What is Yoga?
When introducing yoga to children in primary schools, several of them would gleefully declare that they knew all about yoga. They would jump on the floor, knot their legs in a pretzel-like position, rest their hands on their knees (possibly bringing their thumb and forefinger to touch if they were ‘advanced’), close their eyes and loudly proclaim ‘OMMMMM’ - “That’s yoga!”
Images of yoga have become prevalent in Western society in recent years: from pop stars to football players, ath-leisure wearers to Instagram gymnasts – all in pursuit of the perfect body, the perfect pose or inner enlightenment. These images are familiar to us all but what lies behind the image…
For some yoga is a physical exercise that helps build strength and ease aches and pains, for others it’s a philosophy, a spiritual practice or way of life that extends far beyond the mat. From Sanskrit the word ‘yoga’ can be translated as ‘to join’ or ‘to unite’ and it’s this idea of ‘union’ that is central to the meaning of yoga.
Union can be viewed at different levels depending on your practice.
It could be the union between breath and movement. In yoga movement is not only led by the breath, but the breath also brings a certain quality or character to that movement. A deep inhale in Warrior I fills the body with strength and energy providing uplift and confidence whilst a sighing out breath in deep hip stretch helps us find release and softness allowing us to sink deeper and let go.
It could be the union between the mind and body. Those small verbal cues that your teacher gives during class – “press into the outside edge of your back foot”, “feel the base of each finger connected to the mat”, “gaze at the tip of your middle fingernail” – are to aid with alignment and protecting the body but they are also designed to bring awareness to your movement. Yoga can be described as mindful movement; moving with purpose and free from distractions. If you’re thinking about the placement of your heel or remembering to drop your shoulders, you’re less likely to be thinking about what you’re having for tea or that email you received just before leaving work.
It could be union with the Self. As you bring your attention inwards, yoga enables you to have a deeper connection with the Self. Stepping back from thoughts, feelings and reactions and observing them; noticing how and when they arise, patterns of behavior and triggers. This is something you can take with you off the mat; bringing your practice in to your daily life and applying it to difficult or challenging situations so you can see the wood and the trees.
It could be union with the universe. Through yoga we can develop an understanding and appreciation of the world around us and our connection to it. It could be as simple as recognizing that when we breathe out, the trees and plants around us breathe in. Or how the energy of others around us can impact on our own being.
For most the idea of union between the breath and movement is a more accessible starting point than a union with the universe but that’s the beauty of yoga; it meets us where we are, when we are. It’s simultaneously all of the above and more. There are times that we come to yoga simply for a chance to move, unwind and relax; to finish feeling less stressed than when we started. And there will be times when we come to yoga for more than that; for support through difficult times, to help us deal with change and facilitate positive shifts that reverberate throughout our lives.
So roll out your mat and let yoga meet you where you are.
James has practiced yoga for over 12 years and trained as a teacher in India, Bali and Manchester.
He now lives by the beach in Liverpool (we do have one!) and teaches online and face-to-face classes and workshops throughout the year. He specialises in Yoga for Beginners, Yoga for Runners, Yin Yoga and Pride Yoga (for the LGBTQ+ community).
Alongside yoga, James loves travel, baking and drinking quality loose-leaf tea (thanks Katy!)
by James Pearson