As a yoga teacher, I find one of the most difficult questions to answer is ‘What is Yoga?’ If you search online you will find explanations as to what the benefits might be, perhaps a potted history or descriptions of the process but rarely a meaningful definition. The following text from Godfrey Devereux, whose workshops I’ve attended on several occasions, is the best I have found and I think it’s right that he begins by saying what yoga is not:
“Yoga is not a physical fitness system. It is not a religion, a cult, a New Age fad. It requires no strange beliefs: no blind faith. There is no need for penance, confession, humiliation or self-denial. It is not a way of life with a predetermined set of values and conventions. You do not need to burn incense or wear prayer beads. You do not need to give up onions, meat, tobacco, alcohol, sex or money. It is not about becoming more flexible, stronger, fitter, or any other external benefit. These things are simply incidental, rewarding side effects. However, if we focus too much on achieving them our mind becomes narrow in its external ambition it will become neither stable nor comfortable enough to bring about union. For ambition creates tension in the mind.
Hatha yoga is a spiritual practice. It is a means of clarifying that which is, and expressing it directly, fully and harmoniously. It is, then, both a science and an art. There is rigour, objectivity and revelation in its method. There is harmony, beauty and inspiration in its expression.
The way that we make the shapes of hatha yoga demands that we let go of the habitually limiting ways that we use our minds and bodies. They insist that we break out of the old, set patterns that restrict us. They free us from our dependence on the known, the familiar. They allow us to feel safe and comfortable in the unfamiliar, the unknown. In doing so they make available that which lies beneath the patterns of restriction that limit and define us. They bring us in touch with the deeper potential that lies dormant within. Releasing this potential is not a process of construction. It is not even one of dismantling. It is one of enquiry and acceptance that brings about a spontaneous shift in our way of being. We no longer identify ourselves with the superficial, transient, partial and circumstantial movements, sensations, feelings, thoughts, ideas and beliefs that give us a sense of unique separateness. Instead we allow them all to have their temporary place without losing sight of the greater whole of which they are but a small and passing part.
This is the meaning of yoga: union. It brings about union of the different, splintered aspects of ourselves. Within this union each of the different parts is empowered, validated and uplifted by its relationships with the others. This process occurs on many levels. Union of movement and breathing; union of muscle and bone; union of the anatomical and physiological bodies; union of the peripheral and central nervous systems; union of mind and body; union of thought and action; union of desire and intent.
This is the purpose and function of yoga. To give us what we are, as a whole. Union requires a spacious, accommodating mind that can tolerate all of the different aspects of ourselves – aspects that can often appear to be in conflict when not set within the harmonising context of the whole.”
Godfrey Devereux is the architect of the Dynamic Yoga Training Method. He runs brilliant workshops mostly attended by other teachers. You can find him at www.dynamicyoga.com.