Many of us, even those who have never stepped onto a yoga mat, are familiar with yoga in some way, but what exactly IS yoga? The word “Yoga” itself means “union” and yoga practice is created as a system that unites. It is the physical appearance of yoga that people are most acquainted with, but yoga is capable of much more than it is often given credit for. Yoga can unite our mind and body, but it can also bring us back together with our truest Selves. Sometimes called the soul or the conscience, it is the “us” within that seems to have a deeper understanding of the world than what we experience on a day-to-day basis outwardly.
Yoga began as a practice thousands of years ago (around the same time as Buddhism) in India as a reaction to cultural norms. These first yogis believed that there was a simpler and more efficient path towards God- (and Self-) realization than the elaborate temple ritual they were used to. So, they began to experiment. Yoga practice has expanded and evolved (and in some cases, devolved) over this long period of time. Practices were experimented with that proved unnecessary (or are now currently outdated) and some elements were left behind. The main practice of physical postures evolved out of a need for physical health as the subtler aspects of inner exploration become less possible when consistently distracted by pain or ill-health in the body. The postures were important, but not the main focus of a practice that was focused on an inner journey, not on attaining a specific outward appearance.
In more recent times (the past century or so), Indian gurus encountering western students often discovered that the yoga postures, or asanas, were a wonderful method of calming the busy modern mind. The postures were like laboratory equipment giving the practitioner a forum for investigation of both the body and the mind and to ultimately discover a connection between the two. The eventual outcome was a harmony of being that people had not experienced previously by any other method.
And so, yoga practice has taken on the physical shape with which we are now so familiar. There are still those who eschew the asanas and practice yoga through other methods, such as service to others (like Mother Theresa), or through devotion to the Supreme (like members of the “Hare Krishna” movement), but the system of physical postures, broadly referred to as Hatha Yoga, is a practical path for many. Practitioners have the opportunity to heal or prevent illness in the body while simultaneously exploring the workings of the mind. In the process of honing the body’s physical skills, thoughts come up that we do not expect, resistance rises up, emotions bubble to the surface. When we observe these happenings without shutting the metaphorical door, we experience the ability to venture inward and learn much more about who We Are.
Nicole Sopko is a Chicago-based yoga teacher who has been living a vegan lifestyle for the past 15 years and views that transition as her first yoga practice. She is also a dedicated student of Sri Dharma Mittra, who encourages students to recognize the light in all beings. A believer in the power of yoga as a lifestyle, Nicole feels that a playful yoga practice enables a person to approach the more mundane aspects of life with a lighter heart and a more accepting attitude. Her yogic journey has played a big role in her life and she feels lucky to have the opportunity to share that journey with others.
- Published: 19 January 2012
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