Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Meaning of Yoga

I spend a lot of time these days around yogis and yoginis. My partner is a yoga teacher. Most of my friends do yoga. I have a yoga practice myself. I even co-teach workshops on yoga and meditation with Adrian Molina.

What Adrian and I aspire to do with our yoga and meditation workshops is to rejoin two things that (at least from my point of view) were never really meant to be separated in the first place.

The way yoga is often taught these days is primarily as a physical practice, a fitness routine, a series of postures designed to strengthen and lengthen and relax the body. And then once the body is nice and relaxed, and you lie there in savasana for a minute or two, the class is over.

Because of my years of training in Buddhist meditation, I tend to approach things from the other side of the fence. I love a good, challenging, physical yoga practice. But I regard the physical part of yogic training as merely a prelude, a method of preparing the body for meditation practice. I'm always somewhat amazed to see people go through all the trouble of learning to twist themselves like pretzels and balance on their elbows, and then roll up their mats and leave before the main course is served.

From the Buddhist point of view, all the elaborate asanas and pranayamic breathing techniques and bandhas of yoga are really just appetizers. The main course is sitting down and relating with your own mind. The asanas and the bandhas and the pranayama are all ways of helping you put your body into the proper state for optimal meditation to happen.

If you can stand on one leg and grasp your other leg behind your head with both hands, or balance on your hands in crow pose, well, that's awesome. Congratulations. You're a good primate. Any monkey can do those things. If you can do them and then sit down and be still and listen to the sound of silence within your own vivid awareness — well, now you've leveled up. You're a real human being, relating openly to the divine mystery of your embodied existence.

When you get deeper into the study of esoteric yoga and Buddhist tantra, you learn that there's actually a science behind all of this. Yoga as we know it is a very sophisticated system of methods for opening and aligning the channels of the "subtle" or "energetic" body so that energy can flow efficiently and be directed where the mind wants it to go.

Beginners to meditation often wonder why teachers place so much emphasis on sitting in a proper meditation posture. Same principle. It's about straightening the channels and optimizing the way subtle energies flow within the body, which has a correlative effect on the way the mind rests (or doesn't rest) in meditation.

People often say that yoga is working with the body and meditation is working with the mind. That's a useful way of thinking about it at first, but ultimately I don't think it's true. All genuine yoga involves working with the mind, and all genuine meditation involves working with the body. In fact, some of the most profound meditation techniques lead us to question our assumption that the body and the mind are really two separate things to begin with.

And that's the real meaning of yoga. "Union" is how the Sanskrit word "yoga" is often translated into English. Union. Oneness. The union or synchronization of body and mind. The rejoining or realignment of two things that were never really separate in the first place. It's the practice of awakening, here and now, to what it really means to be human.