What is the aim of yoga?
When I took the decision to embark on yoga teacher training it really got me contemplating what is actually the aim of yoga?
Why do I do this thing called yoga every week?
What were the ancient Rishis trying to achieve when yoga was first conceived over 5000 years ago?
And more importantly what is the aim of yoga now in a modern world which is so different from that of yoga’s origins?
As a yoga teacher I feel it is vital to consider what it is that students attending class think the aim of yoga is. As this is going to shape their expectations of what they want to get out of class.
Having experienced many different styles of yoga teachers I think it is important to connect with what your students needs to ensure the class is a fulfilling experience for both parties
I want to start with the definition of yoga by going back to the origins of the word in Sanskrit it comes from the root word “yuj” which means to unite to join or connect, this can be thought of as uniting one’s body, breath, mind, spirit and heart and connecting with all living beings and the universe itself.
In English it is thought yoga is derived from the worse “yoke” meaning to restrain or harness.
Historically the yoke was what went over the oxen or horses necks to connect then to the plough or wagon. There is an analogy in the Upanishads of a horse and chariot illustrating the link between the eternal spirit, the body the mind and their relationship with the senses and selfish desires. The idea is to train the mind in order to achieve a serene calm state.
I also used the universal encyclopaedia that is google which came up with the following definition -
“Yoga is a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline a part of which including breath control, simple meditation and the adoption of specific bodily postures is widely practised for health and relaxation.”
As far as we know, it was over 5000 years ago when this practice of postures was developed and refined by Indian Rishis to provide a complete physical, mental and spiritual transformation of a person.
They identified that controlling the mind which is tightly interwoven with the bodily senses and desires is extremely difficult but by utilising the body and breath you can quieten the mind and reach inner calm.
This can be hard at first, years of stress, anxiety and disconnection from our bodies by using it merely as a vehicle to cart around our busy minds, means a lot of us are rigid, tense and not able to fully inhabit and move our bodies with the fluidity it should.
Yoga eases us into change by using the tools of breath and movement which we have conscious control over.
Moving forward from its origins, yoga garnered favour and popularity in the Western world in around 1980 when it was seen as a system of physical exercise, to increase physical strength and flexibility, to be able to “touch your toes”. The spiritual journey of discovery was less widely followed
You would think this might limit the spiritual benefits gained, however the amazing thing about yoga is that by simply following the instructions of asana and pranayama you can still garner some benefits for your health and wellbeing.
Whilst reading about the original aims of yoga I became curious about what people think the aim of yoga is now. I did a little poll of friends and family of what they think the aim of yoga is
Here’s a few of their answers:-
“The aim of yoga is to build core strength and improve flexibility”
I do yoga as a form of exercise to increase my strength and improve general fitness and flexibility”
“don’t really know much about yoga, I guess I consider is to be a form of exercise which helps improve your posture and flexibility as well as clearing your mind and relaxing you”
“the aim of yoga for me is to push my body’s limits de-clutter my mind, ease my back pain and relax”
“I started yoga hoping that it would help with the muscular back pain I sometimes have in my back. What I have found is that it does this but it also give me some time away from the busyness of life, now I go with the intention of giving myself an hour to improve my overall well being both mentally and physically”
And finally a favourite from my Mum
“I think it releases stress through breathing exercises and stretches can improve body posture relax muscle and joint pains improve mobility and keeps you looking young!”
I find it interesting that there much mention of physical benefits of increased strength and flexibility as expected but actually there is also mention of the mental and spiritual benefits, particularly by those who practice regularly.
I suspect the spiritual benefits are becoming more well-known and in an age where despite having all our basic needs met, having more wealth and more material possessions increasingly people are discovering they are still not truly happy and therefore reaching a stage where they realise they must look inwards to find true peace and contentment away from the distractions of passing illusions of pleasure from the external consumerist world.
Certainly for me when I first experienced yoga 20 years ago attending a few classes at university gym it was a bid to exercise and do something good for my body at a time full of unhealthy choices!
At that stage I never fully engaged either with the class or the style or the teacher and life had so many other more pressing distractions at that age. I wandered back into it about 10 years ago with a different motivation. As well as looking to stretch and exercise I was also looking for ‘something’ else.
If asked at the time I probably could not have put into words what it was I needed but it felt like something was missing and I stumbled back into yoga whist searching for it.
So now my personal view of the aim of yoga is different from 20 years ago.
Today I practice yoga to connect with my true self and rediscover my inner peace.
For me the aim of yoga is
To keep me balanced and sane
To remind me to be quiet
To remind me to breath
And the rest will follow in its own time!
I invite you to re-examine what YOU think is the aim of yoga?