Yoga is a journey. It is not an outward adventure like it may appear as you see yogis practicing backbends in mid-air gracefully touching their pointed feet to the top of their head as they balance, a bit precariously, on their forearms. In actuality, it is an inward exploration. And just like any trip you would take it is helpful to know where you are headed (at least what direction to start out in, if you are one of those bold, spontaneous travelers). It is even more useful to have a map and a guidebook of the area you are going to. What is most supportive in really getting to know an area and being successful in getting to where you want to go is to have a guide who is familiar with the area that can show you your way around.
What follows includes a look at the big picture (likened to a map of the earth, a country, a state or maybe even Mt. Everest). The postures (asanas) are the maps that you use to explore the terrain of your-self (these are more like maps of a particular region or the route you would take to get to the top of Everest). It is imperative to actually walk the journey yourself. There is no benefit in staying home and just studying the map! And for the beginners out there just arriving on the path of yoga, it is helpful to remember the old Chinese proverb that “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one, single step.”
One thing that emerges in the yoga world when you start looking around is that not everyone agrees on what yoga is, it can mean different things to different people. I would say that we are all on a journey. This could be compared to a journey up Mt. Everest. Everyone who decides to climb this mountain may get on board for different reasons. However, when you reach the summit, in whatever direction you turn, the top is the top. There are many base camps along the way. Someone might reach a certain camp and say “Yes, This is It! This is Wonderful, This is The Reason I Came Here. I feel so fulfilled at the beauty of this place. I do not need to go any further. This is enough.”
This would be like coming to yoga for better health, more flexibility, strength, balance, stress reduction etc… are all great because they get us to show up, to begin the journey. We might be quite content with this and just stay here for many, many years. However, at some point you might look up and realize that there is more. You might be ready to take the next step, to walk the next leg of the journey, or not. Either way is fine; one camp is not better than another; even the top is not better, there is always more, it is an ever unfolding journey.
You will probably find that if you dedicate to the practice and stick with it, it will change you in more ways than you thought it would originally; the changes are subtle yet noticeable. It will most likely help you to be more authentic – to be more fully you and at the same time to help you realize that you are more than you thought you were. It brings a sense of freedom and being limitless as you start to tap into, and have an experience of, that part of you that is connected to all of life and unbounded.
The true intention of the practice is understood in the meaning of the word, yoga means union; it comes from the root word “to yoke”. It is about uniting mind, body and spirit; leaving fragmentation behind and realizing, embracing the wholeness of who we are. This is not airy fairy, new agey stuff; and contrary to popular belief it’s not necessarily nice or pretty. It is truth: a truth that brings integration and wholeness. Each one of us must discover for ourselves our own truth. And for many of us here in the western world it starts out as being a process of self discovery, a discovery of the missing link, a recognition of the Spiritual nature of our being. We may wonder: “Do I indeed have a Spirit, a Soul? What is it? How do I know it? How do I know the difference between my Spirit and my personality?”
For some beginners, yoga may not reach this level, or base camp, for quite some time. Some may never reach this level of interest. Others might have gotten to this point from a different path. For most, in the beginning you are just trying to figure out how to breathe, how to get into these different positions, where your sit-bones are, where is your head in relationship to your hips etc… Yet as time goes by, you begin to think less, and feel more. Your awareness expands and you begin to have experiences of yourself beyond the level you are accustomed to.
This process of becoming whole is also about bringing light into the dark places, integrating the shadow, which naturally increases our own light if we can allow the process and not try to stifle or squander it. This can be scary and possibly the most difficult work we ever do, it takes a tremendous amount of courage which is why many people do not choose the journey of the Spirit.
The true purpose of Yoga is unity, integration, wholeness, connection. We start by uniting the mind and the body with the breath in the postures in order to become present; the breath is the gateway, as is the heart. In the present we are able to discover our connection with Spirit; in the present moment we are able to have an experience of the Infinite, our connection to all of life.
We are already familiar with the mind and the body (although there is still much to learn). The Spirit is the part of ourselves that has been cut off, left out and relegated to the deep caverns of our being for so long that this is where it gets fuzzy. Because the western world has, for the most part, disowned the Spirit. Many don’t even acknowledge its existence because it can not be measured in the realm of science. Yet this perception is changing, even with the help of quantum physics. A quantum physicist once told me that yogis are way of ahead of quantum physics and that they have known for thousands of years what the scientists are just beginning to discover.
Raja Yoga is the eight limbed path to self-realization. Hatha Yoga (an umbrella term for the physical postures/asanas) is the third limb, where most beginners start their yoga journey. Samadhi is the eigth limb and is often translated as bliss. So we could also say that the aim of Hatha Yoga is bliss. Many of us have had glimpses into this state of being: totally and unequivocally full of joy for no apparent (or external) reason.
Yoga is a state of being. It is not something we do, it is something we allow to unfold. We can only do practices which may lead to a state of yoga; a state of being connected, whole and full of joy for no particular reason. It is an expanded state that brings a sense of real freedom as we connect with the aspect of ourselves that is unbounded by the limits of the mind and the body… namely the spirit. It is one path, amongst many, that we can use to come home, home to ourselves and the limitless potential that resides within.