22 Feb 6 misconceptions of the meaning of yoga
“What does yoga mean to you?”
Whenever I first meet a new group of students, I ask them each to define what yoga means to them. Whereby we can consider the term ‘meaning’ to quite broadly denote purpose, method and goal.
Here are the 5 most typical student responses:
“Yoga means to me….
5) something you practice
6) union of body mind and soul”
The yoga scripts didn’t mention wellbeing
Unsurprisingly, all of which denote a notion of wellbeing. You may think that these are reasonable responses. Undeniably yoga can make you feel good and of course it has proven health benefits.
However shouldn’t we question why or how we have shoehorned the tradition of yoga into our culture in a way that suits our incessant search for wellbeing?
My contention is that there is a clear discrepancy between these aforementioned ‘wellbeing-orientated meanings’ of yoga to what is conveyed from within the scriptural traditional worldview of yoga.
To reduce the entire historical, cultural and spiritual tradition of yoga into a wellbeing package is a dis-service to ourselves and to the tradition of yoga. The consequences of which could even be an impediment to wellbeing.
I have dedicated 21 of my 35 years of my life exploring, experimenting and studying yoga. Based on my study and experience. I find I would define the meaning of yoga in a very different way to the aforementioned student’s responses.
Indeed my study, practice and experience of yoga doesn’t lead me to define the meaning of yoga as centrally concerned with wellbeing. I confess, I’m not (yet?) completely still, balanced, peaceful or 100% relaxed. I don’t get on a yoga mat daily and I don’t necessarily relate to the notion of ‘union’…
So as a practitioner am I doing it wrong, and as a yoga teacher am I failing my students? If I do not live up to their definitions of what yoga means to them?
The thing is, I don’t actually think I have ever met a yoga teacher that can fully claim that they are permanently all of the above …(dm me if you can! I want to know what pranayama, mudra or mantra you have that’s got you there!)
Anyway, this either suggests that myself and plenty of other yoga teachers have been doing yoga badly (possibly…!) OR something is amiss with the prevalent mainstream understanding of yoga…
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t assume to know more about the meaning of yoga than my students and certainly not of what yoga means for them!
I acknowledge and respect the answers of my students’ meaning of yoga irrespective of whether I feel that they are aligned with my own personal meaning of yoga. Especially given the fact that these 6 definitions are in line with what is most commonly expressed within the mainstream (and the media), to be the meaning and reason for contemporary yoga within our cultural context.
Bridge the gap
In this article, I’m not going to rant on about what I feel to be the REAL meaning of yoga because quite frankly that would require a long and probably boring novel.
Nor am I concerned with criticising these 6 typical wellbeing-orientated meanings. Instead, I’m more interested in raising awareness of the existence of these obvious and prevalent misconceptions within meaning.
I’m interested in uncovering what discrepancies there are between the mainstream and the classical yoga scripture. I am also excited to draw upon the insights from the positive psychology of flow-state within the context of yoga.
It is important to bridge the gap between the mainstream wellbeing-orientated understanding of yoga versus having an understanding of the classical worldview of yoga because doing so avoids disillusionment and risks of yoga practice and empowers the yoga student to progress and gain access to the deeper dimensions of yoga.
Therefore I’d like to explore these 6 wellbeing-orientated meanings of yoga in turn in order to ascertain whether yoga really does lead or relate to each of them.
Misconception 1: “Yoga is stillness”
The entire Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are dedicated to explaining the goal of yoga as being to ‘still the fluctuations of the mind’
An important point to make here is that often meditation is misunderstood as stopping the thoughts. Anyone who has ever actually tried to stop their thoughts can attest to how impossible it can feel. It’s the equivalent of attempting to stop the current of a river by standing still in the water!
This is because there is no such thing as static stillness. Everything in nature is continuously in motion and nothing is ever still so you cannot expect to defy the laws of nature and be ‘still’*. This is true of our body and of our thoughts.
So stilling the fluctuations of the mind should be considered not as stopping but as steering. Rather than the stillness of yoga being considered as the interruption or abruption of thoughts themselves, it should be understood as attuning to one’s underlying awareness (whom resides beneath the thoughts) and steering this awareness into itself away from the thoughts. Alas, this is no easy feat but at least more possible than stopping the torrent of thoughts!
(*unless, perhaps you’re one of those yogi’s that gets buried alive underground for 40 days then dug up again alive but in a state of enlightenment (samadhi) in which case you can probably defy the time and space continuum).
Misconception 2: “Yoga is Balance.”
Hatha is an umberella term for the physical approach to yoga practice. The Sanskrit term hatha is commonly described as being made from the roots ha, meaning “sun,” and tha, meaning “moon,” which is then suggested to convey the idea that physical yoga is about striving to balance the “solar” and “lunar” energies of the body.
Actually, the term hatha literally means “force,” or “exertion,” which is required for yoga practice in order to pertain to meditation.
So the misconception of yoga meaning balance could have been derived from a mis-interpretation or mis-identification with an analogy provided by Svatmarama the composer of the 15th Ce text the Hatha Pradapika. When he describes an aspect of the subtle energy body, the energy channels (nadis) he uses the analogy of the sun and the moon to discuss the feminine (ida) and masculine (pingala) channels but this is just one aspect of the practice and not the entire goal of yoga.
Let’s consider balance practically. Being in balance would suggest a sense of equanimity and non-extremity. Which is all very well but how realistic is it to maintain throughout life? As discussed above, the nature of existence is in constant flux and life is full of ups and downs. So how can we stay in balance when everything else experiences imbalance? What is a suitable time-frame in which to consider balance? within a moment? 40 days? a season? a year? a lifetime? a generation?
In fact it’s absurd to try and strive for the goals of stillness and balance, because striving itself just moves you farther away from those goals. Balance should instead be conceptualised as a dynamic equilibrium with a moving target that evolves within it’s context. You as a sailor on life’s oceans should attempt to tac with rather than against the current in order to support smooth sailing. In the quest to stay afloat and reach your destination, you’ll inevitably experience turbulence and veer left and right as you tend towards your path, but this is what makes the overall balance.
Misconception 3: “Yoga is peace”
The Bhagavad Gita is nestled within the Hindu epic of the Mahabharata and is considered a cornerstone yogic text. Yet it is a great tale of war and the lead character Arjuna, a warrior, is encouraged by Krishna, the incarnation of God to fight and kill in that war. Yet the morals and teachings within the battle is said to be inherently yogic in stance, for which the philosophical underpinnings are beyond the scope of this blog post, but this demonstrates that yoga is not all love and light and peace, there is the darkness, the shadows, the destruction, chaos and the transgression all contained and not rejected from the path. Furthermore, consider the origins of names of various yoga poses, hero, warriors 1-3 etc. The notion that yoga means peace can not be taken on face value.
Ultimately, peace is not subject to circumstance it has to be a decision you choose to make for your own mind-set. You cannot control the external world you find yourself in, you can only ever control your reaction to it. If you choose to adopt the attitude of peace irrespective of life’s uncertainties, then that is the makings of true unshakeable inner-peace.
Misconception 4: Yoga means relaxation and ‘going with the flow’
Well anyone that’s ever been to a dynamic yoga class will testify that yoga is not necessarily relaxing! Rather than presuming that yoga means resting, it is more accurate to consider that the practices generate a release through a sort of active relaxation.
And what if, by nature, like me, you are someone whose natural temperament tends towards high energy, inner-drive and ambition? Yoga can certainly undisputedly offer the reprise from one’s own exhausting tendencies however more than that, Yoga provides a way of channeling that fire energy in a way that is replenishing, energizing and relaxing within the exertion itself.
Within the context of yoga, Patanjali Yoga Sutras 8-limbs describes 2 seemingly opposing personal restraints of ‘dedicated practice’ (tapah) alongside contentment (santosha). Which suggests that it is important to apply yourself with an exertion of dedicated and disciplined practice yet at the same time, be totally content. What a confusing challenge!
So For many years I had wrestled with trying to navigate between the effort of practice and the grace of contentment, the bipolar precepts appeared to me on first view to be contradictory and incompatible with one another.
I realised that Flow-state is the conduit in which Patanjali’s precepts of effort and contentment can co-exist. The mechanism for that channeling I consider to be what positive psychologists identify as the Flow-state.
Sure there is some evidently seamless fluidity within the experience of flow BUT Flow-state is definitely NOT “just chilling out and going-with the flow”.
Flow-State Not go-with-the-flow
Flow-state requires work. Flow-state involves dedication, practice and a consistent, concerted and concentrated effort. Flow-state is that single-pointed focused-ness (ekagrata) of concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) that is also often described as ‘being in the zone’, whereby the mental and physical (instinctual, intellectual and intuitive) faculties of a person awaken and fire on full cylinders and the impossible becomes possible.
You could think of flow-state more generally, most obviously expressed in an olympic athlete breaking a record or musician composing a masterpiece or scientist making a break-through discovery… or on a more down to earth level, a mother breastfeeding their child or an A grade student nailing their exam finals.
Flow-state is aligned with what the Buddhists would refer to ‘right effort’ (samma vayamo), it’s aligned with what the Taoists would refer to as the power of the feminine principle of yin i.e. that ‘effortless effort’.
Flow-state has allowed me to celebrate rather than chastice my intensity, harness my fire and channel it in a way that illuminates and ignites rather than chaotically sets everything on fire. It has allowed me to realise the potency within passivity, the strength within surrender and the subtle artforms of the sublime which provides an abundant wellspring of renewal, creativity, rejuvenation and deep relaxation. Effortlessly, this leads to and creates the space for contentment and grace. All powerful stuff.
Misconception 5: Yoga means practice…
Yeah sure, doing a downdog or some other physical position called a yoga pose might take practice and well known guru Patabhi Jois is often quoted as saying “yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice” BUT is the actual ‘state’ of yoga, i.e. enlightenment / liberation something that can be practiced?
Did you know that there are completely opposing schools of Eastern philosophy & meditation who disagree as to whether meditation and enlightenment/liberation require practice or whether they can occur as a spontaneous awakening?
Even within the path of yoga itself, there appears to be inconsistencies depending on which worldview, lineage or scripture you choose to consult. So on the one hand with practice, you get a little glimpse of the ‘light’ and you can incrementally edge towards it, or on the other hand you’re either enlightened or you’re not.
So effort or grace?
Option 1: Do you need to put your leg over your head and your foot on your ear whilst breathing out one nostril and looking up to your 3rd eye
OR Option 2: can you just sit in the garden listening to the birds?
I continue to explore both options and believe that ultimately both or neither option could lead to yoga, so long as there is no grasping for such outcomes.
Personally, there is only so much sitting in the garden that I could manage before I would be jumping up and handstanding around. The reality is, my natural temperament is that I’m more of a pusher, than a natural go-with-the-flow…type person. (Ayurveda would describe me as of Pitta prakriti).
Even if I don’t know where I’m going, I’d rather just steam on with my journey than stay put. I have fire in my belly with tendencies towards ambition and activity (which within the Samkhya worldview would describe as having a higher level of ‘agitating quality’ to my constitution (rajas).
So if like me, you find option 1 somehow compelling as a means of settling the soul, then you may as well succumb to the fact that you benefit from your yoga practice, irrespective of whether it is fruitful in terms of enlightenment/liberation… in which case, you’re practicing for the wellbeing of yoga rather than the goal of enlightenment and liberation.
However by having this awareness and acceptance that you do not know whether what you do in your practice actually leads to yoga, yet you practice anyway means that you in effect relinquish the true fruits of your yoga practice, which perhaps, leaves the door ajar for that potential of enlightenment… (?!) haha! the double bluff!
You inadvertently pertain to the attainment of both effort and grace, (tapah and santosha) simply through the acceptance of what you don’t know. Perhaps this is why the Great sages of India such as Vivekananda and Paramahansa followed later by Krishnamacharya and Sivananda felt it suitable to open up and share the teachings of yoga with the masses across cultural settings, despite the risks of the meaning of yoga being misconstrued whereas previously, yoga was shrouded in secret and taught in privacy in order to avoid such an outcome.
Misconception 6: “Yoga means union of mind body soul
This one cracks me up the most because I think it’s the first thing you read in every mainstream yoga book and dare I say it, in many a foundation level yoga teaching manual.
Sure yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word ‘Yuj’, which could mean yoke (as in tie up a cow) thus deemed to mean unite, however there are 39 other meanings/uses of the root word yuj including ‘a cabbage’…
More often than not, the very same sources that depict yoga as union of mind-body-soul would then go onto use Patanjali as a source and frame of reference for yoga despite Patanjali being at odds with the notion of union given the Sutras’ context of the Samkhya worldview which pertains to a distinction and separation between the soul and the material world as opposed to the union of it.
Subhash explains it pretty well here:
“Patanjali defines …()… the purpose of stilling the mind to realize the non-connectedness between the soul (atman) and the material aspect of our being – body, mind and intellect. The word for this final state used in the yoga sutras is “kaivalya” which implies understanding that the soul is separate from the mind-body complex. In fact, Patanjanli clearly says that the main cause of our suffering is that we identify the soul with our mind and body. See sutras 2.23 thru 2.25 for more details. So, to reiterate, in the context of the yoga sutras, the word yoga does NOT mean union but in fact it means that we recognize the non-union of purusha (soul) and prakriti (body/mind etc.”
Yoga and Wellbeing
So having explored how related the wellbeing -orientated meanings of yoga are to the more classical meanings of yoga it is clear that there are some important discrepancies that perhaps cannot be ignored.
Yet is a fixation with wellbeing really that useful? What if sometimes yoga is bad for you? Which it can be (but that’s for another blog post) and maybe wellbeing shouldn’t always be a goal…
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Oscar Wilde
It’s worth mentioning that there are times within life of yoga, when stillness, peace, balance and practice don’t best serve you in your present circumstance. Upon those occasions, it’s helpful to accept, surrender and even enjoy the extremities, as the tantric yogi might. Ultimately, energy and transformation arise out of expression of whatever is the reality rather than suppression of it or superimposition of what is deemed expected or acceptable.
Should we all agree on the meaning of yoga?
So whilst the wellbeing-orientated meanings of yoga are misconstrued to a large extent by the mainstream and do not paint the whole picture of yoga, these sentiments of yoga meaning stillness, balance, peace, practice or union are certainly not a bad place to start one’s exploration of yoga and each of us our entitled to our own experience and understanding.
If you’re interested in learning more about exploring the inter-play between effort and grace through flow-state, check out our 3 month yoga teacher training course that runs this year Jun 9th – Aug 27th 2018 With a 2 week immersion in Portugal followed by weekends in East Sussex.