In our physical body we experience the world. In our body we make love, hug a friend, fidget, get mad, anxious or stressed. In our body we feel a breeze, swim in the ocean, sing, laugh, dance and cry. In our body we repress emotions, hold tension, hate ourselves and love others. Although our body is the vehicle in which our spirit experiences the world, there continues to be ongoing discussion regarding Western yoga as a purely physical practice, or posture (asana) focused. I feel we need the physical practice to build the strength and flexibility to be able to withstand the nuances and complexities that are life.
Yogi T.K.V. Desikachar translated Patañjali’s definition of yoga as “the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.” Yoga can take many different forms such as jñāna yoga (yoga of knowledge), karma yoga (the yoga of action) or hatha yoga (physical yoga). Stretching, toning and strengthening the body is vital for all systems of yoga. To do an asana practice rather than simply calisthenics one must consciously work to unify breath, body and mind. In yoga class, no matter the style of asana the student takes, ultimately the practice is to remain focused and comfortable so when off the mat, we are alert and comfortable in whatever circumstance comes our way.
When we come onto our mat, we move into our asana practice, we practice how to be in our bodies in any given moment. On the mat, we practice focus, we practice discipline, we hear our thoughts, we learn our behaviors of escapism, comparison, competition and ego. On our mats, we contort our bodies into shapes and practice breathing and steadying our gaze. We practice how to look at movement as meditation and accept ourselves at our current place and not hold judgment that we are not where we think we “should” be. On our mat we practice how to breathe, how to react, to notice where we shut down and where we open up. We learn how we talk to ourselves and how we relate to others. We learn how to be conscious of our thoughts, reactions and behaviors so off the mat we can consciously and mindfully act and react to the situations that are life. On the mat we practice because off the mat is where we apply all the action, devotion, mantra and knowledge that are other systems of yoga. When we step off our mats and into our lives we apply all the wisdom, knowledge and self-awareness that arose on our mats.
In our Western world, where many of us we eat too much, or deliberately eat too little, and have addictions to various forms of over-consumption, to engage in hatha yoga is a gift and a doorway into consciously unifying our mind, body and spirit. Instead of criticizing the physical practice and creating a larger chasm between our body, mind and spirit, let us embrace this form of yoga that resonates with the Western world. Our culture has created a disconnect between mind and body and the very thing we need to do is connect with our body in a way that treats it with respect, listen to it, and from there, in our body, in our asana, in our yoga, learn to breathe again.
**Previously published on YogaDownload on 12/29/2014**