This morning I found Ellen DeGeneres’ explanation on the meaning of yoga, from Seriously…I’m Kidding: “The word ‘yoga’ literally means ‘uniting’, because when you’re doing it you’re uniting your mind and your body. You can tell this almost immediately because your mind will be thinking, ‘Ouch, that hurts,’ and your body will say, ‘I know’. And your mind will think, ‘You have to get out of this position.’ And your body will say, ‘I agree with you, but I can’t right now. I think I’m stuck.’”
I found her explanation of mind-body union pretty funny. And it is something that does happen when you are practicing yoga. The mind will try to think all the time, analyzing, labeling, judging, denying, blaming, and doing all the stuff it is used to all the time. It is a constant struggle and the more you pay attention to the thoughts that come up, the deeper you get in the story the mind creates – from a simple thought! It is amazing. One example is a hot yoga class, taken in a 100 degrees plus heated room. At some point your mind will notify you of what your body has felt from a while: “It’s pretty darn hot in here”. If you decide to pay attention to that, and I’ve seen it happen, you will suffer big time. It is not that being in such a hot room should be comfortable, that is not my point. It is simply not making the issue bigger than it is! Because the moment you choose to pay attention to that thought, you will actually feel like the room is 120 degrees plus… From there, you go downhill: you start to hyperventilate, you go into fight-or-flight mode, you no longer pay attention to what is being said or even the good advice to get better control of your breath, and you’ve completely lost it. What could have been a lesson in controlling your mind has now turned into a torture chamber.
Yet, once you decide that thought is just another one among thousands (from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts, according to research) you have per day, you are okay. And so is the story about your neighbor’s distant cousin, who invited her sibling to their wedding but did not invite her (I just came up with this story to illustrate the idea), and she is rumbling about it, and making the story bigger n her head. Is that really relevant to your life as a whole?
Back to yoga, you have probably already heard the word itself means union. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, yoga is a system of exercises for attaining bodily or mental control and well-being. The Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary states that yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word for “yoke” or “join together.” Essentially, it means union. It is the science of uniting the individual soul with the cosmic spirit through physical disciplines (postures) and mental disciplines (meditation). Patanjali offers a great, if not the best, definition: “Yoga is the cessation of mind.”
Here is my view on what it means. I see my mat as a draft of real life experiences. And as I watch my mind rumble about that long Utkatasana (also known as Chair or Thunderbolt pose) hold the “mean” (that is a label the mind likes to apply to instructors offering challenges) yoga teacher suggests, I can choose to feed that thought or not. The same happens in real life. If my long lost cousin does not invite me for her wedding, what is the big deal about it? Whatever reason you find for that to become a big deal, investigate it further to see if the problem is really with your cousin or within yourself… So what is this union offered as a meaning for the word yoga then? I see it as an integration of mind, body, and spirit (spirit as in consciousness, as in the watcher who sees all thoughts happening, not necessarily identifying with them). For instance, let’s picture this: I am at a yoga class and in one harder pose my body sends me the message my lower back is being squished to some annoying degree. Am I ready to listen to it? Well, if I was not zoned out thinking about my to-do list for the day or how the instructor picks on me doing poses or how the yogi right next to me looks more perfect than me, etc., I may be able to listen. Once I have allowed these thoughts to simply pass by, I will be more connected to my body and probably be able to focus on the sensations my body is producing. Once not identified anymore with whatever the mind throws at me (thoughts, that is all they are), I finally feel body and consciousness integrated. This can happen in a bigger way, as one of the eight limbs of yoga – Pratyahara – describes, when there is withdrawal of senses, a “turning inward” that may happen with practice. I have mentioned this before on another post (https://apathoflight.wordpress.com/2011/11/24/my-connection-to-yoga/), when I did not notice friends of mine practicing next to me or when I can’t even tell if music was being played during some classes.
What may sound like interesting stuff to play with in our heads during a yoga class turns out to be even harder when trying to bring this so called union to our lives off the mat. Our minds are very quick when going into labeling, judging, blaming, etc. And that is what inhabits our minds for a significant percentage of our day. In 2005, the National Science Foundation researched human thoughts and found out 95% of daily thoughts are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before. Let’s not feel intimidated by Patanjali’s suggestion of a possible cessation of the mind, and remember we do have to start somewhere on the base of a mountain so we can reach the top. I think it is reasonable to aim for at least some work on raising awareness about our thoughts; that seems doable. There is not even a percentage goal on that statement! Just raising awareness by any means we choose.