are coloured by breath.
Yoga is a state and also the process, or practice, of moving towards that state. In the state of yoga, there is harmony between principles which are in relationship. Harmony requires difference; this difference is a clear space in which participants are free, so that they can support each other and also take support from each other. There is no confusion. Moving towards this state of clarity and freedom is the practice of yoga.
The principles which we can yoke can be physical, energetic, psychological or even existential. Thus, we can bring an arm and a leg into relationship, the head and the pelvis, or the breath and the spine. We could bring into conscious relationship the inhalation and exhalation, as we could ourselves and others. All of these are types of yoga. Perhaps the most profound relationship is that between the Life which animates us and the form which it takes. When we confuse one for the other, we open ourselves to fear and anxiety as we refuse to accept the transience of form with the desire for permanence. To bring our finite humanity into conscious relationship with infinite Life is the true aim of yoga.
There are many ways of practicing yoga; for us the key tool is the breath, which can include the voice. Linking breath to movement helps to stabilise the body and gives support and direction for the attention. Further refining the breath in a still seated posture simplifies the mind and an internal spaciousness arises. This process moves us towards what one of my teachers called ‘uncomplicated wholeness’.
Yoga is a slow burn. Although a single practice can radically change us, it is through a dedicated, repeated, and open-hearted commitment that we change the trajectory of our lives from dullness or instability towards clarity and luminosity. We work with our form to allow the Life within us to fulfil its potential: to be there in harmonious relationship with others, to be conscious and to experience deep peace and joy.
Ranju Roy December 2018