I write a blog.
That’s right, the moment my butt hits the mat, my mind begins to wander. Where, you ask (or maybe you don’t)? Well, that is as unpredictable as the path an autumn leaf takes to the ground.
Before I wander again into the dusty recesses of my mind, where all my blogs are born, I need to clarify something: yoga is not “exercise” in the western sense. The word yoga comes from Sanskrit, meaning to “unite” or “join.” It has many forms, only one of which can be interpreted as exercise.
And this is where we westerners screw it up, like we do to all things spiritual.
The world problem Hinduism tries to solve is the same world problem most philosophies try to solve: get better at being human. Connect. Be mindful. Be nice. Yogas are the methods through which we imperfect humans become better. The main forms of yoga – karma, bhakti, jnana and raja – all come back to the same thing. You, the practitioner, chooses the way in which you want to plug into the world around you.
Here’s the short version:
Karma yoga is good works. Feed the hungry, give to the poor.
Bhakti yoga is prayer and devotion. Worship your god through song, dance, prayer…choose and enjoy.
Jnana yoga is intellectual. Study spiritual texts, debate, expand your mind.
Raja yoga is about the whole person, a combination of all types of yoga, the royal path to personal enlightment. Here is where we find the hatha and pranayama yogas. Those that we westerners have turned into a whole industry.
But we’ve missed the point. And that, friends, is where the wandering comes in. See, if you think that yoga is supposed to magically turn your mind off and soothe your soul, then you are unrolling the mat for the wrong reasons. It’s work to focus on uniting your body and mind, especially if you are as high strung as I tend to be. But it is worthwhile work.
Recently, I started taking a class taught by my friend Lynda. It’s the type of class that I need once a week (if I had time, I’d take it every day) because I personally need the focus of Yin. For me, it is a mind-bending hour of giving real attention to my aching joints and forcing myself to love the reliable machine that carries my brain around all week. Did I mention that it’s hard work? Each time my mind wanders, or writes another sentence, or thinks about work, a phrase or instruction from the teacher creeps into my consciousness and brings me back to the task at hand, connecting.
There are myriad versions of yoga classes, now. There is always a debate whether the adaptations are true to the spirit of yoga. If one considers that the intention of yoga is to unite the mind and body, then it is up to the individual to choose what works toward that goal. My sister claims that “yoga is too slow.” In fact, a lot of people do. However, I’ve taken ashtanga classes that have left me as breathless as running does. There is a great variety in what you personally can choose from to heal and push your body.
If you’re mind isn’t constantly wandering away from what it’s supposed to be doing, then you are not practicing yoga, you’re just stretching. We mindlessly allow work and other stresses to negatively impact our bodies every damned day. I get on a plane twice a week, sit in a chair for most of the day in front of a computer and by the end of the week, my back and legs are miserable. So, I go to yoga not only to get the physical benefits of the stretching and the movement, but also to actually give back to the vehicle. Nowhere else do I have the opportunity to quietly and intentionally heal my body. The real work is in bringing the mind back.
There is one other thing. During that same hour, I connect to the human I want to be: a better mother to my son, a better wife, a better teammate at work. As I settle into a pose, where I will likely stay for a few moments (and in Yin, a few minutes), as I breathe deeply into wherever it hurts, I let in all of the light I can. Yeah, it may seem like a lot of new-agey rhetoric, but in truth, it’s like anything else that creates a zone for you. The point of yoga is the zone.
I try to practice all forms of yoga, because in the end, I think self-improvement is a worthy goal. Most of us practice in one way or another every day. While Hinduism organizes the ideals into a tradition, most of the humans I know practice the precepts as part of their own spiritual traditions; they just have a different name for it. The mindfulness of yoga isn’t about perfect clarity on a mat. In fact, to me, it’s the opposite. It’s about the work of getting whatever clarity I can. Sometimes it’s five minutes, sometimes it’s twenty, and sometimes…it’s a blog.
P.S. There are a lot of good studios around. I take classes from different teachers for different reasons, and they don’t all practice in the same place. Find your favorite places to find your own zone.