A confusing title? Let me explain...
As I have said many times before, yoga is mostly viewed as an exercise. With the advent of premium and luxury yoga studios, it is growing more popular as a workout regime. There is no dearth of social media posts where people balance on their hands, go upside down and balance on their heads, bend over backwards like rubber bands or stand on one leg!!
These posts might intimidate you because you could never achieve that level of flexibility. You might feel discouraged from practicing yoga because you aren't able to post glamoruos pictures on social media where you're doing a headstand.
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But you need to understand that the goal of yoga is not to become flexible. The goal of yoga is not to stand on your head. The goal of yoga is not to lose weight or tone your figure.
So, if holding shirasasana for 5 minutes straight is not the goal of yoga, then what is?
As Dr Puneeth Raghavendra very nicely puts it :
Flex your mind, not your body...
The Goal of Yoga
The goal of yoga is to train your mind and not just your body. Training your body through asana practice is just a stepping stone for you to reach higher states of meditation. This is what sage Patanjali teaches in his yoga sutras.
The Bhagavad Gita describes yoga as equanimity.
समत्वं योग उच्यते
Samatvam yoga ucyate
Train your mind to be equanimous. Don't be over-excited and happy when something good happens. Don't go into a state of melancholy when something bad happens.
You are the master of your body and mind. You control what happens to you. Don't give that power over to any external event. Any circumstance or event can not disturb your mental peace if you don't give it that power.
Whatever happens, accept it. You can act, but not react. This is the true essence of yoga.
Another important aspect to learn is that you need to "keep your mind at the present moment". Worrying about the past or future will take you no where. So, enjoy the present.
We have heard this multiple times. It's a part of every philosophical teaching, across cultures. But one thing no one tells you is HOW?
How to stay at the pesent moment? How to enjoy the present. Controlling your mind and thoughts is no small feat...
Arjuna asks the same question in the Bhagavad Gita:
चञ्चलं हि मन: कृष्ण प्रमाथि बलवद्दृढम् |
तस्याहं निग्रहं मन्ये वायोरिव सुदुष्करम् ||
The mind is very restless, turbulent, strong and obstinate, O Krishna. It appears to me that it is more difficult to control than the wind.
And This is what Lord Krishna answered:
असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् |
अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते ||
Lord Krishna said: O mighty-armed son of Kunti, what you say is correct; the mind is indeed very difficult to restrain. But by practice and detachment, it can be controlled.
Abhyasa (practice) and Vairagya (non-attachment) are the key to mastery over the mind.
The answer to the "HOW" question?
While you practice yoga, your focus is on your breathing. You are asked to synchronise your breathing with your movements.
After achieving the final posture, you are asked to observe and feel the stretch in certain muscles of your body.
These activities take mental effort. They force you to concentrate on present events. This trains your mind to stay at the present moment. And slowly, as you progress in your practice take these learnings from "yoga on the mat and use them off the mat."
The next time you are strssed about a deadline at your workplace, or an exam that's coming up immediately start focusing on your breath. Observe your respiration. It's happening at the present moment. Then observe your mind. You'll slowly start understanding that there's no point stressing about a future deadline. You have the present with you. You can use this time productively.
You can not control events around you. But you can control how you feel about them. YOU can choose stress and tension and worry, or YOU can choose to remain calm and equanimous. And, learning yoga the right way will help you do just that.
Never compare yourself with the progress of another
Think of a huge banyan tree. It has hundreds upon thousands of leaves. All of those leaves come from the same tree. But no two leaves are exactly the same. No two leaves have exactly identical vein patterns, they are not identical in their state of growth or colour... Humans are just like that.
Every individual is unique. And so yoga is also highly individual. You can sculpt your yoga practice to best suit your needs. What yoga works for one may not work for another. Whether or not yoga works, entirely depends on you.
So, the next time you are worried that you are not able to touch your toes when you bend remember that you are still practicing yoga. You are still practicing yoga as long as your focus is on the present moment and your movements are as effortless as possible.
And that's why I said your yoga, however you practice it, is still yoga.