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What is Yoga Anyway?

What is Yoga Anyway?

I'm reflecting on my very first yoga class.  As a college freshman, I somewhat arbitrarily signed up for yoga as a “physical education” elective.  My beloved grandma had been practicing yoga for years, so I had a vague knowledge of what it was all about, but I had no idea how much that that one course would end up influencing my life.  Since first walking into that college gym, I have gone on to study various styles of yoga with many wonderful teachers, taught yoga in different capacities for over ten years, and owned two yoga studios on opposite corners of Colorado.

Twenty years after that first class, I embarked on another in-depth yoga teacher’s training; RootEd is a 230-hour “apprenticeship” with the inspiring Jessica Patterson out of Colorado Springs.  For the RootEd application, I was asked to answer the question “What is Yoga?” 

This simple and direct question had me stymied, even after two decades of practicing yoga.  With yoga having become a multi-billion industry in America over the past two decades, it is difficult to lose sight of the teachings that this ancient practice ultimately gifts us.

It has been through re-reading Jivamukti Yoga by David Life and Sharon Gannon that I have recently been reminded of the true meaning of yoga.  The book aims to put back together the pieces of yoga, which has been misguidedly dissected by Western culture so that we can more fully understand the whole of the practice.  Contrary to most current portrayals, yoga is not just exercise.  Instead, it is a physical, psychological, and spiritual system of purification.  In short, the aim of yoga is enlightenment, and enlightenment is about uncovering the true self, or soul.  Strong, supple muscles and an eased mind are merely added benefits along the path to enlightenment.

Our body is a complex vehicle that we can use for the progression toward enlightenment.  As Life and Gannon relay, “It’s good to have a body because it is a vehicle for consciousness. The problem comes when we mistake our vehicle for who we really are.”  It is a huge paradigm shift to truly realize that we are more than mind and body, especially as this dissolution of our personality and ego can be often uncomfortable or frightening. 

Yoga is one of the only ways I know that accesses the reality of something greater within me.  When I feel the flow of Prana (life force) during a physical yoga practice, I can dis-identify with my physical body, and when I watch my mind during meditation, I lose identification with it.  Therefore with yogic practices, I can start to uncover the true self, or soul.

In order to truly lift the veil of illusion (Maya) and see our true self, we must first work through and remove personal blocks, disabling core beliefs and unconscious habits.  Avidya (ignorance of your true identity and divine self) must be cleansed first.  Over the past year, I’ve found that other modalities of healing, such as body-centered therapies like TFT and EMDR, dove-tail wonderfully with yoga in helping me name and release the limiting patterns and beliefs.  When I feel the veil of illusion fall away, I feel much more able to open my heart and serve my massage clients and yoga students. 

And, of course, my work is absolutely about service, or karma yoga.  On the bottom of my business cards I have the quote by Rabindranath Tagore:  “I slept and dreamt that life was joy.  I awoke and saw that life was service.  I acted and behold, service was joy.”  This has been my truth as I grow my wellness practice; service to others brings joy in me.

David Life and Sharon Gannon, in their teachings of Jivamukti Yoga, urge us to replace the question "how will yoga serve me?” with “how may I serve thee, Lord (humanity and species of the earth)?”  This speaks to the important (and too often overlooked) foundation of the yogic practice, Karma yoga.  Karma yoga is selfless service, or a practical method for reducing suffering in the world and in oneself.  And behold, from compassion towards others you will realize happiness for yourself!  When we are suffering from loneliness or self-pity, an instant cure is to care more for others.

When we release selfishness as our primary principle, the potential for true happiness opens up.  Through service to all beings, we can experience the bliss of the end of suffering and when an action is selfless, it leads to eventually to liberation.  This is the root of yoga.

When yogis seek liberation, we hopefully strive to perfect our actions, starting with our thoughts.  Admittedly, this is an area in which I’ve lacked discipline and consciousness.  It’s so much easier just to show up to a yoga class, roll out the mat, sweat, and breathe for 90-minutes and think I’m a good yogi.  My meditation practice is often equally brushed over.   But since actions lead to liberation and thoughts lead to action, it is then paramount to watch and filter the thoughts before anything else.

A consistent seated meditation practice allows us to see clearly the workings of the mind and the intention behind our actions.  Before we act, we must ask ourselves “what is the intention” because the intention behind the act is always more important than the act itself.

By clearing the mind we can open the heart and let love guide us in our thoughts and actions.  The practices of yoga will help maintain equanimity in all situations by teaching us to become transparent and to be able to allow all emotions to flow through us without toppling us over. “The yogi accepts a pleasant turn of events with equanimity, knowing that pleasure and pain never last forever. Equanimity of mind leads to freedom from anxiety,” write Life and Gannon. 

As I begin my next twenty years of exploration in the yogic tradition, I hope to clarify and mature my understanding of what yoga is and how I can apply it in my daily life.  Over time, with practice and patience, the layers of illusion will lift and reveal my true self, my radiant soul.  Then will be better able to practice karma yoga, to serve you, my beloved clients and students, with an open and equanimous heart.  In the end, this is what yoga means to me.

By Elise Fabricant

Along with teaching for YogaDownload, Elise works one-on-one with clients around the globe to help them up-level their energy, turn their new healthy behaviors into habits that last, and discover how best to express their gifts to the world. Elise nurtures her creative streak by producing online courses on a balanced, purposeful lifestyle. Along with giving massage to Denverites, Elise also teaches group yoga classes in central Denver. Elise feels blessed to be able to combine her love of travel with her work by taking yoga and health coaching to workshops and retreat centers around the world. Connect with Elise on her website.

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