A Conversation about Yoga, Part I
“Sorry, I won’t be able to meet you for lunch today. I am going to my union class.”
“No problem. But did you say your ‘union’ class? I thought you had a yoga class on Thursdays. What happened to that?”
“That’s it! Really, it is a class on joining.”
“I’m confused, why do you have to join a class that you have already been attending?”
“I did join it. You see, it’s really about yoking.”
“Ah, yoking! Come on, this makes no sense and you’re obviously messing with me! Yoke, join, union…so what’s the deal”
“Okay, sorry. You are right; I have been messing with you. It is a yoga class, but the teacher is working on re-defining yoga so he gave us this script for situations like we just had. It’s a bit of a crazy idea, but the teacher is also just another guy trying his best.”
“Good to hear that, they can put themselves on pedestals. Anyhow, now that you have me a bit snagged on all this, what’s it about? Why all this union, joining, yoking stuff. And actually, the class sounds more like it could be about an organizing meeting for the omelette-makers union!”
“Good one! Well…”
“But wait, I don’t want to make you late for your class.”
“No problem, I have an eye on the clock. Anyway, here’s the deal: Yoga is just a word someone came up with at some time or other and, typical of words, a lot of false meaning can be read into it. So I will start at the beginning and share with you what yoga really is.
You could say that yoga is really about life. It is about the life that can unfold if you follow certain guidelines and train your body and mind in a particular way. This way is actually quite simple. As a matter of fact, many of the guidelines are things that most of us learned at a young age. For example: Sit up straight, pay attention, and focus.
Other aspects are things we did not have to learn. For example: Breathing.
Still others are things that we learned somewhat later. For example: ignore this or that distraction (or person); clear your mind; and relax.”
“Hmm…that is interesting. But if I know these things already, why do I need to go to a class for learning them? You know, I have a pretty good idea of how to relax and pay attention. I chill on the couch, crack open a beer or two, tell my wife to leave me alone, and see what’s on the TV.”
“Yes, you are correct, you do know how to do those things. And if you keep doing it that way, a particular life and it’s associated health and quality of relationships will unfold for you. However, there is a different way too which will unfold another quality of life, and that is what the discipline of yoga cultivates.”
“Discipline! Uh, oh, I don’t think I wanted to hear that word! So it’s back to the military now huh? No thank you.”
“Don’t give up so fast! Very little in life that is worthwhile is accomplished without discipline.”
“Okay, that is true. So now, tell me more about paying attention, focusing, relaxing, and all that. What does yoga have to say about that?”
“Take, for example, this idea of relaxing. For a lot of people, relaxing means things like turning on the TV, listening to music, going to a movie, or being in nature. These are all fine. The thing is though, that they all rely on changing your outer world so your inner world can have a break. So wouldn’t it be great to be able to relax without having to change your outer situation at all? Even to the point where you can feel relaxed and at ease in difficult or noisy situations?
It is similar with paying attention and focusing the mind. Again, most people can do these things when they are engaged in something they are interested in: playing in a sport, working out, doing something artistic, etc. But there is also another area to concentrate on and that is your inner world. The yogis say that if you clear your mind and concentrate in a particular way, a whole other world opens up to you and the quality of your experience on the planet changes in a profound way; opening the doors for greater compassion and gratitude for everyone and everything and much more too. I know there is a lot more to be said about this, but for that you would have to speak to my teacher or my teacher’s teacher.”
“Well, that is all pretty intriguing. Now what were you going to say about breathing?”
“It’s like this: Of course, everyone knows how to breathe. But similar to what I said before also holds true with breathing. If you learn to breathe in a certain way, this has a positive effect on your mind—making it more calm and clear and this even further paves the way for all of the other positive effects of yoga.”
“Interesting. However, I have a question for you. You’ve been speaking of the mind and breathing and what sounds like meditation. But everyone knows you go to a yoga class and you contort your body into various positions and do other things that make you sweat and strain followed by sitting cross-legged for a minute or two with some chanting or something. For me, all of that stuff other than maybe chanting is difficult and some is impossible. But what you are saying is completely different. So what’s the disconnect here?”
“That is a very good question and I am very glad you asked it. Yes, ninety-five percent of what yoga really is is what I described earlier. The other five percent is all the physical stuff. But if you go to a yoga class, as you described, this is reversed. Why? Well, yoga really is about meditation; and, as I said, it is about awakening something in you that is more or less dormant for most people. The physical counterpart of the mind—what you awaken—is located in the spine and it really helps the process a lot if the spine is straight.
For most people, that is not the case. They hunch themselves over computers, sit at desks, and drive cars. All of this leads to poor posture and distorted spines.
Whereas In the most ancient cultures, people did not even sit on chairs! They squatted or sat cross-legged on the ground. Their spines were naturally straighter. For them, it was easier to sit straight—they did it from a young age and never stopped. It was in these ancient times and in this context that the teachings of yoga were codified. One of the classic texts of yoga—The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—addresses posture in only a couple of its nearly two hundred verses. Even in those few verses, it doesn’t say too much other than—roughly translated—‘sit comfortably upright.’”
“So you’re basically saying that if you go to most yoga classes these days, you are not really experiencing what yoga really is! That’s rather tragic!”
“Yes, it is kind of tragic in that a lot of people come away thinking that yoga is a bunch of postures and another form of physical yoga. On the other hand, in most classes there is at least some meditation, and yogic breathing (which is referred to as “pranayama”, by the way) and there are some very good teachers too. Furthermore, those people who are inclined to look further into it will tend to do so. So there is some blessing too in that this huge popularity of what is referred to as yoga has also indirectly brought a lot of people to the real thing.”
“This is all very interesting, but you still have not explained why you referred to the class as “yoking”, “joining”, or “uniting. That is what started this whole conversation.”
“If yoga is about one thing, it is discipline. That is why I used the word “yoke.” A word typically referred to as a harness for restraining an animal. In this case, one is restraining oneself from the old ways of thinking and acting. That could mean any number of things: breaking some addiction, resisting the temptation to tell even a little white lie, refraining from cruising the TV remote control, resisting the fear that comes from survival-based thinking, restraining from lashing out in anger, going the extra mile for a friend, etcetera.
The word “join” I used simply because it refers to the positive aspect of what I just described: Instead of randomly watching television, one might choose to cultivate a hobby in its place, rather than lashing out at others, one can find healthy releases from anger instead, instead of those little white lies, one might commit to always telling the truth in thought, word, and action and thereby cultivate a higher level of integrity.
“And you also used the word ‘union’, what about that word?”
“You could say that ‘union’ is what happens when you cultivate this with great devotion and passion for a long, long time. There is a profound transformation of consciousness and this opens the doors for a life of greater compassion, acceptance, energy, clarity, and joy. You are “uniting” yourself with a higher mind that is actually your own higher mind—always having been there but only in a dormant state. Meditation becomes deeper, perception becomes clearer, and a whole other world opens up. At this moment, I am reaching for words that describe what is, at times, my own experience, and also from descriptions I have either read in some of the old yoga texts or heard from people at some level of high mastery and/or witnessed in their life.”
…to be continued!