Understanding the True Character of Yoga

Whenever you hear that Yoga is just this or just that, your nonsense alert should kick into action. Yoga is too comprehensive to reduce to any one thing — it's like a skyscraper with many floors and numerous rooms at each level. Yoga isn't just gymnastics, fitness training, huffing and puffing, or a way to control your weight. It's not just stress reduction, meditation, or some spiritual tradition from India.

Yoga is all these things and a great deal more. (You'd expect as much from a tradition that's been around for 5,000 years.) Yoga includes physical exercises that look like gymnastics and have even been incorporated into Western gymnastics. These postural exercises help you become or stay fit and trim, control your weight, and reduce your stress level. Yoga also offers a whole range of meditation practices, including breathing techniques that exercise your lungs and calm your nervous system or charge your brain and the rest of your body with delicious energy.

You can also use Yoga as an efficient system of health care that has proven its usefulness in both restoring and maintaining health. Yoga continues to gain acceptance within the medical establishment; more and more physicians are recommending Yoga to their patients not only for stress reduction but also as a safe and sane method of exercise and physical therapy (notably, for the back and knees).

But Yoga is more than even a system of preventative or restorative health care. Yoga looks at health from a broad, holistic perspective that's only now being rediscovered by avant-garde medicine. This perspective appreciates the enormous influence of the mind — your psychological attitudes — on physical health.

Finding unity

The word Yoga comes from the ancient Sanskrit language spoken by the traditional religious elite of India, the Brahmins. Yoga means "union" or "integration" and also "discipline," so the system of Yoga is called a unitive or integrating discipline. Yoga seeks unity at various levels. First, it seeks to unite body and mind, which people all too often separate. Some people are chronically "out of the body." They can't feel their feet or the ground beneath them, as if they hover like ghosts just above their bodies. They're unable to cope with the ordinary pressures of daily life and collapse under stress, and they're often confused and don't understand their own emotions. They're afraid of life and easily emotionally hurt.

Yoga also seeks to unite the rational mind and the emotions. People frequently bottle up their emotions and don't express their real feelings, choosing instead to rationalize these feelings away. Chronic avoidance can become a serious health hazard; if people aren't aware that they're suppressing feelings such as anger, the anger consumes them from the inside out.

Here's how Yoga can help you with your personal growth:

✓ It can put you in touch with your real feelings and balance your emotional life.

✓ It can help you understand and accept yourself and feel comfortable with who you are. You don't have to "fake it" or reduce your life to constant role-playing.

✓ It helps you become more able to empathize and communicate with others.

Yoga is a powerful means of psychological integration. It makes you aware that you're part of a larger whole, not merely an island unto yourself. Humans can't thrive in isolation. Even the most independent individual is greatly indebted to others. After your mind and body are happily reunited, this union with others comes about naturally. The moral principles of Yoga are all-embracing, encouraging you to seek kinship with everyone and everything. We say more about this topic in Chapter 20.

Finding yourself: Are you a yogi (or yogini)?

Someone who's practicing the discipline of balancing mind and body through Yoga is traditionally called a yogi (if male) or a yogini (if female). In this book, we use both terms at random. Alternatively, we also use the English term Yoga practitioner. In our book, practicing Yoga postures is a step in the right direction but doesn't make a person a yogi or yogini. For that, you'd have to embrace Yoga as a self-transforming spiritual discipline. A yogi or yogini who has really mastered Yoga is called an adept. If such an adept also teaches (and not all of them do), he or she is traditionally called a guru. The Sanskrit word guru means literally "weighty one." According to traditional esoteric sources, the syllable gu signifies spiritual darkness and ru signifies the act of removing. Thus a guru is a teacher who leads the student from darkness to light.

Very few Westerners have achieved complete mastery of Yoga, mainly because Yoga is still a relatively young movement in the West. So please be careful about those who claim to be enlightened or to have been given the title of guru! However, at the level at which Yoga is generally taught outside its Indian homeland, many competent Yoga teachers or instructors can lend a helping hand to beginners. In this book, we hope to do just that for you.

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