Last fall, I began working with a private student who had practiced yoga for many years, mostly on her own with videotapes for guidance. She had developed spinal stenosis and, after a year of limited movement and severe pain, wanted to verify that she was working safely in her home practice before returning to it. She brought this article to my attention, and I think it is worth sharing. (Click here to link directly to the article, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, by William J. Broad for the New York Times.)
It is easy to mistake Yoga for "exercise" and to imagine that its goal is perfected postures or a beautiful body. But yoga postures are only a very small part of Yoga, and not even a mandatory part. Yoga is the calming or stilling of the whirling activity of the mind, and it comes from the Sanskrit root word "yuj," which means union or yolk.
According to Yoga philosophy, our individual consciousness or mind (chitta) is comprised of the ego-mind (ahamkhara), the senses (manas), and discriminating intellect (buddhi). To still the illusory dramas and stories of the ego is Yoga practice. To release the attachments, desires and aversions provoked by the senses is Yoga practice. To distinguish between the information the discerning mind provides and our feelings or ideas about that information is Yoga practice. To yolk the "mind stuff" and unite it with mahat, that "cosmic intelligence" that is the "womb of all creation," is practicing Yoga. And transcending all of this is the aim of Yoga: samadhi.
Asana is simply "a steady, comfortable" posture. Unlike many forms of exercise, the asanas work deeply on every level, affecting not only our muscles, tissues and joints, but all of the body's systems, including the nervous, endocrine and cardiovascular systems.
For me the article, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," serves as an important reminder to seek ease and stability in our posture work, and in our lives. We open into our fullest potential simply and gracefully when we are ready, not when we are forced. I am grateful for this reminder of how important it is to listen to and work within the body's limits, and to take the time and attention to be honest about what is driving us in our "doing."