What is the Goal of Yoga?
Living in the West, we see so many yoga pictures on magazine covers and on Instagram with people holding ridiculously amazing looking yoga poses. For instance, the picture below is one of the free photos available on this web hosting site when you search under the term "yoga." This is called Scorpion Pose and it is one of the poses that may scare any potential beginner yogi away from ever starting yoga. The aforementioned beginner may have the thought, "In this lifetime, I will never be able to do that with my body. If that is what yoga is about, then no thank you!" Is this what yoga is all about? What is the goal of yoga?
Yoga is thought to be a tradition dating back to India possibly even 5,000 years ago or more. It was originally practiced by ancient sages and monks. However, the ancient yogis only had a very few number of poses, sometimes referred to as the classical postures. The life of these yogis was very physical. In order to get water, they had to go to the well and draw it up. To get food, they had to walk to where the people were found, often trading their lessons for a bowl of food. Therefore, when it came time to sit and meditate, their bodies had already exerted a lot of energy by the demand of their daily tasks. They just did a few postures and then their mind was able to calm.
Our lives look almost nothing like those of these ancient people. We tend to drive to anything further away than our mailbox, we only have to go to the store to obtain food, and we sit in a cubicle during the long daylight hours of the week. This may account for the change in structure of the yoga we use in this country today. In order to calm our minds for the Svasana (Yoga Sleep Pose) at the end of class, we often need to go through a rigorous 50 minutes of physical activity. Otherwise, our minds find it very difficult to let go of the thoughts going on in the mind.
Regardless of the form our yoga practice takes, the ancient sages intended for yoga to be the practice of a few very specific goals, which I elaborate on below. While yogis can build up strength to get into amazing postures, the true goals of yoga can be achieved by absolutely anyone no matter how your physical practice looks
1) The word yoga can be translated to the English words "yoke" or "union." Thus, the name itself describes one of the highest goals of yoga. When a yogi is able to yoke together all of his faculties, his spiritual, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical sides, he is able to achieve so much more than he would otherwise be able to if all these sides were in disarray. It is like how one oxen can do some work, but when you join together a team of oxen, the amount of work able to be done multiplies exponentially. Yoga is the art of looking inward to analyze what is on and what is off about your life and then being brave enough to make any changes that are necessary in your life to bring you into balance. An interesting thing about union is that this goal absolutely pertains to one's own life. However, we also achieve union when our relationships become closer, when our neighborhoods unite, and when the world becomes more peaceful. The yogi believes in all of this, but he knows that all changes happen one person at a time.
2) The ancient sage Patanjali gives another definition of yoga in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which states that "yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind". What does this mean? I like to imagine it like a lake. Whenever we have thoughts about how the world should be different or about all the things wrong with our lives, this is like throwing a rock into the lake. The ripples will continue for quite some time before finally returning to stillness again. If our mind and our life is full of storms, wind, and rocks being thrown into our lake, the surface of the water is choppy. Now it should be stated there is nothing wrong with a choppy lake just as there is nothing wrong with someone for feeling emotions that come up like heartbreak or pride. However, when the lake is able to be calm, we are able to look into the lake and come to learn of our true reflection. By calming the fluctuations of the mind, we come to more deeply learn of who we really are beneath everything.
3) The final goal of yoga I'd like to mention today is one of the ways yoga has most deeply increased the quality of my life. Yoga is learning to live a mindful life. Mindfulness is when our mind and body and spirit are all focused on whatever is going on in this moment at any given time. When we are eating, rather than watching TV, we are focusing on the textures, smells and tastes of the food. When we are in a conversation, we aren't thinking about what we might say next, but we are listening to what this person is saying right now. We are trying to be 100% present in what we are doing at any given moment. Why mindfulness? Well, for one reason, depression is living in the past and anxiety is living in the present, but mindfulness is living right now. If you suffer from any of these disorders, mindfulness may be an extremely useful tool. With mindfulness, we can take every day on one moment of a time. We immediately forgive ourselves because the past is already over. We have faith that the future will be okay because we're not drowning in this moment and we probably won't in the next either. For another reason, if you don't like how your life is unfolding, mindfulness is choosing to not avoid the uncomfortable nature of those feelings and instead beginning to be proactive about making choices to change the future. Perhaps that looks like quitting a miserable job or learning recipes to increase the nutrition of the diet. With mindfulness, everything in your life can become your dream life.
As you can see, yoga goes a lot deeper than just the poses we practice. Yoga is a lifestyle change that helps bring about blissful well being. If you have any thought about these subjects, please post them in the comments below!