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What is Yoga?

By Elana Love

THU APR 15, 2021

When you look at the following photos, what do you think?

You probably see these kinds of photos often on social media, and you may have even possibly tried them out (or something like them) in a yoga class. Most likely, this is the extent of what you know yoga to be.

Maybe you also look at these photos and think damn, she’s flexible or I could never do that. But the reality is that I am one of the least flexible and strong yoga teachers I know. A lot of yoga poses (otherwise known as asanas) are NOT easy for me, and the stories behind each of these photos is struggle. To even be able to get to what you see here has taken YEARS and consistent practice.

Can I tell you a secret?

I am a yoga teacher, and I cannot do a handstand or the splits. Heck, I can barely even get into wheel pose, forward fold, or do a proper push up. But it doesn't mean I don't try!

It can be fun to play with these fancy tricks (and I'm not saying it's wrong if that’s your favorite part of yoga), but ultimately, I’m not practicing them for the “end result” or for other people's praise. I try them because:

  • they help me expand my edges
  • they train me to be present in the moment
  • they help me embrace messiness and imperfection
  • they simultaneously challenge and humble me
  • they show me areas of strength and potential

But guess what?

The truth is that making impressive shapes with your body is NOT the point of yoga! And it does not in any way determine how experienced or advanced your practice is.

I have never been the most bendy or muscular person in the room, and I will never be that contortionist IG yogi I sometimes get caught up comparing myself to. Because that’s just not my body. And maybe it’s not you either. But that’s okay, because that’s not the definition of yoga.

So what is yoga then?

None of what I am saying is meant to discredit the importance of Asana, the third limb of Patanjali's 8 limbs of yoga. Asana helps us connect with our body, harmonize body and mind, and prepare us to sit in stillness for meditation. It is absolutely an essential step toward your highest self or reaching Samadhi (union with the divine) because your physical body needs to be in healthy standing and heave energy in order to walk this path. It is just that what westerners find in most studio classes is a watered down version that doesn't much teach about the seven other limbs.

"Yoga" is derived from the Sanskrit word "yuj" which means "to yoke" or "unite/join together." It is considered a tool for living a healthy and happy life, a path to your highest Self. The practice of yoga helps us unite, or find harmony, between the body and mind, as well as the individual and universal consciousness. The aim is to realize this oneness - to find union with the divine - and to reach a state of liberation or freedom (moksha) from earthly egoic limitations and sufferings (which are a natural and inevitable part of life).

One of my favorite quotes by one of my yoga teachers says "I used to think that yoga was going to make me calmer and nicer. What I've learned over the years is that actually yoga doesn't necessarily make us any of those things. It simply makes us more aware. It helps us build a container for feeling the entirety of the human experience." Yoga helps us develop awareness, presence, and equanimity. It trains us to explore and expand our capacity to hold and be with what is.

Knowing what yoga is really about and its true purpose is important because it can change how you approach your practice and how you do what you do on the mat. Yoga is not some box you have to fit into or a perfect pose you have to perform. You can only experience its profundity and impact on your life if you are open to looking at what underlies the postures and then take those intentions off the mat.

By practicing yoga, you will feel more flexible, strong, and great in your body. But beyond that, it'll help you re-connect to yourself and what’s beyond yourself, realize the divinity of it all, and from there, be inspired and empowered to live with a deeper sense of purpose. I hope you’ll discover that yoga has the power to not only help you be more grounded and present in daily life, but also to liberate and unite, within and without.