With International Yoga Day around the corner, on June 21, it is good time to contemplate what constitutes yoga and what does not. Knowing the answers to these questions has important implications for the practice of authentic yoga.
WHAT YOGA IS NOT
1. An activity for weight loss or body shaping
Yes, secondary benefits of regularly practicing various asanas include burning excess fat, building muscles and making the body strong and flexible. But these are certainly not the primary gals of yoga. Any promotion of yoga as a physical regimen to reduce weight or build muscle is not only misleading, it is a clear case of misrepresentation.
2. A panacea/preventive measure for mental and physical ailments
Several studies have now demonstrated various health benefits of yoga. It helps attain strength and flexibility, improves cognition and respiration and reduces blood pressure, cardiovascular risk etc. It also helps to alleviate stress and anxiety. Yet, while a practice of yoga leads to various physiological and psychological benefits, these are just side benefits. A healthy body is very vital in yoga, but it is only a basic requirement for the higher practices and not the ultimate goal itself.
3. A tool for social peace and harmony
A regular practitioner of yoga is likely to have a healthy body and a clear mind. This will in-turn have a positive impact on society. A society in which most people practice yoga is likely to be peaceful and harmonious. But, social harmony in itself is not a goal of yoga.
"Unless you assimilate the philosophy of yoga in its entirety, your practice will be incomplete and of limited use. Further, such incomplete practices will result in the dilution and eventual destruction of authentic yoga."
WHAT YOGA REALLY MEANS
Yoga literally means "Union" or "Conjunction". Patanjali Yoga Sutra (1.2-3) defines yoga as a state wherein the patterns (vrittis) of the mind have been removed or stilled, so that the "seer" (i.e. atman, the witness) abides in his real nature". Hence, yoga is a state of samadhi (meditation), wherein the self or atman has been isolated from the limitations of non-self entities like the body and mind. This state is achieved by stilling the mind by causing our thoughts to cease. Just as various thoughts and dreams are products of modifications of manas (mind), so is our subjective perception of the universe. The atman is the witness and the body and the mind are the objects. Hence, when the mind is stilled and the modifications of the mind are brought to a stop, the objects merge into the subject and the atman which is the subject alone remains. This state of samadhi is called "yoga" because there is a union between subject and object. Their duality ceases, giving rise to the non-dual abidance in atman.
In the Yoga Sutra, the system of yoga is seen to have eight limbs designed to attain this goal of "abidance in atman".
The Yama and Niyama help to regulate lifestyle habits and create a healthy and harmonious life and surroundings. The Asana helps to keep the body healthy and fit. Pranayama helps to regulate breathing. Dharana and Dhyana help to control thoughts and focus them on the object of meditation. Hence, through a proper coordination and alignment of the various limbs of Yoga one attains the ultimate state of samadhi.
Therefore, the attainment of a healthy body, calm mind and harmonious surroundings are just preparatory stages that make a practitioner eligible for the higher stages of Yoga. At its core, yoga is a system of practical spirituality that is deeply rooted in the philosophy of dharma and moksha.
Of course, this does not mean that people cannot practice yoga for physical or mental health benefits. It just means that we must be aware of the essence of the holistic system of yoga. For the sake of short-term goals, we must not lose sight of its primary goal i.e. abidance in atman. Instead each practitioner must understand his/her own stage in yoga and work slowly towards the ultimate goal.
Unless you assimilate the philosophy of yoga in its entirety, your practice will be incomplete and of limited use. Further, such incomplete practices will result in the dilution and eventual destruction of authentic yoga. Therefore, it becomes the obligation of every genuine yoga practitioner -- both students and teachers -- to practice and teach the holistic system of yoga without diluting any of its aspects.