Question: What branch of the Eight-fold Path of Yoga deals with the type of yoga we know in the Western world, the contortion of the body into different positions to achieve physical and mental enlightenment?
Answer: The third branch, a fact that I wouldn’t have known unless I took yoga on as my individual learning project. Even though I have sporadically practiced yoga for the past six or so years, I have discovered that I know nothing about the foundations and purposes of yoga, even though I previously considered myself well-versed in the practice.
Yoga, while I used to consider it merely a fancy form of stretching and a cool hobby to have (I like to tell people, “Hey, I practice yoga” and let them bask in how cool and quirky I am), has a lengthy and intricate history. Yoga probably first appeared around 3000 BC, and was used by ancient Shamanistic people to center their minds and bodies. The practice was later adopted and modified by the Hindus, who developed the official Eight-fold Path of Yoga. Surprisingly, this doctrine has little to do with actual asanas, or the poses and contortions of the body that most people assume to be the extent of yoga, and everything to do with unity with one’s manifestation of God, though cultivating positive attributes (or niyamas) and denying negative or hurtful personality traits (known and yamas). Practicing asanas is just one path of many that can help develop niyamas and block yamas, and is only effective if mindfulness is maintained during the whole practice. Easy, right? Think again.
As I researched yoga, I realized more and more how the way that I practice is not conducive to the goals of yoga. Most of the time, I am not rooted in self actualization and union with the Almighty Spirit; I’m just praying that I can stay in yoga positions long enough to benefit from them, without accidentally pulling a muscle. My method of yoga is extremely westernized, focusing on what yoga can do for me instead of what I can do to make myself more available to other people through practicing asanas and mindfulness. I was just going through the motions, with no real goal in mind.
To overcome laziness in my yoga practice, I decided to do actual yoga videos I found online, instead of doing asanas at random with no real purpose. A benefit of following the directions of a yoga instructor is that he or she tells me exactly what aspect of my body to be mindful of while I’m practicing, be it my thighs, my hips, or my breathing. Yoga instructors bring real purpose to their movements and asanas, an aspect of yoga that I struggle with on my own. In addition, these people show me what some positions are actually supposed to look like, and I just think, “Ooooooh, that’s what I would look like if I were actually flexible.” A few of the videos I used this week were Yoga Vinyasa Strong Flow, a playful and active routine; 30 Minute Restorative Yoga, which was actually hard for me because the amount of mindfulness it requires; and Yoga for Runners: Pre-Run with Fiji McAlpine, whose effectiveness I can attest to because I did it before I ran a PR in the 3k (technically, anything would have been a PR because it was my first time ever running the race, but it was still a solid performance). Through practicing yoga with an instructor, I was able to focus less on what I needed to do next and more on self reflection and forgetting my own ego.
The westernization of yoga I have mentioned and participated in, the transition of yoga from a spiritual to a secular practice, has both its benefits and its drawbacks. In some cases, yoga has had a positive aspects on entire communities, such as helping children avoid dropping out of school. Many low income students have had to deal with abuse and high levels of stress in their lives, and studies show that teaching these children to be mindful of their thoughts and actions helps them deal with these problems in a healthy way. However, straight meditation isn’t overly beneficial to them, because, as any elementary teacher can attest to, kids cannot sit still. By practicing yoga, these students can achieve mindfulness while the physical activity keeps them from being bored.
Yoga, while most people consider it to be a healing activity, can be extremely harmful in cases where people cannot forget their egos, a major drawback of the secularization of the practice. Many people who practice yoga are “weekend warriors,” or people who work desk jobs throughout the week and engage in active pastimes, such as yoga, on the weekends. These people are usually not apt to contort their bodies into advanced yoga positions, but try anyways because they want to be the star student in the class, the instructor’s own little special snowflake. Risks of shocking the body in this way range from minor aches and pains to major, debilitating health issues, like nerve strains in the neck stemming from the practice of inversions, to, in extreme cases, strokes. These people forget the main purpose of yoga, to forget oneself, and take the practice at face value, risking their health.
Studying yoga this week has been enlightening, and also alarming. I’ve found one thousand reasons why yoga is good for me, and one thousand reasons why I should run away screaming. Overall, by studying the historic roots and modern interpretations of the practice, I have decided that the key is moderation. I should practice yoga a few times a week, but not hours upon hours a day, like this guy I read about who eventually lost all feeling in his legs. Pushing myself to achieve new asanas is exemplary, but forcing myself beyond the physical boundaries of my flexibility is definitely to be avoided. I am excited to continue on in my journey of yoga, as, after only practicing it for a few weeks, I have noticed massive improvements in my mood and behaviors (as in, I’m slightly less unpleasant to be around), and, I hope that now that I’ve studied the bases of the practice, I can truly work to develop my niyamas and supress my yamas, while achieving unity with the universe (totally makes me sound like a flaky hippie, but, for real, being close with God has definitely been on my to-do list for a while and I think yoga is a good vehicle for achieving this goal).
Not sure if this is actually yoga, but this picture made me happy so I included it. (Photo CC by Jean Henrique Wichinoski).