Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What is Yoga Anyway?

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. 

Since February, when I realized that I could no longer stand with or for the business of Anusara Yoga, I have been asking myself a lot of hard questions.  Why do I do yoga?  Should I do yoga?  What is yoga anyway?

This kind of uncomfortable introspection and radical self-inquiry is perhaps the greatest gift I have received from the whole Anusara debacle.  I suddenly don’t have a Teacher with a capital “T” anymore.  The goal of attaining higher and higher levels of certification has vanished.  There’s no institutionalized measure of “success” to which I feel I must hold myself.   And for the first time in a decade I am not saving every extra penny to attend Anusara Yoga events and trainings, worried about keeping up with the ever-evolving sea of new information that I “have to know.”

The freedom (which was there all along, though I didn’t see it) is simultaneously thrilling and unnerving.  The track to which I was so doggedly committed has vanished under my feet.  Suddenly, I realize that truly, as Antonio Machado writes, “you make the path by walking.”

At first this new path felt lonely.  But now I find that I actually feel more tightly woven with my family, local community, woods, and gardens than I did when I was so absorbed with fitting into a hierarchical system inhabited by people I barely knew and saw only rarely.

Lately, my friends and family; the wonderful, open-hearted, open-minded students who come to my classes; the ladyslipper orchids in the woods; and the peas coming up in the garden, all feel like rare and precious gifts that have been sitting under my nose, patiently waiting for me to pay attention.  So I have been paying attention.  And what I find is that all this every-day life is my yoga.

It turns out that I'm no longer interested in traveling all over the globe to get so many hundreds of more hours of training with a particular teacher so I can put certain letters after my name.  I'm not interested in hierarchy and putting people on pedestals (though I do admire, respect, and am awed by many people).  And I don't really care about putting my feet on my head (though that sometimes happens as a side-effect of practicing yoga). 

The root of the Sanskrit word “yoga” is “yuj,” meaning “to yoke,” as in an ox to a cart.  However, if one comes from the perspective (as does the Tantric tradition I have been studying) that we are already all One, then it is an illusion that we are separate and therefore even capable of being yoked.  Maya, or illusion, is the sacred gift that allows us to be in relationship.  Only by perceiving ourselves as separate (which is our ordinary, human reality) can we have the experience of coming together, getting connected, or remembering our One-ness through yoga.

Turns out, this perception of being separate can be a ton of fun!  It can also be terribly lonely, sad, scary, calm, exciting, etc.  That’s because it’s the same thing as being human.  This wild gift of embodiment, this magnificent illusion, this forgetting that we are always already connected, is what gives us the opportunity to practice yoga.  Yoga is about remembering (something that can only happen if you’ve forgotten!) that you are connected to something bigger than you and yet the same as you.  You can do yoga (or be yoga-ed) on a yoga mat, on a meditation cushion, walking in the woods, riding on the subway, slicing up carrots, making love, crying, laughing, dancing, etc.  It’s not something you can buy or earn or have bestowed upon you.  But you certainly can practice and become more skillful at it.

As Douglas Brooks writes in his book, Poised for Grace, “‘Yoga’ is ubiquitous, inevitable, and all embracing, for it describes every possible kind of meaningful relationship and engagement.  The question is never whether we are practicing yoga, but rather, are we practicing yoga well.”

Whether I am stepping through my garden gate into the sacred space my husband and I have co-created with the land, or stepping onto my yoga mat atop one of the garnet-studded boulders that grace the woods of our home, I can be “in yoga,” that is, “yoked” or connected to life in a tangible, conscious, reciprocal way.  I am existing in the delicious and very real illusion of being a separate individual having the experience of remembering that I am not actually separate: from the garden, from the plants, from the rocks, or from another human being.

Whether I am sitting down in front of my alter looking out at the mountain wrapped in morning mist, or sitting down to a meal I cooked for dear friends with the first greens of the spring, I am aware of the profundity of the simple, mundane, exquisite yoga that is possible in every moment of this precious existence.  Even in the midst of a challenging conversation or uncomfortable moment I can choose to consciously come into yoga.  I am breathing; I am connected.  I remember that I am not alone. 

The One-ness is not something to be attained or earned; it just is.  Yoga is about paying attention.  It’s the practice of consciously tapping into that “big energy,” intentionally connecting with it, and with awareness (as well as with courage, delight, respect, awe, and all those other wonderful human qualities), skillfully and with humility, cultivating that connection.

This everyday yoga may not earn me special letters after my name, or get me fancy teaching gigs at festivals.  I can’t exactly put it on my resume.  Why should I?  It’s what everyone always has access to; it’s our birthright. 

And as for the question of “should I still do yoga,” well, turns out we’re always in yoga so we might as well be intentional about it.  We might as well make it a practice, bring awareness and attention to it, and do our best.

So, I’ll ask you a question, too.

Out of all your freedom, out of all the infinite possibility available in every moment, to what would you choose to yoke yourself?  What is it that matters to you so deeply that you would, with intention and attention, mindfully bind yourself to it?  

Whether it’s your asana practice, your garden, a relationship with another person, activism, or your breath, it’s an opportunity to practice yoga.  It’s an opportunity to remember that which you have forgotten (and, because you are human, will most likely forget again!), to find what has always been there all along: that you are not alone, that you are part of everything, that it's all yoga.


  1. I agree that activism IS yoga! When our families and children are concerned, not getting involved nor speaking out against injustice, as MLK said, is participating in the crime. Silence is death! We offer out children a valuable role model in speaking out, asserting ourselves as women and fighting for a better world for our children! Great blog!

  2. Thanks for this excellent post.As a Yoga instructor working at Costa Rica Yoga Retreats,I respect your passion love for Yoga.Inner cycles are inevitable and some times we all go through some inner conflicts. Thank you again.

    Monirul Hoque
    Costa Rica Yoga Retreats

  3. Very inspiring indeed! To those who wants to save money especially the beginners they have just used beginner yoga dvd. Yoga DVDs are a complete guide even for beginners who do not know where to start with, in practicing power yoga.