Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What is Yoga?

I have been asking myself this question a lot recently. What exactly is yoga, and why is it beneficial to lawyers or anyone? Linda has a great post on the topic here. People talk about the eight limbs of yoga from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These include the yamas, the niyamas, asana, and pranayama, which are all issues that have directly been discussed on this blog. But the other four limbs are Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation or contemplation), and Samadhi (state of ecstasy).

In America, it is fairly obvious that when the general population thinks about yoga, they think only about asana, or the physical postures. A few more might think of pranayama, or breathing techniques. But the western world is full of all sorts of yoga. There are different “styles” from Iyengar to Bikram and vinyasa to yin, but all of these are actually forms of hatha yoga. There are also classes that mix yoga and wine as well as yoga and “fill in the blank.” There are kinds of yoga such as bhakti yoga, which is devotional yoga, and In other words, yoga has become an industry in the western world.

But I keep thinking about the question – what is yoga? What is it to me? What is it that I can share? And more importantly, so what?! Does it matter if we can define yoga? Lawyers like definitions, especially if they are Supreme Court Justices. But do we really need this particular definition? Might it actually infringe upon the underlying meaning or purpose of a yoga practice?

I have been teaching a weekly yoga class in the Juvenile Detention center. The attendees are all court staff and lawyers who work in the court. (As an aside, there are also yoga classes for the juveniles in detention, but I do not have the privilege to teach those.) It is an “odd” location for a yoga class, and it is really too short for a full class, and the students range from beginners to people with consistent practices. And yet, the class has come together to be something incredibly special. It is a place where, for me, this blog becomes palpable. It is a place where we can see how yoga enters our daily lives.

But all sorts of questions arise as well. Do people only come for asana? Can I add a bit of pranayama? Do people want exercise? Do they want to relax from stress?  Do they want to hear about the yamas and niyamas? Do people want to spend their lunch hour in a seated meditation? So what is yoga in that situation?

And I am coming to the conclusion that, no matter the situation, the answer remains the same. Yoga is a personal experience. It is the 8 limbs and how they ebb and flow within our being. There was a long time when I saw a need to have more of a physical practice to go deeper into meditation. These days, my physical practice is limited to psoas stretches, but I am meditating 20-60 minutes per day. Even amidst the craziness of life, there are moments of yoga awareness, though they remain few and far between.

Thus, yoga is about how we show up for ourselves and others. Of course there are differences between Bikram and yin yoga, but we can bring the same sense of awareness to each. I have a lot of concerns about Bikram yoga, and I know someone who loves it (many people, actually, but this one in particular) who also has amazing body awareness. I said to this person once, “but with that heat, can’t you overstretch a muscle and hurt yourself?” The answer, “not me.” While there are, of course, people who show up and have no idea how to protect themselves, others can do the practice safely and with awareness.

And that is yoga.

Yoga, therefore, is the full package. It is a way of life, but it is also an intention to live our moments as though we are on the mat or the cushion. While there are days I try to meditate in a courtroom, most of the time it is really difficult to do. I also would love to sit in sukhasana (cross legged) in the chairs at court, but I have not figured out how to do that yet. But the inner awareness can be there. All we gain from being on the mat can carry into our lives.

And that is why yoga is useful for lawyers and others in this crazy, modern world. The world is moving ever faster. We are connected to a degree never before experienced by humans. We are advancing faster and faster. It is so easy to get caught up in all of it, to lose sight of any way forward, and to forget who we are at our core. But yoga brings us back to that. It helps remind us why we do what we do. It helps us slow down long enough to remember to offer a little gratitude.

The yoga industry can manifest these visions however it wants. In the past it has annoyed me, and to some extent it still does. But that has also forced me to ask myself over and over again – why yoga? What is it? And so what?

And while I do not have a Justice Scalia worthy definition, I think I have finally found an answer (for this week) that helps me understand why I keep with it and why this has been such a wonderful path for me. Yoga is a personal journey to go into the depths of ourselves and our interactions with each other to emerge with a path and intention for life. This journey is in all the planes of life, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. At times it asks us to move, and at other times it asks us to sit in silent awareness. And at the end of the day, it helps us find our Being ready to emerge and share with the world even if there are a few (or many) bumps along the way.

What is yoga to you? Why do you practice? How does it help you in your daily life?


 © Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.


  1. Great tips…information I know but need to practice.


    1. I know what you mean. Knowing it is the easy part, but truly, deeply knowing it and practicing it are far more difficult.