Most people who have taken a yoga class are aware that “yoga” means “union” or “to yoke”, but when I ask people what it is that we are supposed to be “yoking” with, I usually get an uncomfortable look. I sometimes sense that people want to say “God”, but since that word carries a lot of baggage for so many, instead I get silence or sometimes a vague, “um, the universe?”.
Let me first say that I prefer the word “connect” to define yoga, and by connecting I mean experiencing something else (it can be anything!) in a way that I can see it for what it really is, in doing so, understanding myself and seeing the interrelatedness of all things.
Let’s use the example of an apple. If I hope to understand the reality of the apple, I first need to understand myself and what might be getting in the way of me seeing the apple for what it is. Maybe when I was a child I bit into an apple and my tooth fell out, so now I have an unconscious aversion to apples in general. Sometimes it’s a matter of never taking a moment to really just experience the apple, to see its shape and variations of colour, to hold it up to our nose and smell it, the traces of dirt, the subtle tart sweetness, the hint of green leafiness. In taking the time to try and experience the reality of the apple I can learn a lot about myself. When I take the time to consider the apple, I may start to make the connections between the apple and the tree it grew on, and the way the tree and I are breathing the same air, how the tree gets the energy to grow the apple from the sun, and how by eating the apple I share the energy of the sun with that particular tree. It goes on and on...such is the wonder of life!
So we can see “yoga” as also meaning a kind of special relationship where the boundaries between “me” and “it” (or “he” or “she”) start to dissolve. There is still “me” and “it” but when you follow the trail of interconnectedness down far enough—the material aspect of my body comes from the earth and is just a certain configuration of minerals and molecules, just as the flesh of the apple is made of the same minerals and molecules in a different configuration—you start to see that it’s all the same stuff. So, in effect, when I experience “yoga” with the apple, I am also experiencing yoga with the tree, and with the thing that made the tree—the creative source itself!
“When I experience ‘yoga’ with the apple, I am also experiencing yoga with the tree, and with the thing that made the tree—the creative source itself!”
I had a realization (I’m a little embarrassed to admit) not that long ago, that when my wife is happy, I’m happy, and when she’s not happy, I’m miserable. All of a sudden my life got a whole lot less complicated. If I just focused on making my wife happy, I would be a lot happier. Real simple cause and effect that appeals to my rational brain. Similarly I noticed that when my dogs are content, I’m content—I rest easier when they are healthy, well-fed and tuckered out from exercise. I realized that by serving the relationships in my life, I end up serving my own well-being. What a deal! Another example of the great interrelatedness of all things.
So how does all this apply practically to what we understand as a “yoga practice”? Well, when you are practicing the way Krishnamacharya taught my teacher and the way my teacher taught me, you are focused on the relationship between your body, breath and mind. You might consider this the first “yoga” that happens, integrating your whole system as you move and breath in synchronicity, mind completely immersed in the direct, present experience. In this process of yoga, you will also learn about yourself—the persistent patterns of thought that we are all susceptible to, the condition of your body, the constrictions around your breathing. You may also discover as I did, that it’s by keeping my body happy that I’m able to experience a calm, clear and focused mind. Trying to meditate is impossible, but as I get to know my body better, I can easily serve its needs—eating the right kind and amount of food at the right times, drinking enough water, getting the right amount of sleep that I need, getting exercise and spending time outdoors in the sunshine etc.
“It’s this uncovering of the reality of the situation that's at the heart of true intimacy, and it’s true intimacy that allows us to see the connection between all things.”
It’s this uncovering of the reality of the situation that's at the heart of true intimacy, and it’s true intimacy that allows us to see the connection between all things. When I know myself—the beauty and wonder of this body, breath and mind—then I’m able to see the beauty of a tree, the ocean, a spider, and yes, my lover. When you experience real intimacy with yourself, the whole world becomes your lover, and every moment, every breath is an act of lovemaking. This isn’t some ascetic spiritual ideal, this is sensual life in all its fullness. This, to me, is the heart of yoga.